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Examining The Colts’ Ideal Draft Strategy

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NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

“Best. Player. Available.”

It’s a phrase that is beaten into the brains of anybody who even begins to follow the NFL draft. Draft writers and TV pundits will preach this simple philosophy until there’s nobody left to hear it. And it makes sense. Drafting the best player available is never a bad idea; you’re adding the best possible talent, at least in your estimation, to your team, and talent is never a bad thing.

“Don’t draft for need.”

This is the logical followup to “Best player available.” This one’s never made much sense to me. Ignoring your team’s holes for slightly better talent, when the odds that you’ve even evaluated the talent correctly to begin with are incredibly low, just seems illogical. Now, does this mean the Colts, a team at least somewhat set at safety, should pass on Malik Hooker, the top safety in the draft, to take the best edge rusher left on the board, even if that player is considered a third round talent?

Of course not. Teams obviously shouldn’t draft entirely based off of need or entirely based off of talent, and you don’t need me to tell you that. The sweet spot lies somewhere in the middle, considering need, value, and the depth at the position later in the draft. However, there’s one additional aspect of draft strategy that is often forgotten: historical context. If you examine historical trends of draft success and find any sort of correlation, that’s absolutely something you should be considering when deciding who to draft when and when to draft who.

Luckily for us, Zach Whitman of 3sigmaathlete.com has done that research, and found those correlations. In his 2015 article “Position-Based Value Drafting,” Whitman examined the correlation between player success and what round they were drafted in based on position.

Offensive Value Chart
@ZJWhitman
Defensive Value Chart

Essentially, the higher the Marginal AV3, the more a position has outperformed the expectations of the round, and vise versa. In the 7th round, spend your picks on corners and offensive linemen rather than tight ends or defensive line, spend your 5th round picks on edge rushers rather than wide receivers, etc.

Taking the concepts of need, talent, and position-based value drafting, let’s examine what an ideal draft strategy for the Colts could look like.

Lets start by actually laying out what the team’s needs are. I’m going to break this into two categories: hard needs (ones without a clear/good starter going into 2017) and soft needs (ones where talent is needed for the future and/or for depth).

Hard Needs

Running Back: Yes, the Colts still have Frank Gore. But here’s the thing about Frank gore: he’s washed. Gore couldn’t produce behind an offensive line that had the third best offensive line in the league in adjusted line yards, according to Football Outsiders. In simpler terms, the offensive line was creating holes for Gore, and Gore couldn’t take advantage. The Colts desperately need someone who can do just that.

Best value-based target rounds: 1, 3

Inside Linebacker: After bringing in Sean Spence this offseason, the Colts at least now have two somewhat-respectable bodies manning the middle. But based on Spence’s limits and what we saw from Antonio Morrison during his rookie year, banking on both to be starter-caliber players next season is slightly ridiculous. An inside linebacker taken on either day one or day two would likely come in and start right away, and one on day three would still have a chance to contribute right away, which is a clear indictment on the unit as currently constructed.

Best value-based target rounds: 1, 2, 4, 7

Edge Rusher: Though after the additions of Jabaal Sheard and John Simon it doesn’t technically fit the definition of a hard need, anyone who has followed the NFL and specially followed the Colts know how important it is to have a plethora of capable edge rushers in a unit. Simon and Sheard are a definite upgrade, but neither are “the guy” at edge rusher. The Colts could find “the guy” in the first round if everything breaks right for them, but even an investment in a rotational pass rusher later in the draft would be well worth it.

Best value-based target rounds: 3, 4, 5, 6

Cornerback: Though it probably was prior to this point, the release of Patrick Robinson easily makes cornerback the Colts’ biggest need coming into the draft. Vontae Davis is declining, Rashaan Melvin is a decent player but certainly not a starter, and there’s legitimately nobody on the roster even close to being fit to start at nickel corner. The Colts desperately need a corner in this draft, if not multiple. Expect them to consider CB everywhere from their first pick on day one until their last pick on day three.

Best value-based target rounds: 1, 2, 7

Soft Needs

Wide Receiver/Tight End: Though wide receiver and tight end are certainly not the same position, the type of player the Colts would be looking at either position are very similar. Though the team brought in Kamar Aiken, the team could still use another big target for Andrew Luck, be that in the form of a flex tight end or a bigger wide receiver.

Best value-based target rounds: WR: 2, 3, 7 TE: 1, 2, 6

Right Guard: The Colts are set at center and on the left side of their offensive line. On the right side, things get a bit more complicated. Joe Haeg and La’Raven Clark are penciled in as the starters at right guard and right tackle respectively at the moment, but based on their play from last season, it’s a little foolish to bank on either, let alone both of them being ready for a starting role in 2017. A high investment at right guard would push Haeg to right tackle, his more natural position, and let him and Clark compete for the starting spot. A mid to low-round right would at worst add depth to the offensive line, and at best add a potential starter down the line or potentially even this upcoming season.

Best value-based target rounds: 2, 3, 6, 7

Defensive Line: The Colts saw the defensive line go from a hard need to a soft need the moment they signed Jonathan Hankins to a three year, $30 million dollar deal. Hankins gives the Colts a potentially dominant presence at what was before perhaps the weakest spot on the team: nose tackle. But even still, the team needs guys up front. Kendall Langford can only last so long, so a future replacement at 5 tech would be a worthwhile investment. Depth behind Henry Anderson at three tech would be more than welcome as well. You need depth on the defensive line, perhaps more than any position, and the Colts are seriously lacking that as currently constructed.

Best value-based target rounds: 5, 6

Using the best rounds to target each position we come up with this matrix:

So now it’s left for us, the hypothetical GM of the Colts, to piece together the draft strategy. Right off the bat the Colts don’t have a 6th or 7th round pick, so we can’t wait until then to address any of the hard needs. The depth at inside linebacker this year, to put it kindly, is bad, and there’s nobody who will be available in the first round who would be worth using that high of a pick on. Based on that, lets pencil in inside linebacker as the second round pick.

