Managing an NFL roster and being responsible with the available salary cap is challenging. Imagine inheriting a franchise with very little capital, one of the oldest rosters in the league, and immediately moving in new directions schematically on both sides of the football. With a desire to cultivate a new locker room culture from the ground up, draft picks become incredibly important. After all, there is intense pressure to field a competitive team as soon as possible and to stay competitive each season.
Chris Ballard had one of the best drafts in NFL history in 2018. He traded down in the first round to pick first-team All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson. Nelson would stake his claim as arguably the league’s best guard in each of his first three seasons, including three first-team All-Pro nods.
Ballard’s first second-round pick was a small-school linebacker named Darius Leonard. The selection was mocked at the time as a reach and even labeled by one media outlet as the worst pick of the draft. Leonard was named Defensive Rookie of the year and first-team All-Pro for his efforts in 2018. In 2019, he was named to the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro second-team. He earned first-team All-Pro recognition and another Pro Bowl nod in 2020.
Ballard’s second second-round pick was projected guard Braden Smith of Auburn. Smith would earn the starting spot at right tackle out of training camp and has proven to be one of the most underappreciated players at the position since he was drafted. He allowed no sacks in 2020 and has allowed only 10 in his first three seasons, despite frequently being left alone to handle edge rushers.
Six of the remaining eight draft picks from 2018 are still on the roster. Defensive end Tyquan Lewis is the front runner to be one of the team’s starters at defensive end. Fellow defensive end Kemoko Turay is coming off of a second surgery to his ankle but previously showed flashes of giving opponents fits using his speed and bend off the edge in passing situations.
Running backs Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins have helped the Colts field one of the deepest backfields in the NFL. Wilkins has been extremely productive in his limited opportunities. Hines is an incredibly talented receiving threat out of the backfield and has many Darren Sproles-like qualities to his game, including a threat to score in the return game.
Both Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin have made an impact at the linebacker position. They’ve been primary rotational players behind Darius Leonard and recently departed Anthony Walker Jr. Franklin is in line for an elevated role after Walker left in free agency to join the Cleveland Browns.
As a general manager, these are the types of drafts it takes to build a sustainable roster. They are also the kinds of drafts that will create huge issues when rookie contracts near an end.
Ballard and his team are working on signing Nelson, Leonard, and Smith to extensions. These will constitute a significant portion of the team’s salary cap moving forward. The three players will likely have cap hits that total close to $50 million no later than 2023, which is the first year Nelson’s new contract will be in effect, as the franchise picked up his fifth-year option already for a bargain.
The good news is that careful planning for this moment will leave the Colts in a strong cap position anyway. Even if we assumed that the new salary cap hits would occur in 2022, the team would have $30-40 million in space to navigate other contracts or target free agents.
Is this the kind of space that gives Ballard a ton of latitude to chase big-name free agents? Not necessarily. However, even with major contract extensions hitting all in a year or two, the Colts are positioned to move forward comfortably and continue building on the foundation the 2018 draft class has put in place for one of the league’s most promising young franchises.