With the 2018 season wrapped up, it is time to take another look back at an incredible draft class. We did this exercise at the midpoint of the season, which you can find here.
It is important to note that one season is not enough to adequately judge a draft. Some players take time to develop, while others never really take a step forward. It will take a couple years before we truly know how good this class is, but for now, we’ll look back through the lens of the 2018 season.
1st round, 6th overall: Quenton Nelson, G, Notre Dame
During a time like the draft, everyone is full of hope and possibility. The term “generational talent” gets bandied about far too easily, and players are set up against colossal standards that most simply cannot live up to during their rookie seasons, if ever. Then there is Quenton Nelson.
Nelson did some incredible things as a rookie. In his first year in the league, he was named Rookie of the Month for October, the first time the award was ever given to a guard. He was a key part of the offensive line’s turnaround which saw it yield the fewest sacks in football. Additionally, he was named to the Pro Bowl as well as being named a First-Team All-Pro. That is exactly the kind of impact you want your first round pick to have, and it is a huge win for the Colts that they were able to trade back to get more picks and still acquire such an incredible talent.
2nd round, 36th overall: Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State
Speaking of First-Team All-Pros, how about the rookie year Darius Leonard had? No matter how good you thought Darius Leonard could be, no one thought he would be this good this quickly. 163 tackles, 7 sacks, 8 passes defensed, 2 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles. That is not a rookie stat line. It is an unreasonable wish list for a defensive coordinator to have for one player. Yet that is exactly what Darius Leonard delivered this season.
Despite coming out of South Carolina State, Leonard came on the scene and let everyone know how good he was early and often. Week after week he made big plays and proved himself to be both a leader on the defense and a playmaker when it mattered. It is a little bit terrifying to think how great this guy could be after a couple years to get used to the NFL and get comfortable in a defensive scheme.
For Chris Ballard’s part, drafting two players who would be named First-Team All-Pros in their rookie season just about makes the draft a win regardless of how the rest of the class looks. Fortunately, though, we’re not done yet.
2nd round, 37th overall: Braden Smith, G, Auburn
If anyone has a right to be a bit rankled about all the glowing treatment of the two guys above, it is Braden Smith. All he did this season was switch from right guard to right tackle, and become one of the best right tackles in football as a rookie. While Nelson has deservedly gotten a ton of credit, Braden Smith has gone largely overlooked in terms of the accomplishments he has achieved this season.
In Week 5, Smith was named the starter at right tackle and played out the season there. From Week 6 to Week 11, the Colts did not allow a single sack of Andrew Luck, and Smith was tasked with dealing with guys like Calais Campbell and Jurrell Casey.
While on the whole Smith’s season wasn’t as spectacular as Quenton Nelson’s, his ability to switch to a new position and establish himself not just as a starter, but as a top-quality starter, was truly impressive, and will be a big help for this Colts offensive line going forward.
2nd round, 52nd overall: Kemoko Turay, DE, Rutgers
Kemoko Turay is at a major disadvantage in the grades, because he follows a really impressive trio of picks. Unfortunately, he did not perform as well as those three guys. Despite having an incredibly quick first step and the ability to get pressure on the quarterback, Turay finished the season with just 4 sacks and saw his playing time dwindle significantly on the back stretch of the season.
This was in part, likely because he did not offer great run defense, and I remember seeing him get blown up by receivers and tight ends multiple times in plays. It also is likely based on statements made by DC Matt Eberflus, that Turay’s practice effort was limiting his playing time.
Those are of course, not what you want to hear, but it is also something he can improve on next season. Turay undoubtedly has some serious gifts, and if he refocuses and hits 2019 hard, he could be a dangerous pass rusher.
2nd round, 64th overall: Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State
Part of what damaged Turay’s playing time was the return from IR of Tyquan Lewis. Lewis proved, upon his return, to be a more versatile playmaker, recording 2 sacks in his 8 games and providing solid production against the run as well. Unfortunately, Lewis gets dinged in his grade because we just didn’t get to see enough of him. Missing the first half of the season and then being out in both playoff games was a tough break, but until we’ve seen more of him, it is tough to grade him very effectively. Hopefully Lewis enters the 2019 season healthy and takes a step forward, because the Colts need a reliable pass rusher.
