INDIANAPOLIS – Jerry Hughes came to training camp carrying all the baggage of a first-round pick.
He had the big contract, the high expectations, the pressure to emerge as the best rookie in the Colts' draft class.
Things haven't exactly gone as planned for the pass-rushing specialist from TCU, who is still trying to fit into the Colts defense while his rookie classmates make a bigger impact. Linebackers Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner have impressed coaches with their ability to run and hit, and undrafted rookie Devin Moore took the early lead to become the Colts' return specialist with a strong performance Thursday night against Buffalo.
Fortunately, the Colts have seen this script play out before with defensive linemen.
"It happened to me when I was a rookie" Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney said Monday. "But you have to be ready because all it takes is an injury and then you're in there. I was basically a third-down guy until the eighth or ninth game of the year (as a rookie), and then there was an injury and I went in."
He never looked back.
Freeney forced three fumbles and sacked Donovan McNabb once in his first career start, the opening act to a career that has included five Pro Bowl selections and the title of Colts' all-time sacks leader. Not bad for a guy who was considered a "reach" in the 2002 draft and who needed time to earn a starting job.
And Freeney isn't the Colts' only first-round pick who had trouble early.
Future Pro Bowlers Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark caught fewer than 30 passes as rookies. Anthony Gonzalez caught 37. Last year's top pick, Donald Brown, rushed for only 281 yards, and cornerback Marlin Jackson had 39 tackles, one interception and one start in his first NFL season, 2005. Peyton Manning even threw 28 interceptions in his first NFL season.
But the Colts have a reputation for finding talent — in the draft and outside of it.
Last year's rookie class included cornerback Jerraud Powers, receiver Austin Collie and punter Pat McAfee — all of whom were starting by season's end. Two undrafted rookies, cornerback Jacob Lacey and right guard Kyle DeVan, even started in the Super Bowl as Indy's top two draft picks, Brown and Fili Moala, struggled.
Coach Jim Caldwell believes pass-rushing ends have a tougher time because they're lining up against the biggest and strongest tackles in the league. The adjustment, Caldwell and Freeney agree, takes patience.
"He's like most young guys, he's learning, he's feeling his way a little bit," Caldwell said when asked about Hughes' development. "It's kind of like a pitcher who has a fastball and a curve ball and then he has to find an offspeed pitch."
The other guys haven't made it look as difficult.
While Hughes has two tackles in two games, Conner, one of Indy's three seventh-round picks, started the preseason opener. Angerer and Conner have also seen the most action at linebacker through the first two weeks though they haven't been flawless.
"I think the hardest part is learning all the checks and being loud," Angerer said. "But if I'm going to make a mistake, I'd rather make it going fast than going slow."
The biggest surprises since camp opened have been Moore, a running back who grew up in Indy; defensive lineman John Chick, who spent the last three seasons in the Canadian Football League; and tight end Brody Eldridge, a fifth-round pick who had 13 receptions in four seasons at Oklahoma.
All have exceeded expectations, and Eldridge got a vote of confidence from Indy's offensive leader Sunday.
"I certainly didn't know what to expect, and I don't know what Bill and the personnel guys expected," Manning said. "We can't have a guy who is one dimensional. It would be too obvious to bring a guy in just to block in non-goal line situations, but he's continuing to develop in the passing game. My guess is that he hasn't had a lot of repetitions, so I think he'll keep improving."
Hughes' task is simply to keep progressing, which isn't easy when you're locked in behind two Pro Bowl ends, Freeney and Robert Mathis.
"It's a little tougher situation for Jerry because you've got me and Robert in front of him, so he's got to get on the field somehow," Freeney said. "There's no rush because there's no dire, dire need there. But he's going to learn the system, he's going to play Colts ball and whenever that happens, it happens."