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The Best Indianapolis Colts Draft Picks: The Polian Years (part one)

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Continuing Stampede Blue's look at the best draft picks in Indianapolis Colts history, we now come to a period where six of the picks ended up being among the best in the history of the team--and some of the best in the entire NFL.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

It was commented after the last article (you did read it here, right?) that I ought to make options for second place in the poll, because it’s already a given that Peyton Manning will be given the nod for the best Bill Polian draft pick. Though that’s probably true, at least consider some of these others—some of whom were quite amazing value draft picks (check out the guy drafted in the fifth round back in 2003, for example). But, we’ll try to make the poll a little better this go round.

Bill and Chris Polian ran the Colts' draft room for 14 years (Bill from 1998-2009 and Chris from 2010-2011).  Rather than look at all 14 years in one article, we'll split it up into two 7-year sections.  Enjoy!

The 1998 Draft

Steve McKinney was a four-year starter on the O-line, E.G. Green played his heart out, but couldn’t stay on the field, and Jerome Pathon underachieved for his entire career. Honestly, if it wasn’t for the guy the Colts picked in the first round, Bill Polian’s 1998 draft would have been a massive dud.

But, of course, there he was, waiting to be taken #1 overall, and the Colts became a force to be reckoned with. I don’t need to rattle off his stats or defend his status as easily the best Colts draft pick that year—the best draft pick for any team for that matter. You know who he is.

Best pick of this draft: Peyton Manning

The 1999 Draft

Their 6th-round pick ended up being on the team for ten years—Hunter "the punter" Smith. Mike Peterson (round 2) had a few good years in Indy before moving on to Jacksonville. And Brandon Burlsworth tragically died in a car accident before the pre-season began. While these were decent picks, the absolute best one was viewed as a gamble by some, and complete stupidity by others. But Bill Polian knew what he was doing.

After trading Marshall Faulk (side note: trading Faulk for a 2nd and a 5th is among the stupidest decisions ever made by a Colts GM), Polian passed over Ricky Williams and drafted the coolest RB to ever play the game: Edgerrin James. What did Edge do to warrant being called the best Colts pick of this draft? Just this: he proved himself to be the best, most productive Indianapolis Colts running back EVER (check the link, it’s all there in black and white).

Best pick of this draft: Edgerrin James

The 2000 Draft

This draft wasn’t really that good at all. Rob Morris was a good linebacker, but Colts fans expected greatness from him since he was the first-round pick. He did, however, play his entire eight-year career in Indianapolis. David Macklin (round 3) was passable, but nothing worth making a fuss over. Marcus Washington (round 2) was a force to be reckoned with, but Polian let him walk after his rookie contract expired, so he was only with the team 4 seasons before moving on to Washington.

I keep going back and forth on this one. Marcus Washington was a better player, but it only lasted 4 years, whereas Rob Morris stuck around and played for all he was worth, even on special teams, for eight years (scoring one touchdown—that being on a blocked field goal attempt against the Titans). But Washington was a 2nd-round pick vs. Morris as a 1st. In the end, I think we have to go with the player who had the most impact, even though it was for a shorter period of time.

Best pick of this draft: Marcus Washington

The 2001 Draft

Rick DeMulling started for three years along the O-line, which is impressive considering he was a 7th-round pick. Ryan Diem started for his entire career (11 years) at right tackle for the Colts, and he was a 4th-round pick. If not for the WR chosen in the first round, Diem would be the obvious choice for best pick here.

But Reggie Wayne got picked. 6 Pro Bowls, 91 touchdowns, and 15,599 receiving yards (numbers include playoffs because those are games too). Many people questioned this pick when it was made, saying that the Colts didn’t need another WR. And after a disappointing rookie showing (27 catches on 49 targets, 345 yards, and no touchdowns), more people were joining the questioning. But we all know how this turned out. Yeah, it was worth it.

Best pick of this draft: Reggie Wayne

The 2002 Draft

I won’t even waste time here talking about David Thornton, the fourth-round pick who put up so-so numbers for four years, then later signed with the Titans. You don’t have to look beyond the Colts’ first round choice to know who the best of this pack was.

