Rookie class of unheralded draftees has given Colts a few surprises

By Mcihael Marot

INDIANAPOLIS – Ed Johnson never dreamed draft weekend could go so wrong.

The 6-foot-3, 296-pound defensive tackle with enough talent to earn a starting job at Penn State watched anxiously for two days to see which NFL team would take him. After hearing 255 names called, Johnson was still waiting.

Now the man nobody wanted in April is showing the Indianapolis Colts they made the right call in signing him as an undrafted free agent.

“I want them to keep shaking their heads,” Johnson said of the 31 teams that never called. “I want to keep it going or at least going like it has been.”

Johnson has easily been the biggest surprise for the defending Super Bowl champions, earning a starting spot. As usual, though, he’s not the only unheralded player making an impact with the Colts.

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    Seventh-round pick Keyunta Dawson, a defensive tackle considered too small by most teams at 6-3, 254 pounds, has impressed teammates. Undrafted receiver Trent Shelton led the Colts in receptions against Chicago and has played well on special teams, while defensive end Jeff Charleston and defensive back Melvin Bullitt have consistently gotten coach Tony Dungy’s attention.

    No, they’re not household names yet, but so what?

    Team president Bill Polian has always been more concerned with results than resumes, which may explain why the Colts have been so successful finding talent in obscure places.

    Of the Colts’ Super Bowl starters, five – two-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Saturday, guard Ryan Lilja, tight end Ben Utecht, linebacker Gary Brackett and cornerback Nick Harper – were not drafted.

    Another, defensive tackle Raheem Brock, was a seventh-round pick by Philadelphia which relinquished its rights before signing him, and this year’s class has the potential to live up to the lineage.

    “I try not to be surprised because I like to think that everyone we bring in can play at this level,” Dungy said Thursday. “We’re trying to see what they can do.”

    Once considered a first-day draft prospect, Johnson was bypassed in part after getting suspended three times for off-field actions in college. No other team even bothered giving him a chance.

    The Colts, however, decided against conventional wisdom after meeting with Johnson.

    All Johnson has done is make play after play. In two preseason games, Johnson has recorded seven tackles and two sacks, forced one fumble and recovered another.

    And when starting defensive tackle Anthony McFarland went down during training camp with a season-ending knee injury, Johnson was elevated to the top of the depth chart.

    “It was a frustrating, miserable, sad weekend,” Johnson recalled about his draft wait. “I was heartbroken because I just wanted a chance. I always felt I could play well at this level as long as I had a fair chance.”

    While Johnson seems a lock to make the team, most of the other Colts rookies and some veterans will spend the next nine days jockeying for jobs.

    Dawson, who had two sacks in an intrasquad scrimmage game, hopes to be part of Dungy’s defensive line rotation, and starting defensive end Robert Mathis, a fifth-round pick in 2003, likes what he’s seen from Johnson and Dawson.

    “Keyunta and Ed have really stepped up, filling voids we needed filled,” Mathis said. “What I like about Keyunta is his work ethic.”