Risky or not, Colts likely will rely on rookie starters

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Ryan Kelly on the sideline during Colts camp in Anderson.

ANDERSON, Ind. – Leave it to Marv Levy, the long-time Buffalo Bills coach and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, to give proper context to how best to view rookies trying to make an immediate mark in the NFL.

“The best rookies,’’ Levy said, “are last year’s rookies.’’

In other words, relying on a rookie to step in and make an instantaneous impact is risky business.

It also can ramp up the anxiety level of coaches.

“It can be unsettling depending on the situation, especially those times when you’re not ready for it because of injury,’’ Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski said Wednesday.

And this from defensive coordinator Ted Monachino: “We’re anxious just about 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Knowing where we are roster-wise right now, there’s some anxiety there. But we also have a great deal of confidence in our coaching staff and our players to be able to go in and compete and perform and play winning ball.’’

With training camp wrapping up Thursday at Anderson University, nearly 28 percent of the roster – 25 of 90 players – are rookies. Some are fighting enormous odds to just to make the final cut to 53.

But a few are in position to start. First-round pick Ryan Kelly was anointed the starting center the second the Colts selected him with the 18th overall pick in the April draft.

“The comfort level really is with the person,’’ Chudzinski said. “With Ryan, with what he’s shown and done so far, I have no nervousness about that at all.’’

The unwavering confidence in Kelly is understandable. He was far and away the best center prospect in the draft and considered by most draft experts a no-doubt plug-and-play rookie.

However, get past the first-year guy with the deep resume – Rimington Award winner for 2015 national champion Alabama, consensus first-team All-America, 36-game starter for the Crimson Tide – and a measure of unease is understandable.

An injury (Kendall Langford), continued rehab (Henry Anderson) and suspension (Art Jones) could result in Hassan Ridgeway, a fourth-round pick, starting at defensive tackle for the Sept. 11 season opener against the Detroit Lions. At safety, second-round pick T.J. Green is running with veteran Mike Adams while projected starter Clayton Geathers continues to watch practice with his right foot in a protective boot.

Also, no one should rule out Joe Haeg, a fifth-round pick, wriggling into the starting offensive line either at right guard or right tackle. He likely will settle in as the movable part of the group, but recently worked with the starting unit at right tackle while Joe Reitz dealt with a groin injury.

“Joe’s one of those guys who’s been able to fill in at multiple spots, which is unusual for a rookie, mentally to be able to handle that,’’ Chudzinski said. “He’s done a fine job. It’s a matter of getting him settled . . . and really settling on the best five.’’

Defensively, Monachino’s hand might be forced because of the injuries to Anderson and Geathers.

Anderson remains on the physically unable to perform list and is working feverishly with trainers as he returns from a knee injury that cut short a promising rookie season. By all accounts he’s ahead of schedule, but no one knows if he’ll be ready for the opener.

Likewise, Monachino has to take the approach Geathers, who suffered a broken bone in his right foot while working out in July, won’t be immediately available.

“You do coach the guys you have available to you,’’ he said, “but Clayton’s never put completely on the shelf. We’re moving him forward with the install, with his rehab. We’re going to get him as healthy as we can as quickly as we can, but we’re starting to already figure out, ‘OK, who will be and who may not be available come week 1?’

“We’ve got to have those contingencies in place.’’

Monachino said it’s going to be ‘close’’ whether Geathers is ready for the opener.

“It’s going to be right there at the end,’’ he said. “If we can get good practices out of him before (the Lions), obviously he’ll be up and ready to go against Detroit.’’

If not, it’s Green, who was a wide receiver at Auburn until switching to safety for his final two seasons.

Green was asked if the Colts have thrown him into the deep end of the pool and demanded he sink or swim.

“I know how to swim so that’s a good thing,’’ he said. “I have to be prepared to go out there and play.

“I have full confidence in my capabilities.’’

Monachino noted the key to working with rookies is determining their strengths and weaknesses, and proceeding accordingly.

“We’re going to do what we can to make sure that those shoes fit those players well and they can play well and play fast,’’ he said. “You try to prepare them and try to emphasize what they do well and you try to stay away from as many weaknesses as you can.’’

The Colts haven’t shied away from leaning on rookies from the outset. Consider:

  • In the foundational draft of 2012, quarterback Andrew Luck, tight ends Dwayne Allen and Coby Fleener and running back Vick Ballard each started at least 10 games. T.Y. Hilton appeared in 15 games and was the third-leading receiver behind Reggie Wayne and Donnie Avery with 50 catches, 861 yards and a team-high seven touchdown catches. Luck went to the first of three Pro Bowls. Ballard led team in rushing. Allen led all rookie tight ends with 45 receptions.
  • In 2013, guard Hugh Thornton started 12 games and tight end Jack Doyle four. First-round draft pick Bjoern Werner was a quiet rookie despite appearing in 13 games with one start.
  • In 2014, second-round pick Jack Mewhort started 13 games at left guard and one at right tackle, and Jon Harrison, an undrafted rookie, started 10 games at center. Jonathan Newsome led the team in sacks and Donte Moncrief had 32 catches and three TDs in 16 games, two as a starter.
  • Last year, Anderson started the first nine games at defensive tackle before suffering the season-ending knee injury and David Parry was a 16-game starter at nose. Denzelle Good started four games at right tackle and Geathers got into 15 games at safety/linebacker, two as a starter. The top kicker returner, Quan Bray, was a rookie.

“At this point we’re all pros,’’ said Adams. “Just like last year when Henry, David Parry stepped in there and did a wonderful job. Some guys need to be thrown in the fire to see what they’ve got right now.

“(General manager Ryan) Grigson did a good job of bringing these guys in. They’re not here to just sit behind me or sit behind anybody. They’re here to play. We’re all here to play and compete for a job. If they ain’t ready, they’d better be ready.’’

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