Undrafted Colts, Marcus Johnson making a difference
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Rank has its privileges, in life and the NFL.
High draft picks enter the league with longer leashes and more time to develop, or fail.
Undrafted players? They fight and scratch and do whatever it takes to earn one of those coveted 53 roster spots. They bide their time and realize the importance of seizing the moment when it comes.
They’re accompanied and motivated by a certain edge to their approach. There’s a noticeable chip on their shoulder.
“Absolutely,’’ wide receiver Marcus Johnson said Thursday. “When you talk about being undrafted, we’re all just as talented as a drafted guy that came in. The development you had in college, certain things you can’t control lead to the outcome (of not being drafted).
“It definitely keeps a chip on your shoulder. But we always know what we’re capable of. You have to know your worth in this league. You have to keep working and keep fighting until the opportunity comes.’’
Circumstances – injuries, particularly in the receivers room – have created a slew of opportunities with the Indianapolis Colts.
Consider the current 52-player active roster: 18 players – more than one-third, a stunning percentage – were not drafted.
That’s most evident among receivers/tight ends. In the week 13 loss to Tennessee, all eight who were active weren’t drafted. The only exception in last Sunday’s loss at Tampa Bay was rookie wideout Parris Campbell, a second-round draft pick.
When Campbell was placed on the injured reserve list Monday with a broken foot, general manager Chris Ballard filled his spot on the roster with veteran Dontrelle Inman. He’s now the sixth wideout, and the only draft pick among them is T.Y. Hilton, a 2012 third-rounder whose status for Monday night’s game at New Orleans is uncertain.
Ballard and Frank Reich have made it clear they’re running a meritocracy. You earn your reps, regardless of how you entered the NFL.
The starting offense against the Bucs included three undrafted players: Johnson, Zach Pascal and Jack Doyle. Johnson posted the first 100-yard game of his career (three catches, 105 yards, one touchdown) while Pascal added five catches and 74 yards and Doyle chipped in with two catches for 27 yards.
It’s worth wondering where the offense would be without Pascal while injuries have decimated the wideouts. He twice has eclipsed the 100-yard mark and already has set career bests with 35 receptions, 547 yards and five TDs.
The Colts claimed Pascal off waivers in June 2018. The Tennessee Titans discarded him twice and Washington once since 2017.
The Titans also waived Doyle, a Cathedral H.S. product, August 31, 2013. He quickly was claimed by the Colts, and brought with him an I’ll-do-whatever-it-takes edge to his hometown Colts.
“Early on, for sure,’’ Doyle said. “I think you have an edge the first or second year. You feel it against another team: ‘Oh, they didn’t draft me, either.’
“But it does sort of go away. We’re all here together. You kind of forget who was drafted and who wasn’t. It leaves you once you’re in it a little bit.’’
Doyle and Kenny Moore II are extreme examples of undrafted Colts who have maximized the moment.
Doyle has established himself as one of Ballard’s core players. He earned a Pro Bowl appearance in 2017 on the strength of 80 receptions, the second-most by a tight end in team history. He has the best hands on the team, is a precise route runner, an elite blocker and an unquestioned leader.
“It didn’t take long to realize how good of a player, leader . . . everything,’’ Frank Reich said of Doyle. “I mean, Jack is really the consummate pro in every way.’’
Ballard rewarded Doyle’s all-around game last week with a three-year, $21.3 million extension.
Moore, meanwhile, has developed into a near-irreplaceable part on defense since being claimed off waivers from New England Sept. 3, 2017. He’s appeared in 44 games, 33 as a starter, and made a difference with 170 tackles, 7 sacks, 7 interceptions and 22 defended passes.
In June, Ballard rewarded Moore with a four-year, $30 million extension. Around the same time, punter Rigoberto Sanchez and long-snapper Luke Rhodes – two more undrafted Colts – were signed to extensions.
The list of undrafted players includes safety George Odom, who has appeared in all 31 games the last two seasons.
Johnson’s journey to Indy required what virtually every undrafted player needs: perseverance. He signed with Philadelphia as a rookie free agent in May 2016 and saw action in just five games in two seasons. He was traded to Seattle in March 2018, then acquired by the Colts in a trade six months later.
His time in Philadelphia coincided with Reich’s time as the Eagles’ offensive coordinator. Reich stressed to Johnson his undrafted status wouldn’t be considered a hindrance.
“I remember my rookie year and being in Philadelphia with Frank,’’ Johnson said. “I truly see organizations stay true to that. That doesn’t apply to everybody and they have to respect the time they took to draft somebody. That’s just the truth of it.
“But I have seen a lot of undrafted guys get a real opportunity, and it’s from people keeping their word like that, just evaluating guys.’’
Johnson was elevated to the active roster Nov. 9 when Campbell suffered a broken hand and an ineffective Deon Cain was waived. He’s helped ease Pascal’s load the last five games with 12 catches, 207 yards and two TDs. He had a 46-yard TD and 50-yard reception against Tampa Bay, two of the Colts’ three longest catches of the season.
“To be starting the last couple of weeks and to really get a chance to show what I can do is nothing short of a blessing,’’ Johnson said. “I love this game. I love this team.
“I’m doing everything I can to make sure my best self on game day is there for the guys.’’
The first step in Hilton returning to the lineup took place Thursday. He was a limited participant in a “modified’’ practice.
“We will just proceed with caution,’’ Reich said. “I mean I hope something works out. Obviously, after what happened last time, we are going to be cautious and we will monitor it as the week goes on.’’
Hilton first suffered the calf injury in an Oct. 30 practice and would miss three games. He returned Nov. 21 at Houston, but experienced tightness in the calf. He then suffered a setback in practice the following week that would force him to miss the last two games.
Hilton made it clear early in the week he planned on returning before the end of the season. Reich understood that mindset.
“Number one, it is just who he is,’’ he said. “He is just a competitor. I mean, he is a leader. That’s why he’s one of the leaders on this team. That’s why guys look up to him.
“So when I saw what he said, I mean it just made me smile at what kind of competitor and leader he is. But secondly, I would say we are going to protect him from himself, too. If by chance he is out there, it is only going to be because we think he is 100 percent.’’
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