You won’t hear an NFL general manager not talk about the importance of building through the draft. It makes sense. Every team is given a selection in every round and teams can hand select the player they most believe will help their team. Those decisions are made after years of work by a scouting department and a rigorous interview and testing process prior to making the selections. Draft picks are young players with untapped potential and cost very little in terms of salary. There are no bidding wars when you are on the clock for a player; a team can pick whoever it wants. It’s the optimal way to build a football team.
With that said, NFL teams are largely unsuccessful hitting on draft picks. It’s a crapshoot. But don’t tell that to Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard. The draft class he assembled in 2018 is proving to be franchise-altering with unprecedented immediate returns from the players selected.
How unprecedented? Indy’s first two picks, OL Quenton Nelson and LB Darius Leonard, were both first-team All-Pro selections as rookies. The last time that happened? 1965, when the Bears drafted a pair of Hall of Famers in Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers. No other time in NFL history has a team produced multiple first-team All-Pro rookies.
Nelson helped turn around an offensive line that went from allowing the most sacks in the NFL in 2017 to giving up the fewest in 2018. He became the first ever offensive guard to be named Offensive Rookie of the Month in October and was of course, named to the Pro Bowl.
Quenton Nelson All-Pro, all day. pic.twitter.com/mzv515viOL
— Dylan DeSimone (@DylanADeSimone) January 5, 2019
Nelson’s mentality as a player is one that is capable of changing the identity of a football team. We often talk about tone-setters as defensive players or offensive skill players, but Nelson brings that as an offensive lineman. My No. 1 overall prospect in last year’s class, Nelson has the upside to be the best offensive lineman in the NFL for years to come.
There is nothing “spectacular” about selecting Nelson. His evaluation was simple. But what cannot be overlooked in Nelson’s selection is that Ballard not only drafted him, but he traded back and acquired more draft capital to improve the roster. Striking a deal with the Jets, Ballard moved back from No. 3 to No. 6 overall and acquired No. 37 and No. 49 overall in 2018 as well as a 2019 second-round pick from New York.
Ballard would go on to use No. 37 on OT Braden Smith who became the Colts’ starter in Week 5 and has the makings of a fixture for year’s to come on a standout unit. Indy’s original second round pick, No. 36 overall, was used on Leonard.
Despite missing one game, Leonard lead the NFL in with 163 tackles and made splash play after splash play to the tune of 12 tackles for loss, 7 sacks, 8 pass breakups, two interceptions, 4 forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. He is a dominant playmaker that invigorated the Colts defense right away.
If only adding two elite starters and an impact starter wasn’t enough, Ballard strengthened the depth of the defensive line with Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis later in the second round. In a draft that was loaded with defensive line talent, Ballard let the board fall to him and added two quality pieces. Turay has made an impact rushing the passer, especially late in the season. According to PFF, Turay pressured the quarterback on 21 percent of his rushes which was the highest rate of all edge defenders in the NFL since Week 11. He has a bright future at a position of high importance. Lewis missed the first nine games of the season with a toe injury but factored heavily into the mix down the stretch and added much-needed depth to the Colts defensive line. He looks like he has starting potential.
Ballard bolstered the depth of the running back rotation by selecting Nyheim Hines in the fourth round and Jordan Wilkins in the fifth. Hines gained 739 yards from scrimmage as a rookie and offers a dynamic receiving skill set. Wilkins helped anchor the ground game early in the season while starter Marlon Mack was dealing with a hamstring injury. Wilkins averaged 5.6 yards per carry, totaling 336 yards.
Along with the hiring of Frank Reich and Andrew Luck’s succesful return a lengthy absence with a shoulder injury, the Colts 2018 draft class helped quickly turn around a 4-12 team in 2017 to a 10-6 mark in 2018 with a playoff win already.
While the Colts are still alive in the playoffs, the looming offseason brings endless possibilities. Indianapolis has a league-high $123 million in salary space and three top-50 draft picks for Ballard to further improve the roster.
The Colts are primed to be a problem for years to come in the AFC, and a big reason why is Ballard’s franchise-altering 2018 draft class.