After the draft, it’s easy to get swept up in the potential of the players that your team has chosen. However, in the name of objectivity, it’s important to set realistic expectations for those players. The truth is that they are in fact rookies. Not everybody is a quick learner, and not everybody is already used to the role they are supposed to play.
I wanted to incorporate general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich’s comments on these guys as much as possible, because they’re the ones whose thoughts and opinions on these players and position groups really matter.
Before getting into any specific players, here are some general comments the pair has made following the draft:
Early in the draft you’re looking for good starters, so we level our players. Like a ‘gold’ is a solid starter in the league. A ‘red’ is he’ll go to the Pro Bowl every once in a while, but he can make game-winning plays. And then a ‘blue,’ those are the game-changer type players. They can come at any positon, and you can get them in any round. I always laugh when everybody thinks the only place you can get blue players are in the top 10... I think it’s their makeup and looking for the right traits in players, the right athletic skill set and then the right fit with the scheme. That’s when players ascend.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that the players have to start right away, but they need to sooner than later. By “early in the draft” we’ll say that’s their first through third-round picks, which there were five.
Guys fall for whatever reason. They might be height-deficient. They might have had a bad senior season. They might be speed-deficient. They might not have fit good in the scheme in college that they were in. There are a lot of different reasons why guys fall. Some come from smaller schools. You just don’t know the reasons, but you’re looking for the right athletic skill set to fit. And then let us bring them here and try to bring their talent to life.
Just because players may have slipped to the later rounds of the draft doesn’t mean that they don’t have early-round talent. Keep that in mind when seeing guys drafted on Day 3 may become starters throughout the season. The Colts’ goal following the draft is making their systems easy enough for their new players to understand, and to teach and develop those players to their potential.
I’m very comfortable with the running-back-by-committee. I’m very comfortable with, ‘Hey, let’s compete and see who rises to the occasion.’ So, I think that’s just going to play itself out over time. I like the mix of backs we have.
The Colts drafted two running backs who appear to have starter qualities, but they must compete with some other talented backs on the roster. This was another good bit of info to keep in mind from Reich about how they will likely approach their running back situation.
OG Quenton Nelson — Round 1, Pick 6 Overall
There is no question that Nelson will be the Day 1 starter at left guard for the Colts, just like first-round pick Ryan Kelly was at center in 2016. Nelson is a generational talent at the guard position, a position that doesn’t often see players taken within the top 10 selections of the draft.
The question with Nelson isn’t whether he’ll start; it’s whether he’ll already be a Pro-Bowler. We could see an impact from Nelson similar to fellow former Notre Dame alum Zack Martin as a rookie. If we see some of Nelson’s patented highlight plays during the season, Twitter could help hype him into a Pro Bowl spot.
Rookie Role: Day 1 starter at left guard. Potential Pro-Bowler.
LB Darius Leonard — Round 2, Pick 36 Overall
The Senior Bowl was impressive. It was fun. You always want to watch the small school guys when you go to the Senior Bowl because now they’re facing the bigger competition. I thought he stood out. His speed, his athleticism, his ability to cover. When the four ‘backers went, we thought Darius was the fifth-best ‘backer in the draft and we think he’s got big upside.
You’re going to have risk with any player. The athlete, the speed, that’s what we want at linebacker. We want guys that can play in space, close to the football and you have to do that with speed. The way we play, speed is on a premium. Our linebackers have to be able to run. I mean, we set a limit on it. And he has got speed. Look, I don’t worry about — once he showed it at the Senior Bowl and he is another guy that would’ve come off pretty quickly. I mean, I think you are seeing all of these other linebackers that aren’t going. He would’ve gone and he is a great kid. He’s passionate about football. The one thing I’ll say is we blew cards and we do that for guys that we think have real grit and he was one of the guys that we think have real grit. We took Danieal Manning with the 42nd pick from Abilene Christian when I was in Chicago and all he did was start 16 games during our Super Bowl season. So where do they come from? If they are talented enough and they have mental toughness – he’ll handle it.
The expectation should be that Leonard is the Colts’ starting WILL by the end of the preseason. He’s got the athletic traits and he’s shown at the Senior Bowl that he can compete at a high level with major college football players. I only give slight pause from saying he’s a Day 1 starter because he will have to get used to the intensity of NFL competition versus that of South Carolina State. The Senior Bowl was one week whereas the rest of his collegiate career was against the FCS.
Despite being from a lower level of competition, that doesn’t mean Leonard can’t be ready to go by Week 1 of the regular season. Ballard mentioned Danieal Manning with the Bears, who started all year at safety as a rookie. As you know, the Bears lost to the Colts that year in the Super Bowl. That Colts team also had a small-school rookie safety starting all year for them in Antoine Bethea.
