His rookie receiver was pressing, trying to play perfectly, and Reggie Wayne could feel it.
That was never going to happen — not at this position, not this time of year. So Wayne, the Colts’ all-time leader in games played and the team’s new wide receivers coach, pulled Alec Pierce aside and essentially told the rookie this: Dude, you need to chill out.
Wayne relayed his message shortly before Saturday night’s practice. There was a buzz at Grand Park, almost 7,000 on hand, and Pierce, the Colts’ second-round pick out of Cincinnati, was giddy. He wasn’t just dying to make a play, he was dying to make every play.
Wayne knows the feeling. He was a rookie at one point, way back in 2001, trying to show Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison and everyone else in the building that he was for real. Just about everyone in Indy, remember, wanted defense in that 2001 draft.
Wayne was the Plan B that lasted 14 years. He proved he was special.
Pierce will have to do the same.
— Indianapolis Colts (@Colts) July 27, 2022
On Saturday night, the franchise legend and first-year coach spoke from experience. Wayne told Pierce as soon as he hit the field to stop, to raise his hands in the air, to take a deep breath.
“Relax,” he told him. “Let it come to you. We all know how to play football.”
Wayne’s approach to his new gig has been refreshing — for starters, it’s fun to watch him to work. He’s into this, chirping up and down the field any time one of his guys makes a play, jawing at the defense, stressing the littlest of details after one of his wideouts finish a route.
But the teaching moments few see — like this one with Pierce — might be where he’s most valuable.
“We’re not trying to be on film without making mistakes, we’re not trying to impress coaches and fit in perfectly in the room,” Wayne explained. “I don’t care about that stuff. You know what I mean? Like, you’re gonna mess up. The vets mess up. So let’s just relax and play football and let it come to you.”
Is Pierce a perfectionist?
“I think so,” the 22-year-old admitted Wednesday, smiling. “I get that from my mom.”
But there’s nothing perfect about playing wide receiver in the NFL. Certainly not as a rookie.
The Colts have plunged Pierce straight into the deep end, and what we’ll see over the next month or so is how well he can swim. Rarely does a wideout begin his career strictly with the first-team offense; Pierce has been with the staters from Day 1. A lot’s been thrown at him, including the Colts’ voluminous playbook and the demands that come with playing wideout for a Frank Reich team.
Not only is the playbook among the most extensive in the league, Reich mandates that each receiver know each position (X, Y and Z). There’s plenty to take in. Sometimes, too much.
Pierce is learning. He’s making mistakes. He’s also flashing every bit of the ability that drew the Colts in last spring, pushing general manager Chris Ballard to take him 53rd overall.
Pierce is an obvious athlete. He’s fast. He climbs the field well and has no problem squeezing some space from the defender. But what’s jumped out most is ability in the air — watching him in Westfield, you can feel his basketball and volleyball background. A little like No. 1 wideout Michael Pittman Jr., who owns just about any jump ball thrown his way, Pierce has a great way of controlling his body as he ascends, then he stays calm through the catch. The sideline/end zone toe-tap could become a staple of his game.
One of the knocks for Pierce coming out of Cincinnati was that he was too rigid — not fluid enough down the field.
The Colts never worried.
“I kept hearing people saying this kid was stiff,” Ballard said after the draft. “Like, I never saw that on tape.”
No one’s seeing that in Westfield, either. Pierce has had good moments and bad moments, like any rookie. He spent most of the one-on-one and seven-on-seven period Tuesday matched up against two-time All-Pro Stephon Gilmore, a teammate who’s nine years his senior and in 2019 was the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Gilmore, to no surprise, got the better of him.
“A lot of times, he knows what route I’m running before I even run it, just based on like splits or how I’m stemming and stuff like that,” Pierce said. “So that’s wild. It’s crazy how smart he is as a player.”
But Pierce has also shown a bit of what he can do, winning a handful of downfield routes the past few days. The Colts went heavy install this week, loading a ton of plays on the offense, and Pierce is thankful he got a head start in the spring. He was in Indianapolis a few days after he was drafted, dominating rookie camp and diving into Reich’s playbook.
