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Grading the 2017 Colts Draft Class: A look back at Chris Ballard’s first draft as GM

NFL: AUG 13 Preseason - Lions at Colts Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

At the end of his 3rd season as the Colts general manager, Chris Ballard has made some really notable improvements to the team, though the results so far have been a bit mixed. Ballard has received his fair share of praise, both here and from the Indianapolis media at large.

However, it would be disingenuous to pretend that every move he has made has been perfect, and not to view his actions with a critical eye. It is because of this that I thought it made sense to revisit the 2017 draft class and give them grades after their 3rd seasons in the league.

At 3 years, these players have had adequate time to begin establishing themselves as difference makers and it has been long enough that we can say with some degree of certainty whether these were good selections or not.

Of course, there is the caveat that this class was selected prior to Frank Reich taking over as the head coach and before Ballard installed his own scouts, but all the same, the expectation is to hit on these players. So without further ado, lets dig in.

Indianapolis Colts v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

1st round, 15th overall: Malik Hooker, S, Ohio State

The Malik Hooker pick was intended to be transformative for the defensive backfield. More than a few national media people bandied about the comparison to Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed when talking about Hooker’s future, and it is fair to say that when he fell to the Colts, it was pretty exciting.

Hooker has all the ability in the world, and was a relatively raw prospect despite shining at Ohio State in the year he started. His ball skills and ability to make breathtaking picks are unique and he certainly has been an impact player at times for the Colts.

Unfortunately, whether it has been due to injury or simply inexperience, Hooker hasn’t been the game-altering presence in the back of the defense that the Colts envisioned. This season he struggled, making bad reads, taking false steps you would hope he’d have learned from, and committing the cardinal sin of a free safety: getting beaten deep.

You anticipate your first round pick being a transcendent player on the roster, and Hooker has been far from that. It would be unfair to say he has played poorly, which is untrue, but 2020 will be a big year for Malik Hooker to change the narrative around him, because as it stands, he has simply not lived up to the first round hype.

Grade: B-

Oakland Raiders v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

2nd Round, 46th overall: Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida

When the Colts selected defensive backs with consecutive picks, it could have marked a real shift in the Colts defense. Instead, Quincy Wilson will enter his 4th season in the NFL having been relegated to whatever scraps the starters deign to leave him, or coming in due to injuries. He has some level of versatility because he can play the safety role, but has been a major disappointment overall.

After struggling to see the field under Pagano because of issues with effort in practice, the 2nd round cornerback hasn’t fared much better under Matt Eberflus, who has little patience for players who aren’t willing to dig deep and put forth the work. He has been passed up by 2019 rookie Rock Ya-Sin and undrafted free agent legend Kenny Moore, and even despite significant injuries in the secondary, wasn’t able to contribute in 2019.

Without a major uptick in his play over the offseason, it would not be surprising to see him as a casualty of cuts ahead of the 2020 season.

Grade: D-

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3rd round, 80th overall: Tarell Basham, EDGE, Ohio

The Colts have been searching for a true pass rusher since Robert Mathis retired, and they certainly did not find it in Tarell Basham. Basham lacked a secondary pass rush move and never seemed to develop it. His 2 sacks over 16 games played as a Colt just weren’t the answer they needed, and they waived him early in 2018.

Grade: F

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4th round, 137th overall: Zach Banner, OT, USC

With the offensive line position largely set (pending Anthony Castonzo’s decision), many of us have blocked out how bad they were when Chris Ballard took over. Zach Banner was one of his first attempts to steady that line, and it was a total failure. The Colts used the pick they received from New England for TE Dwayne Allen and Banner didn’t survive cutdowns.

Grade: F

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Harry Aaron/Getty Images

4th round, 143rd overall: Marlon Mack, RB, South Florida

Finally! This was getting a bit rough, but with the Colts’ 143rd pick, Chris Ballard found a gem. Marlon Mack has been an excellent back, and finished the 2019 season 10th in rushing yards, despite breaking his hand. The guy played through his entire rookie season with a torn labrum, and has just shown the kind of toughness and ability we haven’t always been fortunate enough to see at the running back position.

Mack has a fantastic acceleration, and an ability to jump cut and hit a hole with incredible burst when it opens. He also showed a great deal of vision and patience this season that was a marked improvement over prior years, and that greatly increased his effectiveness. On top of that, he has one of the nastiest stiff arms in the league and has used it to great effect on many occasions.

Getting such a talented back this deep into the draft was excellent, and Mack was essentially the primary driving force of the 2019 Colts offense. Not bad work.

Grade: A

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4th round, 144th overall: Grover Stewart, DT, Albany State

Grover Stewart through two seasons had been a bit of a disappointment. Stewart was envisioned as a guy who could help the Colts’ biggest weakness by providing good interior pressure to get after opposing quarterbacks, and perhaps most importantly, to stop the run.

This season, however, with Al Woods leaving in free agency and Margus Hunt struggling to replicate his 2018 season, Grover Stewart stepped up and took over a starting role. The results were quite positive, and while he is not a full solution to the issues on the interior of the Colts’ defensive line, his rise is certainly something encouraging.

He was instrumental in turning around the run defense and had 3 sacks in his 13 starts. 2020 will be a big year for Stewart, and hopefully his breakout continues.

Grade: B

Buffalo Bills v Indianapolis Colts

5th round, 158th overall: Nate Hairston, CB, Temple

Nate Hairston is a bit of a weird grade. Hairston actually had a really good rookie season, though he saw his production dip as it went on. Unfortunately, Hairston plays primarily out of the slot, and with the signing of Kenny Moore he was relegated to back up quickly. With the rise of Kenny Moore and Hairston’s limited usefulness on special teams, he never really found the field again. He was traded just ahead of cuts this past offseason to the Jets for a 6th round pick in the 2020 draft.

Grade: C

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Jacksonville Jaguars Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

5th round, 161st overall: Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern

There was a point in the 2019 season where I would have been in favor of the Colts looking heavily at the linebacker position to replace Walker. He is best suited to the MIKE role, and when he was asked to fill in for Darius Leonard it went poorly. However, once back in his natural position, he played far better.

Walker is a solid if not great tackler who has generally good instincts for the ball. He is consistently able to make plays and while he is by no means a perfect player, he has been an overall asset to the team. Paired with Darius Leonard, he has been a big part of the revamping of the linebacker position, taking it from the team’s worst, to one of the best.

He needs to improve getting off blocks and in his reading of plays to eliminate some of the big runs that he can occasionally give up by getting sucked in, but as an undersized linebacker, there are only so many ways he’ll be able to deal with that. Having a better defensive line ahead of him to help keep him clean will certainly help make his job easier.

Ultimately, a very good pick as a defensive leader and playmaker later in the draft.

Grade: B+

Overall Draft Grade: C

This was not a great draft for Ballard. He was in a tough spot, being without his own scouts and vision for the kind of players he needed to bring in, but all the same his hit rate was not ideal. Even in the midst of what would be generally considered a poor draft, he did manage to add three reasonably good defensive starters and a standout running back.

Not every class can be as great as the 2018 class was, but if you can get 4 players who are able to start and contribute in significant ways to the roster’s development, you’re doing pretty well. 2017 won’t be remembered as Chris Ballard’s finest moment as the Colts’ GM, but it also isn’t quite as bad as it seems at first glance.

Hopefully his 2020 draft is the best one yet.