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Re-Grading Chris Ballard’s 2017 Draft Class

Kansas City Chiefs v Pittsburgh Steelers

It wasn’t pretty, but if nothing else, the 2017 season got us on the road to what we hope is a better future. With a high draft pick and a new coaching staff to guide and direct this team, hopes are high that the Colts can have a big turnaround season in 2018.

What I wanted to do while the season is still fresh in my mind, is to take another look at Chris Ballard’s first draft class and re-grade the players after having seen them for a season. Keep in mind that one season simply is not enough to determine how good a player can be, but we now have actual football in the books to help us identify areas where Ballard did well or failed.

So without further ado, let’s dive in.

1st round, 15th overall: Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Malik Hooker looked like a steal when he fell to the Colts at 15, and his play, once he hit the field, reinforced that notion. Despite only playing 7 games before going down with a torn ACL, Hooker made his presence felt in the form of 3 interceptions, 4 passes defended, and 22 total tackles.

His play was not perfect, but in a position that can be tough on rookies and supported by young and inexperienced defensive backs, Hooker showed he has what it takes to be a serious impact player on the Colts defense. His recovery from the ACL tear will be critical, but there is every reason to believe that Ballard made the right call selecting him at this spot and it will be exciting to see Hooker paired with Clayton Geathers when he is back to full strength.

Initial Grade: A+

New Grade: A

2nd round, 46th overall: Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida

Houston Texans v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Wilson is a guy who rankled many of us who study film and are passionate about this team. To all who watched him play the Cardinals it appeared that he was a stud waiting to break out. I broke down his game snap-by-snap here and could not have been more excited about a player’s future.

Then an injury hampered him for a game or two, and afterward, he was relegated to being a healthy scratch for most of the season. When injuries at the cornerback position finally forced the issue and he was allowed back on the field, Wilson showed again that ability that we thought might be there. He remains a great mystery of this season to me.

Was his absence from the field really about his attitude in practice? If that is true, it is possible that this is an issue that needs addressing. However, when asked directly why he wasn’t playing, Wilson showed the maturity not to spout off about it like you might expect a petulant player who cannot behave in practice might do.

Regardless, Wilson looks set to be a major contributor on the defensive side of the ball, and if the Colts see him take a big leap in ability from year one to year two like many cornerbacks do, he could be a major asset for a long time to come. However, missing that much playing time while healthy costs him at least a little in the grades, even if it does seem like a Pagano problem.

Initial Grade: A+

New Grade: B+

3rd round, 80th overall: Tarell Basham, EDGE, Ohio

NFL: OCT 29 Colts at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Basham came in as a lesser known player who faced tough odds for success. Coming out of Ohio against MAC competition to be pitted against NFL caliber offensive tackles was, as Chris Shepherd puts it, “Like going from kindergarten to Harvard in a week and a half.” That is about how it looked on the field as well.

Basham struggled to make an impact this season when up against guys who he was not athletically superior to. That doesn’t mean he will not have an opportunity to grow and improve, but he did not jump off the screen like the kind of pass rusher the Colts were hoping for.

Initial Grade: B+

New Grade: C

4th round, 137th overall: Zach Banner, OT, USC

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Indianapolis Colts Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Banner is a bit of a black mark on Ballard’s first draft, while in many ways clearly demonstrating one of the things about Chris Ballard that I admire the most. Ballard is not afraid to admit a miss and move on. That is good because Banner is a total miss. His measurables prompted the pick in the fourth round, and he was unable to make the final 53-man roster. In a season where the Colts could desperately have used help on the offensive line, they did not get it here.

Initial Grade: C+

New Grade: F

4th round, 143rd overall: Marlon Mack, RB, South Florida

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Marlon Mack was viewed by many as a very good get for the Colts as a 4th rounder. Recently the idea of taking a running back in the first couple rounds has had a bit of a renaissance, but the Colts held off and grabbed Mack with the 143rd pick to a lot of positive feedback.

