ANDERSON, Ind. – Colts defensive tackle Fili Moala is finally starting to feel like himself.
He's moving quicker, regaining his confidence and is even having fun playing football again.
It's a welcome change for the second-year player who came to training camp in 2009 intending to make an impact in Indy's revamped defense and wound up spending most of the season watching other rookies excel.
"I felt like I wasn't pulling my own weight," last year's second-round pick said. "I had never felt like that in my life, and it was difficult to sit back and sort of feel like a bum."
The Colts, and Moala's teammates, never quite saw it the same way even though Moala admittedly struggled to learn the NFL game.
Yes, Moala was inactive for six of the Colts' regular-season games and all three postseason games. His only start came in a meaningless regular-season finale at Buffalo, and the 303-pounder who was drafted in the second round to plug running lanes was buried on the depth chart.
First-round pick Donald Brown didn't have it any easier. Injuries forced him to miss five regular-season games, and he finished the season with only 281 yards rushing, three TDs and 3.6 yards per carry. Not exactly what the fans or the players expected.
But the other rookie performances made things even worse for Indy's top two draft picks.
Third-rounder Jerraud Powers and undrafted rookie Jacob Lacey combined to start 21 games. Fourth-rounder Austin Collie spent Thursday nights studying extra film with Peyton Manning and emerged as another legitimate threat in the Colts' offense. Seventh-rounder Pat McAfee averaged 44.3 yards per punt and consistently booted kickoffs deeper than Indy had in recent years, and even sixth-round pick Curtis Painter saw prominent action in the Colts' last two games.
The only other rookie to really struggle last season was defensive tackle Terrance Taylor, and he didn't even make the roster.
Strangely, though, it was the Colts two most prominent draftees that had the toughest transitions. Moala never felt comfortable in Indy's defense despite playing a similar style at Southern Cal, and Brown kept getting hurt.
The combination took a heavy toll on Moala and Brown.
"We did talk about that. I'd say 'How do you feel?' and he'd say 'How do you feel?' like that," Moala said.
Teammates understood, too.
Throughout the season, Powers said, the rookies talked constantly. Each came with a different perspective and each offered different advice about how to cope with life in the NFL, but few could put themselves in the shoes of Brown and Moala.
"I guess when you're that first or second-round pick, people expect you to make a big impact and that's not always the case," Powers said. "Those two guys had a little more pressure than we did."
So Brown and Moala went into the offseason determined to make amends.
Brown's offseason work even impressed Manning, who singled him out after Tuesday morning's practice.
"He showed some flashes of what he could do (last year), and we expect him to be a big contributor," Manning said. "He's very bright, he knows his protections, he's really eager to come out here and have a good year and he was one of our hardest workers in the offseason."
But the difference between this year and last has been enormous.
"I'm not thinking as much, and I know what I'm doing while I'm out there," Brown said. "Now it's fun. Now I can go out there and play ball and put my best foot forward everyday."
Moala sees it the same way.
After spending more time studying the Colts defense and finding his own a comfort level, he's back at camp with a new attitude, more confidence and a renewed vigor for the game that he thinks will eliminate last season's image as a draft bust.
"Last year wasn't what I expected, but I learned a lot from it," Moala said. "Now I'm just having fun and I'm not so uptight. I'm just back to playing football again and having fun, and it's a lot better than it was last year."