No introduction needed.
1: Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame
Though he might not be the popular pick at the moment, I have fairly comfortably settled in to Quenton Nelson as my top target for the Colts. In terms of skill, Nelson presents both the surest thing and perhaps the highest upside of anyone in this class. Though I am not going to pretend like I am an expert on scouting collegiate interior offensive linemen, it’s close to impossible not to recognize the quality of prospect Nelson assures to be.
The main reason I see people shy away from Nelson is the position that he plays and the stigma that surrounds it; you don’t take offensive guards top 10. Though this was true for a time, we are seeing a trend across the league that is challenging this.
The best way to truly judge the value of a position is to look at the second contracts that players at that position tend to receive. Over the past few offseasons, we have seen offensive guards getting serious pay days after their initial rookie contract expires. This list includes Kelechi Osmele (5 years, $59 million), Joel Bitonio (5 years, $48 million) Kevin Zeitler (5 years, $60 million), and most recently Andrew Norwell (5 years, $67 million), while guards like Brandon Scherff and Zack Martin are next in line to break the bank.
Nelson is the type of prospect who could easily ascend to the All-Pro level of the guys on this list and do so relatively quickly. Though it might not be the sexiest pick, it’s just not particularly accurate to say that a guard is not worth such a high pick when you see the size of the second contract guys are getting, and the quality of player you’re getting certainly makes up for the downside of not targeting a defensive player.
2: Derwin James, S, Florida State
Speaking of defenders, Derwin James comes in on the top of a long list of top defensive targets in this class. Though safety isn’t the Colts’ biggest need, Derwin, in my estimation, is a special prospect who transcends drafting for need, especially when the top players at the Colts’ positions of need, though solid, aren’t especially special.
There is perhaps nobody more fun to watch in this class than James. He has everything you could want in a strong safety: elite athleticism (40” vertical!), versatile in coverage situations, excellent as a blitzer, hard-hitting, and full of swagger and leadership on an off the field. He perfectly fits the profile of what NFL teams are looking for in strong safeties (think Harrison Smith) and is a perfect complement to the skill set of Malik Hooker. James’ medical concern might give teams some pause, but assuming he passes medical checks, I see no reason he shouldn’t be regarded as the top defensive prospect in this draft.
Oh, and a quick thing. If you are citing Clayton Geathers as a reason not to add a player of James’ caliber to a defense completely devoid of talent of James’ caliber, I have a bridge I’d love to sell you. Geathers is a nice player, but he’s played 14 games over the past two years, and even when he’s on the field, he just can’t measure up to James’ pure talent.
3: Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College
Landry is the first player in the next tier on my big board. Though he is certainly not the consensus top EDGE, he barely beats out the No. 4 player on my board for that distinction. Landry has been overlooked throughout the draft process due to an underwhelming 2017 season, but if one chooses to overlook this season due to the fact that Landry was dealing with an ankle injury throughout the season that understandably hampered his play, you’re left with a prototypical top-10 edge rushing prospect.
The first thing that stands out about Harold Landry on tape is his pure explosiveness. Turn on the tape against Wake Forest or Maryland and you see a player who just moves at a different gear than anyone else on the field. This athleticism was supported by his combine performance, in which Landry posted excellent marks in the 40, 3-cone, and vertical jump — drills that correlate to speed, agility, and explosion respectively, all key traits for a traditional speed rusher.
Landry isn’t a good player against the run at this point, but that’s not what you’re drafting him for. You’re drafting him for his combination of pass-rushing acumen and athleticism that gives him the upside of a double-digit sack pass rusher, something the Colts have been looking for since Robert Mathis retired.
4: Bradley Chubb, EDGE, North Carolina State
Just under Landry comes Bradley Chubb, the media’s consensus No. 1 defensive prospect in this draft. Chubb is the last player among this group that I would feel really good about at pick No. 6. Though he doesn’t present the same athletic upside as a speed rusher that Landry does, Chubb is infinitely better already as a run defender and is still a good pass rushing prospect thanks to his decent initial explosion and strength to cross his blocker’s face and get to the quarterback. Chubb is going to be a very good starter in the NFL, and though you’d ideally like a bit more upside with such a high pick, Chubb’s safeness as a prospect makes him an attractive option at 6 if he’s somehow still available.
