INDIANAPOLIS — Any doubt that might have followed Josh Downs from Chapel Hill to the Midwest was trampled into the practice field at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.
It was Aug. 16 and the Indianapolis Colts were in joint work with the Chicago Bears.
Their third-round pick had sparred with his new teammates in practice, but this was different. The intensity and competition always are amped up in shared practices.
“I thought I had a really strong first day against another team,’’ Down said. “At that moment, I was like, ‘I can actually do this at a high level. It may not be this year, maybe next year, who knows? But I feel like I can be a good player in this league.’
“Just competing with those guys and seeing how I stacked up with them.’’
His work in training camp was a precursor.
“I think he’s still a work in progress,’’ position coach Reggie Wayne said. “I mean, it’s going to take some time for him to get that college smell off him.
“But so far, so good. Hopefully we can just keep his arrow going upward moving on.’’
Downs quickly has emerged as a reliable presence in Shane Steichen’s offense. He’s been targeted at least five times in five of six games and come up with at least two receptions in all six.
The cumulative output: 28 receptions, 276 yards and his first career touchdown – a 2-yarder from Gardner Minshew II – in last Sunday’s loss at Jacksonville. Among Colts, he trails only Michael Pittman Jr. (40 receptions, 406 yards, one TD).
Historical perspective highlights the level of Downs’ immediate impact. His 28 receptions are the most by a Colts rookie receiver in his first six games – running back Nyheim Hines had 31 – while his 276 yards rank No. 3 behind Bill Brooks (352 in 1986) and Alec Pierce (308 last season).
He was instrumental in the Colts’ 23-16 win over Tennessee in week 5 with six catches and 97 yards on six targets, including a 38-yarder.
“My expectation was to just come in, compete, see where I stack up, see if I can earn a role on the field and go from there,’’ Downs said. “I feel pretty good out there every week, adjusting, competing against the other teams and all that.
“It’s not easy by any means. This is a very tough grind.’’
While the proverbial light of reassurance went on for Downs against the Bears at Grand Park – I belong here – the Aha! moment for the Colts and Wayne occurred eight months earlier during the NFL Scouting Combine.
General manager Chris Ballard’s attention was on focused on whichever position group was on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf. Wayne was waiting for the receivers to take the field.
“Obviously when receivers go up, I’m super-duper locked in,’’ he said.
He already had done homework on a 5-9, 171-pound slot receiver out of North Carolina – 202 catches, 2,483 yards, 22 TDs in 34 games; two 1,000-yard seasons – and that prospect immediately caught his eye.
“I just remember watching him just warm up and watched his bounce,’’ Wayne said. “Watching his route running, I just thought with the type of offense we had that he’d be a perfect fit for us.’’
Pittman, the 2020 second-round pick, was the unquestioned leader of a receivers room that also included 2022 second-rounder Pierce. But Parris Campbell’s signing with the New York Giants in the offseason left a significant void.
“We needed that slot guy that understood zones,’’ Wayne said. “They had some good guys in the draft that I thought were capable of that, but I believe Josh – just watching his tape over and over and over and over . . . and over and over – was the best fit for that.’’
Wayne saw a slot receiver who could be effective on option routes against particular defenses.
“It’s more of a feel thing,’’ he said. “I just think when you watch his tape from college, that’s kind of what he did. That’s a plus right there. And he’s little. Most of the little guys are good at that.
“One thing about Josh is he understands coverages. A lot of times you have to take time to teach guys coverages coming out of college. But that was something I really didn’t have to do with Josh. He understood coverages, he understood zones and how to sit in them.’’
After the wideouts were finished with their drills, Wayne walked over and gave Ballard a look. They had noticed the same thing.
“It’s kind of like we said it at the same time,’’ said Wayne, a University of Miami product. “I was like, ‘Hey, Josh Downs. I don’t necessarily care for North Carolina players, but Josh Downs, I think he’ll be special.’
“And he agreed. Luckily for us he was there at the time and we brought him in.’’
Steichen and coordinator Jim Bob Cooter have designed routes that require a wideout to be at the right depth at the right time. There also are times when the receiver has the option to alter his route depending on the coverage.
“Sometimes we have the plays where you can break in or out, or maybe sit down,’’ Cooter said. “Some guys are better at those pass routes that don’t have a lot of options, don’t have a lot of those dotted lines as we say on the pictures.
“Josh can kind of do both. Josh, if you give him a few options on a pass route, he can sort of make that right decision and the more you make that right decision, the more the quarterback tends to lean your way or trust when those types of plays are called.’’
Downs’ versatility and ability to adjust mid-play have been encouraging. He’s done steady damage on underneath, crossing routes.
Then, a 38-yard strike from Anthony Richardson against the Tennessee Titans.
“All of a sudden, shoot, third-and-16,’’ Cooter said. “Josh Downs is getting over the top, deep, making a huge play.
“Obviously, great throw by Anthony. It was really good to see Josh show that versatility just to the defense, right? If you’re defense, you’re trying to figure out who is this Josh Downs guy and how do we defend him? The more routes he can put on tape that he’s getting open, the better.
“Josh has done a nice job. He’ll continue hopefully to do a nice job and we’ll keep finding ways to get him the ball.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.