Dwight Freeney was considered "too small" by most draft "experts" to be drafted as early as he was. But for the fourth time in five years, Bill Polian absolutely nailed it with his first-round selection. Freeney played all 16 games as a rookie, but only started half of them. But he racked up 13 sacks and forced 9 fumbles. In his 11 years in Indianapolis, he recorded 107.5 sacks and 43 forced fumbles. The amazing thing about Freeney was that even though everyone knew that he was going to run a spin-move on his way to the QB, they still couldn’t keep him contained. Six Pro Bowls and three all-pro nods are just more evidence that this was the right pick.

Best pick of this draft: Dwight Freeney

The 2003 Draft

Things get interesting here, because there are two players with significant success in Indianapolis. Cato June put up some decent numbers for a couple years, but fizzled out. Mike Doss (2nd round safety) recorded six forced fumbles his first two seasons, and over the course of his 4-yearIndy career, he brought in 7 interceptions. But neither of these men are the ones under consideration.

Dallas Clark was the Colts’ first-round selection. And just like in 2001, there were some people who weren’t too happy with this pick. "We’ve got enough weapons on offense!" they cried out. But Clark to be worth that first-round selection, catching 491 passes for 5,734 yards and 50 touchdowns (these numbers include the playoffs). His best season (2009) saw him bring in 100 catches for 1106 yards and 10 touchdowns. To put this in perspective, Rob Gronkowski has never caught that many passes in a single season. So, this settles the matter of best pick, right? Not so fast.

The fifth round had begun, and the Colts didn’t pick until near the end. But Bill Polian had a surprise up his sleeve. He traded away the Colts 4th rounder in 2004 for an early 5th round pick in this draft. I want to go on record by saying "thank you" to the Houston Texans for trading their 2003 5th round pick so that the Colts could draft the man, the myth, the legend: Robert Mathis. You all know Mathis, the man who put up great stats "all because he was playing opposite Dwight Freeney." Except that Mathis continued to perform even after Freeney moved on to the Chargers. Their numbers are extremely similar:

Freeney

Mathis

Games (including playoffs)

180

181

Sacks

116.5

117.5

Forced Fumbles

43

52

Pro Bowls

6

5

All-Pro Selections

3

1

Why bring this up? Because Dwight Freeney gave that production as a first-rounder, Robert Mathis put up those numbers as a fifth-round pick. Both are great players, but the pick of Robert Mathis has to be considered the better value pick. And in 2003, as good as the Dallas Clark pick ended up being…

Best pick of this draft: Robert Mathis

The 2004 Draft

In the fifth round, the Colts selected Jake Scott, who spent four years as a starter on the Indianapolis O-line, so that’s a decent value pick. But in the sixth round, they selected a young quarterback out of Wisconsin, named Jim Sorgi. Yes, there was never much chance that he’d ever start (Peyton never got injured, after all), but Sorgi was a QB who showed he was capable of coming in and keeping the team in games. He was also Peyton Manning’s extra set of eyes, frequently alerting him to defensive scheme changes and mismatches which aided Peyton in knowing when to audible and what plays to switch to. It didn’t matter that he looked like Steve from Blue’s Clues, Jim Sorgi was a very good QB when he got to see the field. In extremely limited playing time, he went 99-156 (63.5% completion percentage) for 6 touchdowns, 1 interception and an 89.9 passer rating. It was the injury to Sorgi late in the season that caused Curtis Painter to play in the last two games in 2009 (the Colts’ only two losses that season…). In short, Sorgi was a great pick in the sixth round.

But let’s be realistic. Sorgi isn’t who we’re picking for the best choice in this draft. Nope, that honor goes to the first guy the Colts selected (after trading back out of the first-round). He was a vicious, punishing safety out of Iowa who caused Colts fans to cheer and opposing teams to worry. No, Bob Sanders never actually made it through an entire NFL season without an injury, but when he stepped on the field, he made a difference. Bob Sanders is one of those players where you have to say "the stats don’t tell the whole story." In his 7 years as a Colt, he only put up 6 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 217 tackles. But those tackles were magical and put fear into opposing offenses. There is a reason why he was named the 2007 Defensive Player of the Year. Even though he was often injured, there’s no doubt about this one:

Best pick of this draft: Bob Sanders

Who is your choice for best pick in the first 7 years of the Polian regime?

Other Articles in this series:

Part One: The Jim Irsay Years (1984-1993)

Part Two: The Bill Tobin Years (1994-1997)