5: Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State
At the beginning of my next tier is the top cornerback on my board, Denzel Ward. He is the clear top corner prospect in this year’s draft, possessing an impressive combination of explosive athleticism and strong skills in coverage. Ohio State’s defense last year was largely reliant on Ward’s ability to hold up on an island in man-to-man coverage against the offense’s No. 1 WR, and he thrived in that role all year. Though Ward’s strengths are in man coverage and the Colts are shifting to a zone-based scheme, he has all the tools necessary to make such a shift and has the talent to easily justify a selection in the top 10 no matter what scheme you’re playing.
6: Roquan Smith, LB, Georgia
At No. 6 is Roquan Smith, the player I think is most likely to be a Colt by the end of Thursday night. When it comes to Smith as a prospect, the only area of concern I have with him is the position he plays. Traditional linebackers are becoming less and less valuable, but Smith has the athletic ability to thrive in the passing/space-oriented game the NFL has become. As a linebacking prospect, Smith is phenomenal, the best I’ve evaluated since I started seriously scouting prospects in 2014.
He possesses everything you could want in a linebacker prospect, and though he could get a bit more stout when he’s run at, that weaknesses will be hidden a bit when he’s placed as a WILL. Though Smith wouldn’t be my favorite pick for the team, on a team desperate for talent and leadership out of their front seven, Smith would immediately change the culture and complexion of the defense, something that can’t be said for most other players in this class.
7: Leighton Vander Esch, LB, Boise State
Tier 4 is the list of players I’d be underwhelmed with at 6, but pretty happy about after a trade down. At the top of that list has to be Leighton Vander Esch, my absolute favorite prospect in this draft. I’ve talked about LVE pretty extensively on the Colts Bros Podcast, but the SparkNotes version is that Vander Esch was a top 10 player on my board BEFORE his Earth-shattering combine performance.
His athleticism is exceptional, and unlike a certain other athletic freak who I’ll touch on a bit later, he’s actually a really good linebacker. He plays with confidence, good read-and-react ability, and with solid gap discipline, not to mention the fact that he’s the best coverage linebacker in this entire defense. He’s not quite the playmaker of a guy like Roquan Smith, but his combination of athletic upside and an already strong linebacking skill set makes him a very strong LB2 and a strong pick if the team trades down.
8: Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State
Rounding out my list of the “premium prospects” in this draft is perhaps the top-rated player on most peoples’ big boards, RB Saquon Barkley. There’s not too much to say here that hasn’t already been said. Saquon is an awesome prospect. Is he the best running back in the world? No; I’d say he’s not even the best runner in this class. But the reason a team would take Barkley with a top-10 pick is what he can do in the passing and return game.
Barkley’s athletic ability and shiftiness shines as a pass catcher, and with the prominence of passing in the NFL today, that is becoming a more and more essential and useful skill from the running back position.
But that being said, the reason Barkley is so low on this list comes down to the position he plays. There are a million studies put together by people much smarter than me that show mathematically that, in most cases, running backs are overdrafted and not worth a first-round pick (check out Ben Baldwin for more on this). Running just isn’t valuable in the NFL today, and a player whose primary skill is to run is inherently going to have diminished worth. Barkley has all the skills to be the exception to this trend, and that’s the reason he’s on this list at all.
Notable Omission: Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech
The one guy not on this list I wanted to touch on is Tremaine Edmunds, one of the players I’ve see most mocked to the Colts. The Edmunds-Colts connection was also brought up on the Colts Bros Podcast, in which Stephen Holder speculated the Colts could have interest in Edmunds with their first-round pick.
If this ends up being the pick, I will be very disappointed, to say the least. As I mentioned when discussing Roquan Smith, I’m not in love with the prospect of taking a linebacker with a pick as high as No. 6. But at least, if you were to pick Smith, you’d be getting a good linebacker prospect. Edmunds is currently the fifth LB on my board, and comfortably behind the top 4 (Smith, Vander Esch, Rashaan Evans, Shaquem Griffin).
Edmunds certainly has the ideal size, age, and athletic profile for the position, but he frankly isn’t good at anything that linebackers need to be good at. Could that change? Sure. Edmunds has crazy upside due to his athleticism, but that much of a projection, especially at a position so reliant on fundamentals as a linebacker, isn’t worth a pick in the first round, let alone the top 6.
Who do you think the Colts will draft with their first round pick? Who do you want them to take? Let me know in the comments or hit me on twitter, @__AlexJacobson