Rookie Role: Starter at WILL by the end of the preseason.
OG Braden Smith — Round 2, Pick 37 Overall
He was the last starting-level guard (available) that we thought was a starting-level guard. We wanted to make sure we upped the competition level on the o-line and add some depth. And we think we did that without question. I think he is going to be a heck of a player for us long term. And pairing him with [Quenton] Nelson gives us two young guards going forward that can really help set the depth of the pocket and really help in our run game.
We’ve got [Matt] Slauson and we got Jack [Mewhort] when he gets back — it will be good competition at those positions. And we’re going to have good depth in the interior of our offensive line. If you remember last year, there were times when we were having to pick guys off the street and they are starting and I didn’t want to go through that again. We need depth. If I learned anything from Andy Reid – o-line, o-line, o-line. That wins. That wins in December and January. When you have a good o-line, d-line, that wins.
It’s about competition. My experience has been you are not looking for five starters — you are looking for eight or nine starters on the offensive line. That’s usually the way it rolls in a year. You want that depth. You want that competition. That group is so close knit that when you get that level of competition I just think it brings that physicality to the offense that you want. So you’re looking for eight or nine starters.
Smith should have the capability to start early on, but the Colts won’t need to rush him because of the depth at the guard group. Outside of Nelson, the Colts already have to capable starters in Jack Mewhort and Matt Slauson. Regardless, Smith is obviously the future at right guard.
If Smith does not win the starting right guard spot to start the regular season, I would not be surprised to see him starting by the end of the Week 9 bye. I have two schools of thought here: First, as we have all become accustomed to seeing, the starting right guard could get injured. Second, Smith can show in practice that he is ready to see playing time and gets inserted into the lineup.
Rookie Role: Starter by the time the bye week is over.
DE Kemoko Turay — Round 2, Pick 52 Overall
He didn’t look like a project at the Senior Bowl. He looked like the freaking best pass rusher at the game [laughs]. He needs work, there is no doubt. I’m telling you, Turay would have come off the board pretty quickly. He’s got some unique traits. He’s long. He’s got a great first step. It’s hard. I’m excited to watch him get in a three-point [stance]. There are not many guys in this league that can get off the ball like he can get off the ball out of a two-point stance. Von Miller can, and I’m not saying he’s Von Miller, but he’s got a unique trait. He’s got speed. He’s got bend. He’s an athlete and we think he’s got great upside.
Turay was a stand-up, pass-rushing outside linebacker at Rutgers, but will become a pass-rushing end from a three-point stance with the Colts. He will need to adjust to that. Plus, the Colts already have Jabaal Sheard, John Simon and Tarell Basham on board at defensive end. Guys like Denico Autry, Tyquan Lewis and Margus Hunt may even see time at end in certain situations. So in order for Turay to see much playing time, he’s really going to have to earn it in practice and by being effective in his in-game reps. The most likely scenario is that Turay is inserted in must-pass situations as a designated pass-rusher. If his progress comes along nicely, we may see him as a starter in 2019.
Rookie Role: Situational pass rusher.
DL Tyquan Lewis — Round 2, Pick 64 Overall
As previously mentioned, Lewis has the positional flexibility to play defensive end and tackle depending on the situation. His quickness will be an asset while playing inside, as his movement could be a handful for interior offensive linemen to deal with. The Colts currently do not have a no-doubt starter at three-tech defensive tackle, so Lewis could very well win the job at some point in 2018.
Rookie Role: Rotational defensive lineman, potential starter.
RB Nyheim Hines — Round 4, Pick 104 Overall
Offensively, Hines, that we took from NC State, he’s got real speed. He’s a returner. Our offensive coaches were excited about him, about the role he is going to be able to play – he’s played both slot receiver and running back. So he will be able to play some multiple roles for us.
Just think the versatility of someone like that, who has experience playing in the slot as well as the backfield. You can move a guy around like that and when a guy has elite speed like that it’s all about trying to get him the ball in space on the move. So that will be what we’ll do.
We had our eye on him from the very start. I mean, this was a guy who has explosive traits, an elite speed. I think in the history of what our offensive staff has done together with some elite speed guys, it was very easy to picture him in our offense.
We like to spread the ball around. There are things that you can do formationally with shifts and motions by putting the back out wide, bringing him back, putting him in motion. There’s a variety of other kind of sets you can get in with different personnel groups involving the backs and tight ends and multiple backs – and that’s always a week-to-week thing. Now we get all of our players here, and what’s really fun for us as an offensive staff is now we can we put faces to the x’s and o’s on paper. And say, ‘Okay, here’s these schemes that we have. Who fits where? What personnel groups? How do we get the mismatches that we want?