I will be the first to admit to being a little bit of a Mack fanboy from day one. His speed, fluid cuts, and big-time playmaking ability immediately tantalized me in a way no player apart from T.Y. Hilton and Andrew Luck has been able to on this Colts roster in a long while. One of the primary knocks on Mack held true all season. He likes to break the ball outside, and that doesn’t work as well in the NFL. It is hard to fault him for that when the offensive line rarely actually opened up holes for him up the middle, but all the same, he will need to grow there.

Additionally, Mack struggled to pass protect well, and that is a sure fire way to get benched on any NFL team. However, it would be unfair to critique Mack for the shortcomings of an unimaginative offense that severely underutilized him, and a quarterback who cannot throw a screen pass to save his life. It is highly possible that getting Andrew Luck back and adding a quality offensive mind to the coaching staff will mean that Marlon Mack has a breakout sophomore season, given the successes he found despite his circumstances.

Initial Grade: A

New Grade: B

4th round, 144th overall: Grover Stewart, DT, Albany State

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

Grover Stewart joined a Colts roster in the spot where it might have been the most difficult to make a huge impact. The Colts’ defensive line was a point of strength this season, and that made Stewart’s job a tough one. The jury is still out on Stewart. He did not wow anyone or prove to be something we were not expecting. It also isn’t fair to say he was a total failure because it is expected that a 4th round pick will perform largely in a depth role at least for a while.

Next season will be an important one for him, as the Colts will need improvement in their depth on the defensive line so they avoid those late-game collapses we saw so much of this season when the first stringers wore out from overuse.

Initial Grade: C

New Grade: C-

5th round, 158th overall: Nate Hairston, CB, Temple

Indianapolis Colts v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

Nate Hairston is Chris Ballard’s steal of the draft. Hairston started at the nickel cornerback position from day one, and while that speaks to some degree about the dearth of talent at the cornerback position, Hairston was up to the task. He notched an interception, 3 passes defended, and 30 solo tackles in his role.

According to PFF, Hairston by week 10 had 214 coverage snaps from the slot and had not allowed a touchdown. In 12 years prior, only one other corner had accomplished that. Tyrann Mathieu. That is rarified air, folks. Hairston was not perfect, but he proved a capable player who is up for just about whatever is thrown at him, including getting a couple of sacks when used in the blitz. As good as he was this season, it will be truly exciting to see his potential given another year of experience.

Initial Grade: C+

New Grade: A

5th round, 161st overall: Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Baltimore Ravens Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

This was a tough first season for Anthony Walker. He probably could have walked into the room and had a starting spot handed to him given the glaring weakness of the inside linebacker position. However, a hamstring injury kept him laid up for nearly all of his rookie season. He did not see a defensive snap until week 15 against the Broncos.

Given such a small sample size of play, it is tough to evaluate him fully. With so little competition in the room, it is a shame he was kept out by a soft tissue injury, and we can only hope he will be at full health and can stay healthy enough to determine what he brings to the table next season.

Initial Grade: B+

New Grade: C+

Overall Draft

To speak plainly, Chris Ballard’s first draft was more good than bad. He added playmakers and starters on the defensive side of the ball, and an explosive offensive talent in Marlon Mack who, given the right offensive mind, could be a major playmaker. He also completely whiffed on Zach Banner, which hurts.

Given that it is his first draft with the team, it is hard to really judge him too harshly, because he was not involved in bringing in the scouting and evaluating staff who he then had to work with to form their draft plan. That will be on full display this year. Also, it is still really early to make judgments on a player’s success or failure.

In another season we may see players break out who we do not expect, or see players plateau who we expected would continue to grow. Overall, the Colts have to be pleased with how this draft turned out and the production they were able to get from it. If they are able to have the same kind of success in the coming draft they will be likely to make a fast turnaround indeed.

Initial Grade: A

New Grade: B-