Colts will have to lean on youth, rookie class after roster makeover

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The Colts will rely on youngsters like Malik Hooker (29)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – No one should be blinded by the presence of Adam Vinatieri and Frank Gore.

Vinatieri is 44 and the NFL’s oldest active player. Gore, 34, is the league’s oldest active running back.

They’re Indianapolis Colts’ outliers. While much will be expected of the team’s eldest statesmen – and other veterans, to be sure – the same can be said for more than a few rookies.

In today’s NFL, a newbie’s transition period from college to the pros often consists of offseason work and the preseason/training camp.

You prep ‘em, play ‘em. And do a little prayin’.

“I have a little less hair from pulling it out because of (playing rookies),’’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said, only half-joking, “but that’s the league right now. You need young guys to be able to come in and play.’’

Fourth-round draft pick Zach Banner is considered a project, but another fourth-rounder, running back Marlon Mack, has flashed his big-play burst during training camp and might emerge as a viable third-down option.

“He jumps off the tape,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said. “He’s popping out there. If he can master all three phases of being a good running back, he’s going to be a special player, I think.’’

Ted Monachino should brace himself for what could be a wild ride. Six of the team’s eight draft picks were part of an offseason roster makeover that included blowing up an ineffective and aging defense, and no one should be surprised if all six contribute. First-round safety Malik Hooker and second-round cornerback Quincy Wilson might start. Third-round outside linebacker Tarell Basham needs to be an immediate pass-rush threat.

“I love those young guys,’’ Monachino said with a smile. “I learned a long time ago you can always tell a rookie, you just can’t tell them much.

“We’re excited about all of those guys. We evaluated the heck out of them in the offseason and the job that our personnel department staff did was off the charts. We know everything there is to know about those guys. What we don’t know is how they’ll perform as pro football players yet.’’

When the preseason gives way to games that count – the Colts open Sept. 10 in Los Angeles against the Rams – the coaching staff will lean on the best collection of talent. That might be nine-year veteran Darius Butler at starting free safety, or Hooker. It might be five-year vet Rashaan Melvin at corner, or Wilson.

“Our best 11 are going to be out there and the guys that we feel like give us the best chance to win from a situational standpoint,’’ Monachino said.

Management released veteran and former Pro Bowl long-snapper Matt Overton in May. He’s been replaced by Thomas Hennessy, an undrafted rookie out of Duke.

This isn’t a novel approach for the Colts.

“Yeah, we’ve done it before,’’ Pagano said.

Remember when the Colts transitioned from the Peyton Manning era to the Andrew Luck era? The 2012 draft laid the groundwork and rookies were instrumental in accelerating the process.

The Colts and Washington Redskins were the first teams since the 1943 New York Giants to have rookies lead them in passing (Luck) and rushing (Vick Ballard). Rookies accounted for 3,108 of 5,799 total offensive yards, the most in the NFL by a rookie class since the 1970 merger. Tight end Dwayne Allen led rookie tight ends with 45 receptions and 521 yards. The receptions were a club record for a rookie tight end.

Last year, the Colts had 15 rookies appear in a game, and nine started at least once. The four drafted offensive linemen started at least one game. First-round center Ryan Kelly was one of 11 league rookies to start all 16 games. Fifth-rounder Joe Haeg started 14 games and became the first rookie offensive lineman since New Orleans’ Kyle Turley in 1998 to start three different positions.

According to Pro Football Focus, Cleveland Browns’ rookies played 5,521 snaps in 2016. Colts’ rookies were second with 4,393.

Prep ‘em, play ‘em. And cross your fingers. Often with a rookie, a good play is followed by what Chudzinski describes as “head-scratchers.’’

Those mistakes, he said, “are going to come. You understand that. The bottom line is (with) the young guys and the new guys, there are going to be places for them on the team and helping us win.’’

Relying on rookies and other players new to the system requires an adjustment on the part of the coaching staff. The scheme must be simplified to a degree so it’s easier to grasp.

Sometimes, Monachino said with a smile, you have to play “cat coverage.’’

“They just say ‘Hey, I got that cat and I’m going to cover him all over the place,’ and that’s good,’’ he said. “Some of the split-safety zone stuff can be a little bit more difficult, but we’re really letting them soak in it right now.’’

Again, this isn’t a novel approach. It’s been the norm.

“You think about the mistakes that were made in year 1 of our program back in 2012 and how many young guys we threw out there,’’ Pagano said. “You think about the young offensive linemen that went through it a year ago.

“It only pays dividends. We’ll try to minimize those. We’ll try to play to their strengths and hide their weaknesses, if you will, and make things as simple as possible so that they can play fast.

“But we’ve got some talented guys out here.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51