The crown jewel of each NFL offseason is the annual draft. There is no greater opportunity for an NFL franchise to get better. Barring rare circumstances, draft picks are under contracts for four or five years, long enough for teams to use their talent to win football games and to establish the player in the culture of the team and city — leading to longer careers and possibly uncovering team or league legends.
Failing in the draft is a recipe for disaster. Picking up players in free agency who were allowed to leave their current teams rarely results in sustained success. Each of the free agents comes at a premium under the salary cap and the difference between free agent production and value to a team and a good draft pick is typically not great, especially when you consider the relative cost.
These realities are what makes trading draft picks particularly tricky. It’s what has created some apprehension in Colts fans about the acquisition of DeForest Buckner from the 49ers for the Colts 1st Round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. It’s what has others laughing so hard at Bill O’Brien and the Houston Texans for trading away DeAndre Hopkins in the middle of his prime for a running back who is comparatively late in his career (particularly at his position) and a second round pick.
On the other hand, successfully moving around in the draft by trading picks has been a staple for a franchise like the New England Patriots. Some will try to tell you the Patriots are one of the NFL’s best drafting teams, in terms of success relative to picks. While a stats guru would have to use their superior brain power to prove it, I theorize that Patriots aren’t particularly stellar at drafting on a per pick success basis but they’re incredibly shrewd about picking up picks and giving themselves more opportunities to find productive players.
Colts General Manager Chris Ballard has received mixed reviews on his draft history. The 2018 NFL Draft may go down as one of the best in history but 2017 looks comparatively weaker and it’s too early to tell on the remaining drafts. With that said, one thing has started to stand out about Ballard and his ability to succeed through the draft. When he trades picks to move up or to move back, the resulting haul from those trades is decidedly lopsided in the Colts’ favor.
49ers get pick 121 (RB Joe Williams) Colts get picks 143 and 161 — RB Marlon Mack and LB Anthony Walker Jr.
Colts trade pick 3 (QB Sam Darnold) to Jets for 2018 picks 6, 37 and 49 and 2019 pick 34 – G Quenton Nelson, T Braden Smith, CB Rock Ya-Sin
Colts trade pick 49 (TE Dallas Goedert) to Seahawks for picks 52 and 169 — DE Kemoko Turay and RB Jordan Wilkins
Colts trade picks 67 and 178 (DE Chad Thomas) to Browns for pick 64 — DE Tyquan Lewis
Colts trade pick 140 (DT Maurice Hurst) to the Raiders for picks 159 and 185 — WR Daurice Fountain and WR Deon Cain
Colts trade pick 26 (DE Montez Sweat) to Redskins for picks 46 and 2020 pick 34 — WR Michael Pittman Jr.
Colts trade pick 46 (CB Greedy Williams) to Browns for picks 49 and 144 — DE Ben Banogu, CB Marvell Tell III
Colts trade picks 129 and 135 (CB Isaiah Johnson, TE Foster Moreau, DE Quinton Bell) to Raiders for pick 109 — S Khari Willis
Colts trade picks 44 and 160 (S Grant Delpit and C Nick Harris) to Browns for pick 41 — RB Jonathan Taylor
Colts trade picks 75 and 197 (G Jonah Jackson and DT John Penisini) to Lions for picks 85, 149 and 182 — S Julian Blackmon, G Danny Pinter
Colts trade pick 182 (G Michael Onwenu) to Patriots for picks 212 and 213 — WR Dezmon Patmon and LB Jordan Glasgow
While there is no doubt that it will take some time to fully evaluate each of these trades, the players acquired make up a pretty significant portion of a football team that is currently projected to be very competitive in the AFC.
The haul from trading pick 3 in 2018 is incredibly lopsided, with Sam Darnold battling to make his way in the NFL and the Colts using the draft capital provided to draft an All-Pro guard, starting right tackle, starting cornerback, promising young pass rusher, and rotational running back.
The trade in 2017 doesn’t get as much attention but the 49ers drafted Joe Williams and the Colts were able to draft a superior running back in Marlon Mack and starting linebacker with the compensation from that trade.
The trades in 2019 yielded the Colts a projected starting outside wide receiver, another important edge piece for the future, a young defensive back who showed promise as a rookie and who could be a future starter, and a starting safety.
It will be interesting to see how things pan out in 2020, with some projecting that Jonathan Taylor will push to become the starting running back quickly.
It’s easy for fans to latch onto players they covet each year in the draft. There is often a lot of frustration expressed when a trade is made and their team misses out on a specific player. For fans in Indianapolis, that concern should start to recede a bit. To this point, when Chris Ballard trades draft picks, the Colts typically benefit.