Penciling in inside linebacker creates a chain reaction. Cornerback must be the first round pick since the team has no 7th round pick. Running back goes to the third round. Edge rusher goes to the fourth, and defensive line goes to the 5th, and we end with something like this:

Using this, and projections from nfldraftscout.com, let’s make a mock.

Round 1 (Pick 15): Gareon Conley, CB, Ohio State

Gareon Conley has had one of the better draft cycles of any player in this class. Due to an exceptional and somewhat unexpected combine, Conley has risen right into the first round discussion. And it’s not like his tape doesn’t match that. Conley has prototypical size at 6’0” 195, with good length. He has excellent ball skills and can shadow opposing receivers in man coverage. Opposing quarterbacks only had a 14.0 passer rating when throwing at Conley in 2016, good for best in the coverage. Though he doesn’t get the hype as his teammate Marshon Lattimore, Conley definitely has the skills to be a very good starter in the league and is well worth a first round pick.

Other Potential Cornerback Targets: Chidobe Awuzie (Colorado), Kevin King (Washington), Marlon Humphrey (Alabama)

Round 2 (Pick 46): Raekwon McMillan, ILB, Ohio State

Raekwon McMillan marks the second Ohio State defender in this mock in as many picks. Like Conley, McMillan tested surprisingly well at the combine, which combined with excellent production and good tape, makes him an ideal second round pick. McMillan is a thumper, but he’s not just limited to that. He’s a capable player as the hook zone defender in a cover one, Chuck Pagano’s favorite defense. He’s a disciplined player against the run who stays in position but can also explode to make plays a break up runs before they get going. He might not have the upside as a Haason Reddick or Rueben Foster, but he should be able to come in and contribute as a starter right off the bat, something the Colts are absolutely desperate for at linebacker.

Other Potential Linebacker Targets: Duke Riley (LSU), TJ Watt (Wisconsin), Jarrad Davis (Florida)

Round 3 (Pick 80): Marlon Mack, RB, USF

Marlon Mack was able to thrive in USF’s offense despite being surrounded by lackluster talent. Mack is a patient runner who both plays and tests like an excellent athlete. Mack has excellent initial burst and his long speed is just as impressive. He isn’t the most powerful guy out there, but he can finish runs well enough for a guy his size. He runs a little high, but his ability in both the athletic and intellectual facets of playing running back makes me think he can be a starter in this league.

Other Potential Running Back Targets: Joe Mixon (Oklahoma), Kareem Hunt (Toledo), Semaje Perine (Oklahoma)

Round 4 (Pick 121): Daeshon Hall, EDGE Texas A&M

Daeshon Hall was overshadowed by teammate Myles Garrett at Texas A&M, and for good reason. But Hall is a more than capable pass rusher in his own right. Hall tested very well, something that’s always important for edge rushers. Hall is a speed rusher with the ability to overpower smaller blockers and get around slower blockers. He’s raw, his pass rush moves are limited, but with the right development he could turn into a good player and provide the Colts some much needed pass rush.

Other Potential EDGE Targets: Vince Biegel (Wisconsin) Deatrich Wise Jr (Arkansas), Carrol Phillips (Illinois)

Round 4 (Pick 137): Nico Siragusa, OG, San Diego State

The Colts have an additional 4th round pick as a result of the Dwayne Allen trade, meaning they can invest in another position with a surplus of value in the fourth round. The only two that match the Colts needs are inside linebacker, which was already addressed with Raekwon McMillan in the second round, and edge rusher, which was taken earlier in the round with Daeshon Hall. Though another pass rusher wouldn’t hurt, we can instead turn to the offensive line; fourth round offensive linemen perform slightly above their expectations. In that case, Nico Siragusa would be a nice value selection. Siragusa is a very fluid athlete for a big man who keeps his chest clean and can finish blocks. Siragusa stays low and wins the leverage battle, and with some refinement to his strength and second-level ability, could be a starter in the future.

Other Potential Guard Targets: Zach Banner (USC), Jordan Morgan (Kutztown), Sean Harlow (Oregon State)

Round 4 (Pick 144): Dawaune Smoot, EDGE, Illinois

Another fourth round pick? Now it’s definitely time for another pass rusher. Dawaune Smoot is a strong end who is best with his hand in the dirt, something that won’t be a problem considering how often the Colts play with a four man front. Smoot can set the edge against the run and converts speed to power as a rusher. Smoot needs to learn something other than a dip, but he’s flashed the ability to be a quality edge player against both the run and the pass.

Other Potential EDGE Targets: Vince Biegel (Wisconsin) Deatrich Wise Jr (Arkansas), Carrol Phillips (Illinois)

Round 5 (Pick 160): Jarron Jones, DL, Notre Dame

To finish the mock up, the Colts get some much needed depth on the defensive line. Jarron Jones is a versatile player who could develop into a capable two-gapper and play anywhere 3-5. Jones has a good burst off the snap that makes him a disruptive force against the run and pass. He has excellent length, and if he can get better at splitting double teams and win the leverage battle more often, Jones could be a legitimate contributor to an NFL defense. There’s some concern with his desire and his medical, but if that checks out, Jones looks like a potential steal this late.

Other Potential Defensive Line Targets: Charles Walker (Oklahoma), Vincent Taylor (Oklahoma State), DeAngelo Brown (Louisville)

Any thoughts/questions on the article? Thoughts on the mock? Let me know in the comments or hit me on twitter, @AlexJacobson_.

Also another shoutout to Zach Whitman, read him on 3sigmaathlete and follow him on Twitter, @ZJWhitman