The Indianapolis Colts’ 2018 NFL Draft class was a franchise-altering haul.
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. Nelson has immediately become a franchise cornerstone player.
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 linemen 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 years 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 racked up the splash plays 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 was rightfully named Defensive Rookie of the Year.
The 2018 haul also produced EDGE Kemoko Turay who was dominating early this season but has suffered a season-ending injury, DL Tyquan Lewis, RB Nyheim Hines and RB Jordan Wilkins.
It’s early but there are already signs that indicate the Colts assembled another meaningful haul from the 2019 Draft. Ballard again wheeled and dealed even trading out of the first round, but his group of rookies is making important contributions for the Colts.
Top pick (No. 34 overall) cornerback Rock Ya-Sin has stepped in as a starter at outside corner and performed well. While he hasn’t yet made many big plays on the football, he has been fairly steady in coverage and is providing the Colts with a physical defensive back. He’s been outstanding in run support and is gaining more reps and comfort each week. Given his notable work ethic and football character, he should be a long-term fixture in the secondary for Indianapolis.
Wide receiver Parris Campbell is currently recovering from an abdominal procedure but was growing into his role on the offense and commanding more playing time and targets each week over the Colts’ first four games. He’s caught 10 of 13 targets including five receptions in Week Four and scored his first NFL touchdown in Week Two. A versatile weapon, Campbell is playing receiver both outside and from the slot while also serving as a kick returner.
EDGE defender Ben Banogu logged two quarterback hits in Week One while getting a piece of a sack and is expected to play a bigger role the rest of the season with Turay injured. If the recent history tells us anything, it’s that he’s primed to be the next Colts’ rookie to step up and fill an important role.
Third round pick Bobby Okereke is filling in for the injured Leonard and is emerging in a big way. Okereke was instrumental in the Colts’ win in Kansas City and is finding success as both a run defender and playing in coverage. He’s diagnosing plays extremely quick, especially for a rookie and coming up with big stops. When Leonard comes back, Indy will need to find reps for him on the defense.
Fourth round pick Khari Willis has arguably been the Colts best rookie so far in 2019. Starting the last two games for Indianapolis and playing a fair percentage of the snaps in Week’s One-Three, Willis has been sound across the board. Whether it’s in coverage or playing forward against the run, Willis looks like a competent defender that is making his case to be considered a core piece of the defensive nucleus moving forward.
While not as prominent as the aforementioned names, CB Marvel Tell, CB Shakial Taylor, LB EJ Speed are starting to get some reps on defense while filling roles on special teams.
Every general manager talks about building through the draft, but few are as effective as Chris Ballard has been recently in Indianapolis. The foundation of the Colts keeps strengthening due to the consistently sound drafting by Ballard and his staff. Head coach Frank Reich and his staff continue to develop the young talent and the Colts are building quite the program overall. By the way, Ballard is already loaded with nine draft picks in the 2020 Draft, including an additional second rounder.