Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard lead Colts’ 25-and-younger brigade

ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 27: Quenton Nelson #56 of the Indianapolis Colts blocks Kawann Short #99 of the Carolina Panthers in the second quarter during the 2019 NFL Pro Bowl at Camping World Stadium on January 27, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The renovation of the roster hasn’t been total, but it’s close.

The only players who pre-date the arrival of Chris Ballard as general manager in January 2017 can share an extended table at Denny’s: Adam Vinatieri, Anthony Castonzo, Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Jack Doyle, Clayton Geathers, Ryan Kelly, Joe Haeg, Chris Milton, Luke Rhodes, Chester Rogers and Matthias Farley.

An expected byproduct of Ballard’s massive makeover: a young team.

As the Indianapolis Colts head into the next-to-last week of their offseason work, they do so with a 90-player roster that is sprinkled with 30-something players – Adam Vinatieri is in a category all his own – and teeming with youth. There are six players 30-or-older, topped by the 46-year old Vinatieri, and 50 who are 25 or younger.

The latter category always is somewhat bloated this time of year as teams fill their rosters with draft picks and undrafted rookies to deal with offseason work and training camp. The Colts, for instance, have 18 rookies, including 10 draft picks.

Training camp will whittle down the number of younger players who’ll still be around for the Sept. 8 opener against the Los Angeles Chargers. But let’s not kid ourselves, there’ll still be a slew of them. Of the projected 22 starters, 10 are 25 or younger.

Before we move on, here’s an interesting trivia question: When’s the last time Vinatieri wasn’t the oldest player on his team?

Tick, tick, tick.

It was 2009. When Vinatieri, 37 at the time, was dealing with a knee injury, the Colts signed 42-year old Matt Stover to replace him. The 2011 roster featured a pair of 39-year olds – Vinatieri and quarterback Kerry Collins – but Vinny’s 2 days older.

But where were we? Oh, yes, the youthful nature of Ballard’s latest roster.

We recently asked Ballard if it was possible to have too much youth on the roster.

“No,’’ he replied. “I think we’ve got a good mix of vet players.’’

He conceded the 2018 draft class “was rare. The way they prepared, they were vets by mid-season, all of ‘em, from Quenton to Leonard to (Braden) Smith, (Nyheim) Hines, (Jordan) Wilkins.

“The majority of the roster has been through the run and has the experience of failing in this league, but also bouncing back and doing something really good.’’

With that in mind, we decided to come up with the top-5 Colts who are 25 or younger. That specific category drove home one bit of reality: Luck turns 30 in September and Hilton follows him in November.

Also, Kelly missed the cut. He turned 26 May 30.

Here we go. What’s interesting about our list: each player is 23.

  1. LB DARIUS LEONARD, 23
  • Drafted:Second round in 2018, 36th
  • Experience (including playoffs):One season and 17 games, all as starting weak-side linebacker.
  • Comment:The South Carolina State product was instrumental in transforming the defense from ineffective to No. 11 in fewest yards allowed and No. 10 in fewest points. Leonard’s enthusiasm was infectious and his impact undeniable. He led the NFL with a club-record 163 tackles and added 7 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles. He joined Tampa Bay’s Broderick Thomas (1991) as the only players in NFL history to compile at least 163 tackles and 7 sacks in the same season.
  1. G QUENTON NELSON, 23
  • Drafted:First round in 2018, 6th
  • Experience:One season and 18 games, all as starting left guard.
  • Comment:Like Leonard, Nelson provided immediate impact. But while Leonard was one of the bigger surprises of the entire 2018 NFL draft class, everyone knew what to expect from Nelson. The Notre Dame product was considered one of the premier players in the draft, regardless of position. He was the first true guard to be selected with a top-6 pick since Jim Dombrowski (by the Saints) in 1986. Nelson was the starting left guard from the first day of offseason work and never left his post. He was the only Colt to be on the field for all 1,136 offensive snaps. His no-nonsense approach permeated the offensive line meeting room, the entire team for that matter.
  1. S MALIK HOOKER, 23
  • Drafted:First round in 2017, 15th
  • Experience:Two seasons and 22 games, 21 as starting free safety.
  • Comment:Everyone is looking at 2019 as a breakout season for Hooker. He hasn’t been a disappointment by any standard, but injuries have limited his availability and effectiveness. He’s in the midst of his first rehab-free offseason, and that bodes well for the upcoming season.
  1. RB MARLON MACK, 23
  • Drafted:Fourth round in 2017, 143rd
  • Experience:Two seasons and 28 games, 12 as starter.
  • Comment:He’s been described as injury-prone, but we’re not ready to go there, yet. Yes, Mack missed four of the first five games last season with a hamstring injury, but let’s give the guy credit for playing all of his rookie season with a torn labrum. After getting his hamstring right last season, Mack averaged nearly 80 yards per game and 4.7 yards per attempt.
  1. CB KENNY MOORE II, 23
  • Drafted: Signed with New England as undrafted rookie in May 2017. Waived September 2, 2017 and claimed by the Colts.
  • Experience:Two seasons and 33 games, 22 as a starter.
  • Comment:We initially had right tackle Braden Smith in this spot, but reconsidered. And that’s not a negative reflection on Smith. It’s just that Moore has established himself as a key component in an ever-improving defense. He has developed into one of the NFL’s top nickel corners, and first-time coordinator Matt Eberflus tapped into Moore’s blitz skills last season. He had 1.5 sacks and a pair of pressures during the regular season, then set a Colts’ playoff record with 3 sacks in two games. In the second-round loss at Kansas City, Moore piled up 13 tackles and joined Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis as the only Colts with 2 sacks in one postseason game.

ALSO CONSIDERED: OT Braden Smith, P Rigoberto Sanchez, LB Anthony Walker, RB Nyheim Hines, WR Chester Rogers.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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