“It was very overwhelming in OTAs, but obviously you have more time on your hands, you know, weekends and stuff like that to really get that down,” he said. “So I really think I was more overwhelmed back in May and I’m glad for that now.”
Perhaps most telling, so far at least: Pierce doesn’t look out of place with the starters. He doesn’t look lost, like some young players do in that situation, and certainly doesn’t look overwhelmed.
He looks like he belongs.
He battled Gilmore, and saw up close how an elite cornerback does it. On Wednesday, Pierce messed up a curl route over the middle, then pointed to his chest after quarterback Matt Ryan threw it behind him. He then snagged a deep ball down the sideline after finding some separation from the defensive back.
The Colts are seeing what they saw in the draft process: Pierce is a smart player, which is what Reich prefers. A Marv Levy disciple from all the years he spent in Buffalo, Reich harkens back to an old adage from the Hall of Fame coach: Smart players with good work ethic always find a way to get better.
“You guys know we really like smart receivers (here),” Reich said. “Smart skill guys, because we’re gonna move everybody around. And we want to be multiple and just can’t have any weak links.”
Multiple formations, multiple positions, multiple routes. The Colts throw a lot at their offensive players and expect them to know it cold when the season starts.
As of now, Pierce looks exactly like what the Colts believe they drafted back in the spring: a smart and speedy, athletic receiver who’s ready to go from Day 1. Back in April, with Pierce still on the board, Reich envisioned lining him up on the outside, opposite Pittman, and wondered how defenses would react.
It got the offensive play-caller in him excited.
This could be fun, Reich thought.
So far, with Wayne’s tutelage, it looks like it will be.
Observations from practice
• Pittman was dominant Wednesday, hauling in a half-dozen catches, including a tough one over the middle against Gilmore, who was all over him. Any reservations of Pittman taking a step back in Year 3 should be squashed, and quickly. He’s going to be better. And the fire he likes to play with? That certainly hasn’t gone anywhere. Pittman exchanged haymakers with safety Rodney McLeod at one point Wednesday before the two were separated; it was the Colts’ first real fight of camp so far. The punches were … impressive.
“We definitely encourage playing with an edge, we want and that’s part of what makes him special,” Reich said of Pittman. “But we don’t want to cross that line, especially with our teammates. You know, we don’t want to hurt the team. So those are things that we just deal with as they come up. Our guys are pretty mature and know how to handle that stuff. So we’ll just kind of move on.”
• On one snap, Yannick Ngakoue whipped left tackle Matt Pryor off the edge, zipping around him with that furious first step of his. Ngakoue’s had a few plays in just the past few practices where he’s been in the backfield almost immediately after the snap. He looks fast and motivated.
• The highlight play from Wednesday’s practice came from Ashton Dulin. The fourth-year wideout continues to make plays in Westfield, and this was the best of the day, a 35-yard grab from Nick Foles over cornerback Isaiah Rodgers that Dulin took for a touchdown. Rodgers was in great position, and Dulin essentially wrestled the football away from him.
The Colts have to like what they’ve seen so far from a wide receiver corps that, behind Pittman, is largely unproven when it comes to regular season success. Parris Campbell’s had an excellent start, and Dulin’s established himself as the fourth wideout on the depth chart, ahead of Dezmon Patmon and Michael Strachan, who’s still sidelined due to offseason surgery. At this rate, it’s hard to think Dulin’s not only making the team, but will have a role in the offense on Sundays. His ascent helps the Colts in a big way.
• Reich made a good point Wednesday: Both Pryor and Bernhard Raimann are getting excellent work this camp because they’re facing Ngakoue every day. Pryor still gets the nod as the starter at left tackle as of now, but Raimann’s looked solid, as well, running with the second team. With veteran swing tackle Dennis Kelly sidelined due to injury, the reps Raimann’s getting are invaluable, especially when he gets to face an elite pass rusher like Ngakoue every day for a month.
• I don’t see any way the Colts’ don’t use Nyheim Hines substantially more in 2022. It’s been obvious from the install days over the past week how much usage he’ll get, both with Jonathan Taylor on the field and off. Hines has been heavily involved in the run and pass game; like Reich has said since the early summer, his touches are going up this fall. About time.
(Photo: Zach Bolinger / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)