‘Buzz’ on Colts’ latest draft centered around defense
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Once again, there was a buzz in the hallways at the Indianapolis Colts’ northwest side headquarters as another NFL Draft lumbered through seven rounds, 254 selections, three days and 14 hours, 14 minutes.
It simply came from a different area.
Twelve months ago, it was offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni’s voice and enthusiasm bouncing off the walls. Eleven picks were spent in the 2018 draft and they included an All-Pro guard (Quenton Nelson), a player who wound up being the starting right tackle (Braden Smith), two running backs that combined for more than 1,000 total yards from scrimmage (Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins) and a pair of wideouts (Deon Cain and Reece Fountain).
“Every time we would take an offensive player, Nick, you would hear the screams from down the hall: Yes!,’’ general manager Chris Ballard said Saturday evening with a wide grin.
“Nick was fairly quiet this year.’’
So was coach Frank Reich, whose offensive mindset had to deal with Ballard investing seven of the Colts’ first eight picks on defensive talent.
“I joked once or twice in the draft room about the defensive nature of the draft,’’ he said, smiling. “We had a few laughs about it.’’
Instead of Sirianni reacting to a heavy haul, it was defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
“He had a big smile on his face,’’ Reich said. “Yeah, they were cheering in the hall a few times for sure.
“Every now and then you kind of walk out and all the buzz was coming from the defensive guys.’’
For the record – and since it won’t take that long – the Colts’ offensive additions consisted of Ohio State wideout Parris Campbell (round 2) and a pair of seventh-round offensive linemen. Utah tackle Jackson Barton came with the 240th overall pick and kept alive the Colts’ string of taking at least one offensive lineman every year since 2002.
A late trade with Philadelphia sent defensive lineman Hassan Ridgeway to Philadelphia and gave Ballard another seventh rounder (No. 246) that he used on Ole Miss guard/center Javon Patterson.
And that was the plan all along.
The defense took a quantum leap last year under Eberflus’ control. It ranked 11th in total yards and 10th in scoring after finishing 30th in each category in 2017. The influx and impact of linebacker Darius Leonard, the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year, was enormous.
But Ballard realized there was more work ahead.
“When we got here in 2017, defensively I knew that was our biggest obstacle and job ahead,’’ he said. “I knew we had a lot of work to do defensively. You’ve got to invest. We think we’ve upgraded the athletic talent with good fits schematically with what we needed to do.’’
It’s clear Ballard wasn’t impressed with the defensive talent he inherited. The only defensive players who pre-date him: Clayton Geathers, Matthias Farley and Chris Milton.
If Ballard and his staff are correct with the direction they took over the last three days, they added a potential starting cornerback (Temple’s Rock Ya-Sin), depth at safety (Michigan State’s Khari Willis) and a hybrid DB. USC’s Marvell Tell III is a safety who’s being switched to corner to maximize his size (6-2, 195) and athleticism.
They also came away with a pass-rushing end/linebacker (TCU’s Ben Banogu), two more athletic linebackers (Stanford’s Bobby Okereke and E.J. Speed of Tarleton State) and a 6-4, 255-pound end (Mississippi State’s Gerri Green).
“Speed and competition on defense. Plain and simple,’’ Ballard said of his pre-draft plan. “We wanted to get athletic, fast players that fit our mold from a talent perspective, which I think we accomplished, but also has the makeup that we want in our locker room.’’
Adding the right character to the locker room remains a priority.
“Y’all been in there. It’s a special group of men,’’ Ballard said. “You don’t want to upset the applecart in terms of who you bring into the building. They have to stand for the same things you stand for.
“Does it mean that we won’t at some point take some shots? No, it doesn’t because once that locker room is the way it is, you hope you can absorb somebody. Right now, adding this group of men that we’ve added, we think it’s going to enhance it even more.’’
Several of the draft picks were teams captains last year. Okereke interned with former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice between his sophomore and junior seasons on a program benefiting underprivileged children.
One outlier in this draft class is Speed. Last fall he was arrested for organized criminal activities involving a credit card scam. The charges ultimately were dismissed.
Speed insisted the situation was “just something that a lot of guys learned from and distanced myself from a lot of guys who are not going in the same direction. Definitely no second stumbles or anything like that.’’
Ballard and his staff did their homework. They agreed.
“Kids make mistakes. They make mistakes,’’ he said. “That doesn’t mean they’re bad kids. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people. He made a mistake, people that he was hanging around with.
“We just see a guy that’s got really big upside.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51