INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Anyone surprised by the direction being taken in the remake of the Indianapolis Colts hasn’t been paying attention.
It’s all about finding and cultivating young talent. It’s all about maximizing the NFL draft.
We’re only halfway through the season, but it appears Chris Ballard has done precisely that with his latest draft class. It might rival the Class of 2012 in providing foundational personnel. Remember Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen and Vick Ballard?
We’ve been critical of Ballard for not being more active on the veteran free-agent market. We didn’t lobby in the offseason for the second-year general manager to invest some of the team’s $70-plus-million in cap space in one of the available high-profile free agents – most notably guard Andy Norwell or tackle Nate Solder – but wouldn’t have minded if he had ponied up for a better receiving sidekick for T.Y. Hilton than Ryan Grant.
We believed – and still do – it’s possible to remain true to the draft but be selective in free agency. And we’re not talking about one-year stopgaps. Erik Walden was solid for four years. There’s every reason to believe Jabaal Sheard will play out the three-year contract he signed in 2017.
But Ballard remained resolute in his approach. When the roster was cut to 53 Sept. 1, there were 11 rookies, including nine of Ballard’s 11 draft picks. Of the 19 players selected in his first two drafts, 16 were still around.
For those who hadn’t gotten his message on rebuilding the roster, Ballard offered it yet again in the days leading up to the April draft.
“I’m stubborn in this now,’’ he said. “I mean I am, and I really believe that the majority of your team needs to be built through your own guys. Am I against free agency? No, I’m not. But we want to be able to get a core group of young players that really make up the locker room and really define what we stand for, how we play, how we work, that are good, successful players for the Colts.’’
The overriding caveat with the youth-oriented approach? You’d better be right in the draft.
And that brings us to Ballard’s latest draft. It appears he was right, particularly at the top end of the process.
Quenton Nelson, the 6th overall pick, was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Month for October. He’s the first guard and just the seventh offensive lineman selected for the award.
Linebacker Darius Leonard was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for September.
Eight of the 11 draft picks have started at least one game and four have given every impression they’re solid starter material: Nelson, Leonard, Braden Smith and Kemoko Turay.
A recap of the rookie class, including his draft position:
- G Quenton Nelson (Round 1/6th overall): Has started all eight games and hasn’t missed an offensive snap. Yes, he’s had a few hiccups. But take a wider view and this kid is the real deal. We’re still not on board with taking a guard so high in the draft, but we’ll tone down our opposition.
- LB Darius Leonard (R2/36): Continues to lead the NFL with 88 tackles despite missing one game due to an ankle injury. But look past the sheer number of tackles and notice the stats that really matter: 4 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 passes defensed. The NFL is all about making those handful of plays that turn a game. That’s what Leonard brings.
- OL Braden Smith (R2/37): A true guard at Auburn might be the Colts’ long-term answer at right tackle. He has started the last four games at that spot and been instrumental in the offensive line playing at a high level.
- DE Kemoko Turay (R2/52): Robert Mathis has taken him under his wing and we’re seeing growth in Turay. He has 3 sacks and his 7 quarterback hits rank second to Sheard’s 8. Turay has started the last three games.
- DL Tyquan Lewis (R2/64): The Ohio State product has missed the final 8 eight games while rehabbing a foot injury sustained during training camp. He remains on IR, but recently began practicing and could see his first action against Jacksonville or Tennessee. The coaching staff believes Lewis could bring to the line what Leonard has brought to the linebacker corps.
- RB Nyheim Hines (R4/104): The return of Marlon Mack hasn’t diminished Hines’ role. He has appeared in all eight games, with two starts, and ranks second on the team with 238 rushing yards and second with 34 receptions. The coaching staff always has tried to get Hines in space and let him use his quickness, but he displayed a physical running style at Oakland. He finished with a career-high 78 yards on just 11 carries, and routinely ran inside and through arm tackles.
- WR Reece Fountain (R5/159): Fountain continues to bid his time on the practice squad. Ballard mentioned in April Fountain would need time to adjust to the NFL after his standout career at Northern Iowa. Apparently he was right.
- RB Jordan Wilkins (R5/169): He started the opener against Cincinnati, but his opportunities have decreased as the position has gotten healthier. Still, Wilkins is a nice rotational player with 235 rushing yards and 10 catches for 42 yards.
- WR Deon Cain (R6/185): His solid training camp and rookie season ended when Cain tore an ACL in the preseason opener at Seattle. Cain had given every indication he would offer immediate contributions at a position that needed it.
- LB Matthew Adams (R7/221): He’s appeared in eight games with one start and has developed into a core special teams player.
- LB Zaire Franklin (R7/235): See above. Franklin has started two of eight games. Along with collecting 16 tackles on defense, he’s had three special teams tackles.