Something to Prove: Colts Defensive End Jerry Hughes

Jerry Hughes hurries down the field on special team in 2010. (Scott Boehm | Getty Images)

When the Indianapolis Colts drafted defensive end Jerry Hughes in the First Round of the 2010 NFL Draft, a lot of fans were shocked. At first the response was very simple — the offensive line needed help, players like Rodger Saffold were still on the table, and the front office passed on the opportunity to upgrade at a major position of need. Whereas, at defensive end, Pro Bowlers Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are already on the team and at most what was needed was an insurance policy if either player got hurt.

After the initial response though, a lot of fans started warming up to the idea that Robert Mathis did not have a lot of time left on his contract and Dwight Freeney’s injury in the Super Bowl certainly hurt the team’s ability to stifle a powerful New Orleans offense, particularly in the second half. Hughes was projected as worthy of a higher pick than Indianapolis used and was widely considered a top 3 true defensive end pass rusher coming out of the draft class.

Then reality set in. In order for Hughes to get any meaningful time on the field Freeney or Mathis would either need to require a breather, miss time to injury, or Hughes would have to outplay them. The likelihood of that happening was unlikely but fans were hopeful that in games where the Colts had the lead, Hughes would step in and have a chance to get some experience.

The problem? That never really happened. His impact on the season was for all intents and purposes, zero. He was not a regular contributor on special teams and the only time he was really noticed in that role was on the long return against the Jets in the playoffs where, had he taken a different angle of pursuit or hustled a bit more, he could have kept New York far enough away to force an offensive mistake — or keep them out of field goal range.

Now he is entering his second season with a first round pedigree and he shares draws the same kine of nervous attention fans are placing on former first round pick Donald Brown. The Colts are a very good team, and have been very good for a long time. The way they’ve stayed so good is by drafting and finding talent that has been able to step up when called upon — the “next man up” philosophy. Hughes has to show fans that he can be counted on, and when his time comes he had better be ready.

There is no sugar-coating the reality that fans will expect him to be a regular special teams contributor, if not a special teams force in 2011. Beyond that, when he gets his number called, and fans will expect that it is much more frequent this season, he had better be productive. If not, fans will be quick to turn on him. This is the Not For Long league. Jerry Hughes has something to prove.