4th round, 104th overall: Nyheim Hines, RB, NC State
Marlon Mack’s breakout year might have obscured another really impressive performance. Nyheim Hines had a really solid year and proved to be a valuable contributor for the offense. He is an aggressive runner despite his size, and his route running and catching are better than some of the receivers on the roster. He certainly found heavy usage in the passing game as a rookie, pulling in 63 receptions, which was good for third on the team behind T.Y. Hilton and Eric Ebron. Look for the Colts to use Hines more and more creatively going forward as he gets more comfortable in their offense.
5th round, 159th overall: Reece Fountain, WR, Northern Iowa
If making the roster counts for anything, that’s about all Fountain gets in terms of credit for this season. Always noted as a project who had the physical ability but needed time to develop, Fountain spent most of 2018 on the practice squad before being raised to the active roster late in the season. Despite a talent-poor receiver group, Fountain couldn’t establish himself, and his lone target of note was a dropped touchdown in the end zone during garbage time against the Chiefs when the game was already out of hand. It is hard to see Fountain being more than a practice squad guy next season, with the Colts likely to invest heavily into the receiver position. Even here though, missing on an athletic freak in the mid rounds isn’t a bad move. Sometimes you get lucky and get an incredible talent.
5th round, 169th overall: Jordan Wilkins, RB, Ole Miss
Jordan Wilkins had an interesting season. He did not see a ton of heavy usage, but when he got the ball, he averaged 5.6 yards per carry. One of the most impressive things about Wilkins is that he almost never takes negative yards and managed to consistently make something out of nothing when getting the ball. He doesn’t offer the same upside that someone like Mack does, because he simply doesn’t have the explosiveness to get big chunk plays, but when he got good blocking, he still had the ability to make things happen. He was a solid addition as a rotational back.
6th round, 185th overall: Deon Cain, WR, Clemson
If we graded based on training camp, Cain looked like a future star. Unfortunately, that just isn’t enough to tell us much. Cain’s torn ACL stopped his season before it started and robbed us of the chance to see whether he was as good as he was looking when the games started. All we can do now is hope his playmaking and flash is back and legitimate when he hits the field next year.
7th round, 221st and 235th overall: Matthew Adams, LB, Houston and Zaire Franklin, LB, Syracuse
The Colts drafted two linebackers in the 7th round, and got almost exactly what you want from your 7th round picks, valuable special teams contributions and players who can play rotational or backup roles. Early in the season, it was Franklin who seemed to have the edge on playing time, but by the end, it was Matthew Adams who had established himself as the starting SAM backer, although that position is one that is used relatively infrequently in this Colts defense.
Adams proved to be a hard hitter and was on the receiving end of some truly awful calls which negated great plays on his part. He really came on as the season progressed, and made himself a valuable part of the defense when called upon.
Franklin saw his role relegated largely to special teams, but came in as a rotational player at times. You can’t be too difficult on these guys, because as 7th rounders, the odds are stacked against them that they see a second contract. However, if they continue to be valuable special teamers and progress, they could buck that trend.
Hitting bit in the draft is tough. If a team is able to add 3 solid starters in one draft, it is viewed as a big success. The Colts added 2 First-Team All- Pros. With the exception of Reece Fountain and Deon Cain, every player drafted has played a role on this team and gotten meaningful snaps. The reality is that this class has been a complete home run, and if no one else breaks out from it, it will still be one of the best drafts in franchise history.
The exciting thing is that there is every possibility that we haven’t seen the best from several of these players, and we could have some of them turning it up a level next season. When you add possible development in to this class, and the potential of a player like Deon Cain or Tyquan Lewis, guys who were limited by injury, this could truly be an incredible draft class for Chris Ballard.