INDIANAPOLIS — The physical tools dazzled on the training camp fields at Grand Park.
The 6-5, 226-pound frame. The track star speed. The leaping ability. The natural ball skills, big hands emerging from tight coverage to pluck a ball out of the air.
Rookie wide receiver Mike Strachan made the first catch of the Colts’ 2021 season, hauled in another pass over the middle in the third quarter, drew a pass interference in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks.
A promising start, at least on the surface, for a seventh-round pick playing just 18 offensive snaps in his NFL debut.
Indianapolis liked what it saw enough that the Colts played their freakish rookie on more than half the snaps the next week against the Rams.
But that was the last time Strachan played a prominent role as a rookie.
“He just wasn’t ready,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “In our offense, the adjustments you have to make on the run, it was just all new to him.”
The rookie, like a lot of surprising training camp stars, wasn’t able to carry his training camp success over to the regular season.
Even in a complementary role.
Strachan played 52 snaps on offense in the first two games, then played just 10 the rest of the way, all in the first half of the season. Unable to crack the rotation despite playing in a wide receiver group that struggled to make an impact outside of Michael Pittman Jr., Strachan was a healthy scratch in 11 games, including nine consecutive games to end the season.
“Really talented guy now, and we’ve got high hopes for him, but I think the year off, not playing, small school (all played a factor),” Ballard said.
From the start, Strachan had to climb a steep learning curve to earn a spot in the rotation.
The Colts knew it when they used a seventh-round pick on him.
Strachan played his college football at the University of Charleston, a small school that admittedly didn’t ask Strachan to do much more than overwhelm defensive backs with his superior athleticism.
And because Charleston is an NCAA Division II program, Strachan lost the entire 2020 season to the COVID-19 pandemic. Strachan wowed the Colts with his athleticism at West Virginia’s Pro Day, but the team used only a seventh-round flyer on him because Indianapolis knew he faced a steep learning curve.
“Like going from sixth grade to graduate school for chemical engineering,” Colts receivers coach Mike Groh said in training camp.
Playing receiver in the NFL, and in Frank Reich’s offense, isn’t as simple as learning routes and running them exactly the same every time a play is called.
A wide receiver has to be able to make adjustments based on the coverages the defense is playing, has to tinker with his route in order to get open, has to learn how he can beat defensive backs.
Strachan is far from the only Colts wide receiver to need some time to learn on the fly. Even No. 1 target Pittman, a second-round pick who was highly productive at USC, got off to a slow start as a rookie, and he had the advantage of playing with Philip Rivers, a quarterback who was essentially an offensive coordinator on the field.
‘The one position I think is hard when you come into the league is wideout,” Ballard said “Because (1, these corners are really good, and (2), these d-coordinators are really good at disguising the coverages.”
The 52 snaps Strachan played against Seattle and Los Angeles — and the work in practice after that — revealed to the Colts coaching staff that its talented rookie wide receiver wasn’t ready for the rigors of reading defenses in the regular season.
But Strachan is going to get another chance to prove he’s more than just a flash in the training camp pan, a physically gifted player like Deon Cain or Duron Carter who never makes an impact in the regular season.
When Indianapolis drafted Strachan, the Colts knew it might take some time.
“Michael Strachan has really good upside,” Ballard said. “We think he’s got a bright future.”
Now, Strachan knows what he has to be able to do to carve out a spot in the rotation.
He has an entire offseason to work at it before he’s back on those practice fields at Grand Park.
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: Colts WR Mike Strachan didn't play much as a rookie