On second thought, Colts (Quenton Nelson) and Giants (Saquon Barkley) nailed it at top of draft

Quenton Nelson (#56)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Brows were raised in late April when the New York Giants, seemingly desperate to get younger – much younger – at quarterback, used the second overall pick in the NFL draft on a player who might be a transcendent running back.

They opted for Saquon Barkley. Not Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson or some other QB who might succeed 37-year old Eli Manning.

Similarly, Chris Ballard went against the grain. After trading out of the No. 3 slot to amass additional picks, the Indianapolis Colts became the first team since the New Orleans Saints in 1986 to use a top-6 pick on a true guard.

Welcome to Indy, Quenton Nelson.

So many months later, the draft-day rumblings have been quieted by Barkley’s electric, game-breaking talent and Nelson’s quiet, infectious drive to dominate – pancake – an opponent. Each will be on display Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.

“There’s always going to be (talk) that those positions shouldn’t be drafted as high as they were, but the game is changing,’’ said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick.

That includes the way a team chooses to build its offensive line. Tackle remains the position of choice, especially elite left tackles. In the last 10 drafts, a tackle has been taken with a top-10 pick 17 times.

But Ballard had his left tackle – 2011 first-round pick Anthony Castonzo – and understood the importance of further shoring up the interior of a Colts’ line that included center Ryan Kelly, a 2016 first-rounder.

Andrew Luck had missed the previous season with his shoulder issues, and had endured 156 sacks, a zillion hits and general body trauma during his first 70 regular-season starts. Drastic times called for drastic measures.

“Again, the game has changed,’’ Riddick said. “When you have guys like Fletcher Cox and Aaron Donald who can destroy your offense from inside-out with their pass rush, the only way you can combat those guys is to have guys like Quenton Nelson.

“You have to defend your team and attack other teams from the inside-out. You have to make sure your pocket is secure from the inside-out first and foremost. Quarterbacks can kind of control pass rushers off the edge a little bit by being mindful of their depth in the pocket. But if they have no pocket to step into, it doesn’t really matter.

“That’s where guard play comes in.’’

It’s easy to quantify Barkley’s value to the Giants. He ranks third in the NFL in rushing and total yards from scrimmage. He has snapped off nine rushes of at least 28 yards, including five 50-plus yarders. He has touchdown runs of 78, 68, 51 and 50 yards, and a 57-yard TD reception.

While some might find it more difficult to measure the impact of a guard, the Colts have no trouble.

Bolstered by Nelson’s addition – his nastiness, tenacity and no-nonsense approach – the offensive line has allowed the skill players to excel.

“The way they’ve played has maximized T.Y. Hilton’s ability and it has maximized Andrew’s ability because Andrew has time to let T.Y. work down the field to throw him the football,’’ coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “It takes your fourth-round pick, Marlon Mack, and it makes him even better because the holes are opening up just a little bit.

“What an offensive lineman like Quenton brings you – that you draft with the sixth pick – is it brings you a toughness. That’s going to be a staple for your organization and for your offense up front.’’

Added Frank Reich: “He has done two things. One, his presence not just on game day but it is every day. The way he approaches practice and meetings, he has been all-in in every phase.

“It’s obvious what he is doing on game day in setting Marlon free, protecting Andrew and those kind of things. But when you are doing it every day and making guys better every day in practice, that cumulative effect really multiplies as the year goes on when you have a player like that.’’

It’s no coincidence the Colts’ offensive line, for so long a substandard unit, has emerged as a force in Nelson’s rookie season. The pass protection is allowing the fewest sacks per pass attempt (1:34.4) in the league after being abysmal last season (1:9.7; a league-high 56 sacks allowed) and during Luck’s first 70 starts (1:18). The run game generated at least 200 yards in consecutive games against Oakland and Buffalo, and Mack is the first Colt since Joseph Addai in 2007 to crack the 100-yard mark three times in a season.

It’s been a group effort, but let’s not diminish Nelson’s influence.

“Quenton was a different player,’’ Riddick said of the Notre Dame All-American. “He was a guy who many thought was a once-in-a-long-long-time type of player.

“Given what they have invested in Andrew and how important it is to keep him secure and safe and healthy and upright, that wasn’t a bad pick.’’

Sirianni paused and smiled at the thought of the Colts using a top-6 pick on a guard.

“It may not be as flashy (as Barkley),’’ he said. “Obviously Saquon Barkley is a phenomenal player and he’s got a lot of yards, but there’s no doubt in my mind that (Nelson) impacts it just as much because of what he does for everybody else and what he does to a defensive lineman all game long.’’

Sirianni wasn’t in the Colts’ draft room when Ballard and his personnel staff zeroed in on Nelson. He and other assistants were following the draft on TV.

“But I was excited,’’ he said. “I was fist-pumping, yeah.’’

It’s anyone’s guess how the Giants eventually will transition from the Eli Manning era, but they’ve got their feature back. More than that, they’ve got one of the NFL’s most versatile backs.

“Running backs are multi-dimensional, integral parts of offenses,’’ Riddick said. “You’ve seen what Saquon has done in the pass game this year.’’

Barkley not only has set the Giants’ rookie rushing record with 1,155 yards, but his 82 receptions are a team high and second among league running backs to Carolina’s Christian McCaffrey’s 94.

“If you think he fits into your big picture, then you take that kid that high,’’ Riddick said. “I know there was talk that the Giants should have taken one of those quarterbacks, but they’ve got a sure-fire Pro Bowler and perhaps a Hall of Fame running back in this player.

“I don’t have any problem with what they did.’’

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