There has already been so much said about Hines to this point, and for good reason — the idea of him in this offense with this coach and this quarterback is exciting. The Colts have never had one of these small, electric weapons like Hines to create mismatches on offense and burn coverage units on special teams.
I don’t think the plan will be for Hines to be the starter (that will be for either Marlon Mack or Jordan Wilkins), but I think the Colts will feature him often. Aside from being the single back, we could see him in the slot, split out wide as well as in the backfield with another running back. Expect to see him running, catching and returning.
Rookie Role: Part of running back committee. Kickoff returner, potentially punt returner.
WR Daurice Fountain — Round 5, Pick 159 Overall
Daurice Fountain is a kid from a smaller school — Northern Iowa — but a great kid and very talented. He stood out at the East-West game. Our scouts liked him when they were in Northern Iowa, but whenever they saw him at the East-West game they got more excited about him. He’s an explosive kid. He is going to need a little time from a small school, but we like his upside.
I don’t expect to see a ton from Fountain on offense this year, and it’s not necessarily about him. TY Hilton, Chester Rogers and Ryan Grant are the Colts’ top three receivers right now, and that may not change much during the season. You can consider four and five-receiver sets, but then you have to remember that the Colts also have Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron, Erik Swoope, Deon Cain and Hines that will see time as pass-catchers.
For the sake of Fountain’s development, I’m sure there will be certain packages where he sees the field, but it will be based on matchups. Fountain should be good in the red zone and can high-point the ball with the best of ‘em.
Rookie Role: Occasional offensive snaps. Special teams player.
RB Jordan Wilkins — Round 5, Pick 169 Overall
Jordan Wilkins, now he is an interesting runner. I don’t ever want to put names, but his run style reminded me a lot of Matt Forte. We thought he had as good of vision as any back in the draft. He had an injury that sidelined him at one point, but he’s healthy and we are excited to get him.
With Jordan Wilkins, I agree with Chris, there are a lot of different style backs but he just has this elusiveness for a guy his size. He has really good elusiveness and see him as a very versatile back as well.
Wilkins’ situation is rather interesting. On one hand, he could be the fourth option in the running game during the season behind Mack, Hines and Robert Turbin. On the other hand, Mack could be delayed in his return from labrum surgery, or look labored because of it, and give way to Wilkins as the starter.
Wilkins has the size, speed, patience, vision, elusiveness and balance to be a starting running back, but Mack’s own upside and playmaking ability is enough for him to get the first look as the starter. It makes sense for Hines and Turbin to be entrenched into their roles — Hines as a wild card and Turbin as a short-yardage back and pass protector — which leaves either Mack or Wilkins as the primary ball carrier.
The situation isn’t fully written yet, but it’s about as far along as it can be at this point in the offseason. This will be a really fun one to pay attention to this summer.
Rookie Role: Part of running back committee. Potential starter.
WR Deon Cain — Round 6, Pick 185 Overall
We didn’t expect Deon Cain to be there in the sixth round. He didn’t have quite as big a year as he did the year before at Clemson, but he is a wideout with really good size and vertical speed that we think really ups the competition level at the receiver position.
We may see Cain a little more often than Fountain because he is more well-rounded in his development at this point. Over the course of his time at Clemson, Cain has proven to be able to run routes, get separation and stretch the field, and he has done it against the stiffest competition. Regardless, similar to Fountain, Cain is going to have to ball-out in order to breach the numbers game that he will face. I wouldn’t put it past him to earn a role in three-receiver sets by the end of the season if Grant or Rogers is injured or not performing well.
Rookie Role: Somewhat regular offensive snaps. Potential starter in three-receiver sets by end of regular season.
LB Matthew Adams — Round 7, Pick 221 Overall and LB Zaire Franklin — Round 7, Pick 235 Overall
We took two inside backers that kind of fit our profile of what we want, guys that are athletic with speed. The emphasis on defense is always going to be about speed.
Although they weren’t asked about the pair near as much as some of the other draft picks, Ballard did briefly mention Adams and Franklin and how they fit what they are looking for. Will they get a shot to compete on defense? Sure — the Colts are pretty open in the linebacking corps. However, they face an uphill battle against better-rounded, more experienced veterans. I would expect both to play on special teams, although Adams is a dark horse candidate to start at SAM due to his tenacity on prowess in the run game.
Adams’ Rookie Role: Occasional defensive snaps, potential starter at SAM by end of regular season. Special teams player.
Franklin’s Rookie Role: Occasional defensive snaps. Special teams player.