By Tom James
INDIANAPOLIS — Most fans and media look to Peyton Manning, Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark or Dwight Freeney when it comes to the success of the Indianapolis Colts during the postseason.
But this year, the performances of five players who have performed under the national radar could prove vital to the Colts’ immediate future.
Here’s a look at five Indianapolis players that you should know more about while watching the playoffs. Three of them are rookies — cornerback Jerraud Powers, wide receiver Austin Collie and punter/kickoff specialist Pat McAfee — along with weak side linebacker Clint Session and defensive tackle Daniel Muir. Powers has taken over at right cornerback with veteran Marlin Jackson sidelined for the rest of the season with a knee injury. While he nursed a sore hamstring late in the season, the rookie from Auburn is sixth on the team in tackles with 63, has one interception, broken up nine passes, has forced one fumble and recovered a fumble.
“I think [Powers] has a real unique quality because he is a guy that is mature beyond his years in every aspect. He is a very settled individual, very focused. He’s conscientious and obviously skilled physically. But a guy that is always thinking and always seems to be in the right place at the right time,” said Colts coach Jim Caldwell.
“He followed the classic example of an individual that keeps getting better week-in and week-out. He’s had a little bit of a setback here as of late [with the hamstring injury] but he’ll be back. And we anticipate he’ll play even better than he’s played previously.”
As for Collie, all the former Brigham Young standout has done this year is haul in 60 passes for 676 yards and seven touchdowns. That’s the most receptions and touchdown catches by a first-year receiver in the NFL this season. He ranks third on the team in receiving behind veterans Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark.
The 60 catches during the regular-season is the fourth-best total for a first-year receiver in Colts history behind Bill Brooks’ 65 in 1986, Marvin Harrison’s 64 in 1996 and Edgerrin James’ 62 in 1999. That’s not bad company to join. His 676 yards receiving is the fifth best by a rookie (Brooks, 1,131, 1986; Harrison, 836, 1996; Andre Rison, 820, 1989; John Mackey, 726, 1963).
“Collie has really come in and filled a void that we had, just in terms of someone being able to play and play effectively in the slot. It was a position we weren’t quite certain of how it would end up. We knew we would have a pretty good player there, but to have a rookie perform the way he has performed is pretty unique. I think that’s because of how he works at it, he studies, he loves it and he’s been able to adapt,” Caldwell said.
“He keeps getting better. I think early in the season whenever we talked about him I’d always add a little caveat, ‘But, he has to keep getting better.’ He’s continued to do so. He catches the ball. He’s been good in terms of his run support blocking. All around, he’s been a good, solid player, and he keeps getting better. That is key.”
Perhaps the rookie with the biggest shoes to fill, literally, was McAfee. He’s averaged 44.3 yards overall and 38 yards net on 64 punts this season. He has placed 20 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line.
But in replacing longtime Indianapolis punter Hunter Smith, the first-year player from West Virginia not only has had to punt but he’s also taken over Smith’s role as the team’s holder for placekickers Adam Vinatieri and Matt Stover.
“He has demonstrated he can punt the ball real well. He is also mature enough to handle other duties. He has been kicking the ball off well. He increased the number significantly in terms of touchbacks we had this year. That makes a huge difference,” the Colts coach said.
“All in all, I think he’s done a real nice job. We knew he could do it. He’s fairly versatile in a number of areas.”
McAfee has 21 touchbacks so far this year, helping to bolster the Colts’ kickoff coverage units’ overall improvement this season.
“McAfee has been tremendous. He’s handling two duties for us [punting and holding on field goals and extra points]. That is very difficult for a guy in his first year to do what he has been able to do. You look at our numbers in terms of kickoffs for example, our numbers are a lot different than they were previously. He’s had a lot of touchbacks. That certainly does indeed help our defense. It makes a team have to drive 80 yards to score. The more often you can do that, make them go the long haul, it’s going to help you get them stopped. He’s helped a tremendous amount there,” Caldwell said.
“His punting has been very good, solid. He’s certainly made a lot of big plays, placing the ball inside the 20-yard line on numerous occasions. He’s a guy that doesn’t get nervous. He loves what he is doing, and he continues to get better week-in and week-out. I think that is key. Neither one of those guys [McAfee and Collie] or Powers hit the proverbial wall, the rookie wall as we often times say. They continue to get better.”
Session and Muir, meanwhile, are two slightly older players who have each settled into their jobs with equal success.
A third-year linebacker from the University of Pittsburgh, Session made a successful transition from strong-side to weakside linebacker during the offseason.
He’s third on the team in tackles with 101 (82 solo) and has two interceptions (including one that he returned for a game-deciding touchdown against Houston) along with two passes broken up and a forced fumble.
“Clint is a guy that has played really well for us this year. He often gives us a spark on defense by the way that he plays,” Caldwell said. “He’s very athletic, he has a way of making big plays for us and he’s a hitter. He’s been an impact player for us on defense all season long.”
Session was developing into a pretty good strong side linebacker early in his NFL career. But the move to the weak side has allowed the 6-foot, 235-pounder to use all of his skills. He’s certainly proven that this season.
“He’s made strides. He’s always had and demonstrated that pop and natural hitting leverage. He’s always displayed a great love for contact. And certainly he has begun to really get a good feel for our defensive scheme,” the Colts coach said.
“And he’s growing within [the scheme]. There’s been situations in games where he’s had 10 or 11 tackles. And I still think that his upside is pretty huge. So I still think that you can continue to see him improve year after year after year. He’s developed into a pretty fine football player.”
Muir may be the most surprising player to make the list. The former Kent State defensive lineman was claimed off waivers from the Green Bay Packers near the end of training camp last year.
He saw limited playing time in 2008, appearing in six games as a backup and was inactive for 10 games. But he’s been a key performer on the Colts’ defensive line this season, starting 10 games at either right or left defensive tackle.
Muir is seventh on the team in tackles with 52 while recording one sack. He has teamed with another waiver-wire pickup, former Tennessee Titans practice squad tackle Antonio Johnson, to give the Colts some needed bulk in the middle of the defensive line.
“Dan Muir has certainly developed within our scheme. Last year when he came [to Indianapolis], he was kind of feeling his way and learning. But he made a real commitment during the offseason really restructuring his body. Got in great condition and found a niche. He improved his running and he’s been a real factor in our defensive line,” Caldwell said.
“There’s been games when he’s had eight tackles, seven tackles. That tells you something about how active he is. But also his play has helped our linebacking corps as well, kind of keeping them free. But Dan’s been one of those guys that works hard, is committed and he’s productive.”