Who the hell is Mel Kiper?
Even after all of these years, I think is a fair question. He certainly spends a great deal of time focusing on the NFL Draft and was able to help spearhead what is one of the most active parts of the NFL off-season but even the most informed draft analysts and prognosticators have a relatively low batting averages in their predictions. Regardless, Kiper follows up each NFL Draft by assigning grades and re-assesses those grade a year later. This year he revisited the Colts 2017 NFL Draft and lowered his grade from a “B” to a “C+.”
The Colts had one of the league’s worst rosters from top to bottom when GM Chris Ballard took over last year, and he made a ton of changes. Coming off a 4-12 season, they still have one of the league’s worst rosters, and there’s a long way to go to rebuild it. They went defense-heavy early in this draft, but injuries hurt them. Safety Malik Hooker had three interceptions in seven games before tearing his ACL and MCL in his right knee. Cornerback Quincy Wilson had an interception but missed nine games with a knee injury.
It is certainly fair to admit that Chris Ballard inherited a roster in 2017 that required a lot of attention. Filling all of the team’s holes in one draft or off-season was certainly not a realistic expectation and he also started with one arm behind his back because he inherited a lame duck coaching staff with offensive and defensive philosophies that were not representative of his vision for the roster. Throw in that Andrew Luck had shoulder surgery and would not take a snap and you had the perfect backdrop for underachievement.
One interesting portion of Kiper’s analysis regarding Ballard’s top two draft picks is that he acknowledges injuries that kept them from making a bigger impact on the field but he otherwise makes little commentary about their performance when they were on the field. While Malik Hooker’s three interceptions in seven games discusses his statistical impact, the reality is that he should have never fallen to the 15th overall pick and, injury or no, that should be factored into his new draft grade.
Additionally, Quincy Wilson stepped immediately into action and performed well early in the season. What followed is one of the strangest circumstances I have ever watched with an early draft pick. A player whose in-game performances supported more playing time and chances to develop was held out of the active lineup for weeks and was consistently challenged by the coaching staff as not performing well enough in specific scenarios during practice to dress during the games.
Unfortunate for the previous coaching regime, when injuries forced them to put Wilson back into action, he again performed well on the field — particularly for a rookie who had half of the season robbed from him. At this time, there isn’t any reason to not feel confident in Wilson’s future at the position.
The other notable contributors all came on Day 3 or were undrafted: Running back Marlon Mack had three touchdowns but averaged only 3.8 yards per carry. Cornerbacks Nate Hairston and Kenny Moore combined for 68 tackles, two interceptions and nine pass breakups, and Hairston was the primary nickel corner. Grover Stewart, a 333-pound plugger, had 23 tackles in limited snaps. Offensive lineman Deyshawn Bond, linebacker Anthony Walker and tight end Darrell Daniels also made starts.
As you can see, this isn’t a star-studded class, and there are still some unknowns about their late picks. Were they playing because of injuries or are they legitimate future starters or rotation pieces?
Once again, Kiper peppers his commentary with statistics but brings nothing of value in terms of evaluation. It is certainly fair to say that Mack’s rookie season was not particularly flashy but it is also fair to recognize that the Colts were one of the most predictable offenses in the NFL last season. Long story short, a little analysis and knowledge of what happened on the football field and how it might have impacted the performance of a rookie running back like Mack indicates that simply throwing out rushing numbers is a poor foundation for grading or evaluation.
As for the remainder of the analysis, it is difficult to get a gauge of what Kiper’s expectations would be for draft picks in later rounds. Nate Hairston was a fifth round pick and was a full year starter at nickel, meaningful contributions from Kenny Moore -- even as a late-season starter, and Grover Stewart working into a meaningful rotation on the defensive interior with veterans Al Woods, Johnathan Hankins, and Hassan Ridgeway all ahead of him seem like wins at their draft positions.
While it is is also certainly fair to recognize that Tarell Basham under-performed, Anthony Walker Jr. didn’t make a meaningful impact, and that Zach Banner didn’t even make the starting roster, it seems like there is a pretty shallow analysis of the players who did make an impact in Kiper’s re-grade.
While Malik Hooker was injured, he lived up to his draft billing and if he can complete a fully recovery from his ACL and MCL tears, still projects to be a ball hawking center fielder in the Colts new look defense. Quincy Wilson wasn’t given many opportunities from his coaching staff but used the chances he did receive to make a positive impression and should also be seen as a positive upside player heading into 2018. Hairston far exceeded any meaningful expectations when he entered the season as the starter at the nickel position and had a dominant performance that challenged the record books with no touchdowns allowed in over 214 coverage snaps.
Ultimately, getting 3 defensive players who are projected starters from the draft and a running back who broke some big plays in limited work behind a future Hall of Fame veteran like Frank Gore isn’t a bad haul. Only one draft pick flamed out entirely, one pick under-performed but projects to benefit from the switch in defensive philosophy as a hand in the dirt defensive end (Basham), numerous players were limited by injuries including linebacker Anthony Walker, and Grover Stewart played at about the level expected given his draft position.
If I am re-grading the Colts draft I still think B is appropriate. Absent injuries it could have been even better and I think the secondary in particular could be heavily influenced by this draft. Wilson, Hairston, and Hooker are all likely starters in 2018 who have showed reasons to believe that they can help provide a foundation for the team’s future on the defensive back-end. Mack is the type of dynamic running back who should benefit considerably with an up-tempo, no huddle style of offense that will wear down defenders. The future with this group is still bright.