Successful teams build through the draft. That isn’t a confusing concept in any way. When a team can fill their roster with inexpensive young talent, they are able to build a more competitive team for the long haul. What is critical though, is that if you throw all your eggs into the basket of building in the draft and forego expensive free agent options, you have to hit in the draft.
Former GM Ryan Grigson was making the calls in the draft from 2012-2016. From 5 drafts, there are now just 8 players who remain on the Colts’ roster:
Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Clayton Geathers, Denzelle Good, Ryan Kelly, Le’Raven Clark, Hassan Ridgeway, and Joe Haeg.
Of those 8 players, only Luck, Hilton, and Kelly could be considered difference makers and bona fide starters. The remaining guys are average players. That kind of hit rate is debilitating, so it isn’t hard to see why the Colts’ roster was awful.
GM Chris Ballard has two drafts under his belt, and while it is way too early to have a real read on this 2018 draft class, we are going to run through it and grade out this years’ picks based on their performance to the halfway point of the season. We will revisit this again at the end of the season, but even then it will be too soon to tell what we’ve got exactly. Let’s get to it.
1st round, 6th overall: Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
Chris Ballard worked a pretty great trade early in the offseason to move back 3 spots and send the Jets their 3rd overall pick. That left them picking at 6th overall, but got them 2 2nd round picks from the Jets in the 2018 draft and one in the 2019 draft as well.
Even better, when the Colts time to pick arrived, there sat Quenton Nelson, who many had graded as the top talent in the draft. Ballard took him with a grin on his face and slotted in a player who has helped immediately turn the tide on an offensive line that has been struggling since the Manning Era.
All Nelson has done since joining the Colts is become the first guard ever to win the Rookie Offensive Player of the Month award, and help lead the Colts to a renewed running game and limit the team’s sacks allowed to just 10 on the season. To compare, through 8 games last season, they had allowed 32.
The point is, Quenton Nelson has been a major addition to an offensive line that was in desperate need of help, and he has excelled against top defensive players consistently.
2nd round, 36th overall: Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State
What more is there to say about Darius Leonard that both local and national media alike haven’t said already? He has been absolutely incredible. Despite missing a game this season, Leonard still leads the league in tackles, and the next closest guy is 12 behind him. He has shown improvement week-to-week, infused a new attitude into the defense, and has 3 forced fumbles which have been difference making plays, the most recent of which helped close out their last road game and allowed them to finish with the win.
Leonard has been a near total surprise for everyone not in the Colts scouting room. He is the kind of player on a defense that can give them an identity and that a team can rally around. At just 23 years old, the Colts have gotten a guy who gives their defense some teeth and solidifies a position that seemed during the offseason to be almost certainly the weakest position group on the roster. This was a coup for Ballard.
2nd round, 37th overall: Braden Smith, G, Auburn
There may have been some who were shocked when the Colts doubled down on their offensive line again, but Chris Ballard was determined to keep his franchise quarterback on his feet, and selected Braden Smith next. Smith was considered by some to be the second highest guard in the draft behind only Nelson, so his acquisition seemed like a huge infusion of talent at the interior of the Colts’ offensive line.
Oddly, once training camp began, we started seeing Braden Smith taking snaps at right tackle. At first, this was a point of concern. The Colts’ tackle positions started the season ravaged by injuries. As the season got under way, that situation deteriorated further as J’Marcus Webb, Denzelle Good, and Joe Haeg were all lost to injuries either temporarily or for the season. Smith came in and played well, earning himself the starting position, and grading out as a solid right tackle so far. This is another big win for the team.
2nd round, 52nd overall: Kemoko Turay, DE, Rutgers
Colts fans were desperately hoping Ballard could bring in a difference making edge rusher to improve a defense that had gotten almost no pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Kemoko Turay has so far looked as though he could be a guy to do exactly that. Through the midpoint of the season, Turay has the second most quarterback pressures of the 2018 draft class with 25. The only player with more is Bradley Chubb with 32. The difference? Chubb has played 31% more snaps than Turay.
Turay needs to develop, to be sure. He has the raw ability and needs to hone and perfect his craft so that those pressures start turning to sacks. He did, however, have a sack/fumble against the Bills that was reminiscent of the days of Robert Mathis. The Colts will need to continue to add talent up front, but Turay has a bright future ahead if he continues to grow as a player. Regardless, getting immediate production of any kind from a rookie is a positive.
2nd round, 64th overall: Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State
Tyquan Lewis spent the first half of the season on IR with a toe injury. He will look to return for the back half of the schedule, and will make his debut sometime after the bye week.
4th round, 104th overall: Nyheim Hines, RB, NC State
Nyheim Hines wasn’t drafted to be the lead running back on the Colts roster. He was drafted to be a shifty change of pace back who could work great out of the backfield on third downs where they needed a good pass protecting back and a weapon in the passing game. That’s exactly what they have gotten out of him so far this season. Hines has found a successful role in the offense and provides a valuable weapon situationally. Look for his role to continue to grow as he develops.
5th round, 159th overall: Reece Fountain, WR, Northern Iowa
Chris Ballard seems to have missed on this selection. Reece Fountain has insane athletic ability and at this point in the draft, it is understandable why you might take a shot on a guy like that.
It is not as though it is uncommon to miss at this stage. The Colts have spent this season cycling 5th round picks from 2016 and 2017 from other teams off and onto their practice squad. When your chances of hitting on a guy who will succeed are lower with each round, I am okay taking a shot on a guy with crazy athleticism and hoping he can develop.
It seems however, that Fountain is either too raw or perhaps simply doesn’t have what it takes to take the next step. He is signed to the Colts’ practice squad, so hope is not totally lost that he could get better, but given the likelihood of the Colts adding several receivers in the coming offseason, the prospects aren’t good.
5th round, 169th overall: Jordan Wilkins, RB, Ole Miss
Jordan Wilkins is pretty much exactly what you hope for when you pick a running back at this point in the draft. He has great vision and balance, and the guy nearly always is good for positive yards. He lacks the explosiveness that Hines or Mack have, which likely limits his touches, but if you need a guy to get yards when your lead backs need a breather, Wilkins is ready to contribute. He is a solid depth player and could even stand to be used more by the Colts down the stretch.
6th round, 185th overall: Deon Cain, WR, Clemson
Deon Cain was the Colts’ training camp darling. He was a highlight reel at every practice and had fans really excited to see how he looked when the games began. Unfortunately, he was lost to an ACL tear in the preseason. Hopefully he can pick up where he left off last season.
7th round, 221st and 235th overall: Matthew Adams, LB, Houston and Zaire Franklin, LB, Syracuse
You just don’t expect much from players who are picked in the 7th round, certainly not as rookies. However, Adams and Franklin have both been getting some time with the defense, whether it be in sub packages or due to injuries.
More importantly, both play solid roles on special teams, which is exactly what 7th round picks should do. These guys aren’t world beaters, and whether they ever develop into more significant role players or not is not of the utmost importance. What matters is that at this stage, they are meeting expectations for guys picked here, and they addressed a needy position on the roster as well.
It is really early, far too early to make real judgement about this class long term. Having said that, it appears that Chris Ballard absolutely crushed this draft. Even assuming that Tyquan Lewis and Deon Cain don’t ever amount to anything, getting the level of talent and product they’ve already seen out of their rookie class is huge.
With just his first and second round picks, Ballard looks to have found more difference makers than Grigson did in all his 5 years in Indy, and that gives Grigson credit for Luck, which seems generous. That is a pretty encouraging thing to look to as this team goes forward.