INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– Todd McShay was as subtle as a sledgehammer.
“I’m a big fan,’’ ESPN’s draft analyst offered Tuesday morning.
The subject of his conference call was the April 25-27 NFL Draft, and at one point the conversation turned to the Indianapolis Colts. They hold nine overall selections, including three of the top 59.
More specifically, the conversation turned to Chris Ballard, who’ll oversee his third draft as the Colts’ general manager.
Again, McShay is bullish on Ballard.
“I think Chris Ballard gets it,’’ he said. “I think from an evaluation standpoint and an organizational standpoint, what he’s had to manage and what he’s gone through, how depleted that roster was because of some mismanagement and what he’s been able to do in a short period of time.
“I think Chris has done a great job. It’s hard to even argue that. What they’ve been able to do and turn things around.
“I think Ballard has proven so far what he can do. I think the Colts are in really good hands.’’
Ballard succeeded Ryan Grigson in January 2017 and inherited a roster that had posted consecutive 8-8, non-playoff seasons. Most troubling, it was woefully deficient of reliable talent in too many positions.
Ballard’s first season was memorable for all the wrong reasons – Andrew Luck missing 2017 with his right shoulder issues and a 4-12 record – but the groundwork for future success was put in place with a solid draft. It included four starters: safety Malik Hooker, running back Marlon Mack, cornerback Quincy Wilson and linebacker Anthony Walker.
Then, the 2018 draft.
“Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard,’’ McShay said. “That was one of the best combinations of first- and second-round picks we had in the entire draft last year.’’
They were named first-team All-Pro, the first rookie teammates selected since Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus in 1965. Nelson was the only Colt to be on the field for all 1,136 offensive snaps and brought a nasty disposition to the huddle. Leonard led the league in tackles and was the first Colt since Duane Bickett in 1985 to be named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
“Two guys that are going to be premier players on each side of the ball,’’ McShay said.
Nine of last year’s 11-player draft class started at least two games. Braden Smith, one of four second-rounders, started 13 and appears to be the long-term answer at right tackle. The Colts led the NFL in percentage of offensive and defensive snaps by rookies – 22 percent – according to Next Gen Stats.
A franchise-record five rookies started the season opener against Cincinnati: Nelson, Leonard, Smith, Jordan Wilkins and Skai Moore.
Overall, Ballard and his personnel staff have invested 19 picks in the last two drafts. Seventeen remain. An argument can be made that at least eight are projected starters: Nelson, Leonard, Smith, defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis, Hooker, Wilson, Mack and Walker.
Ballard went shopping on the NFL’s free-agent market and came away with a much-needed pass rusher (Justin Houston) and receiver (Devin Funchess), but he’s committed to building the bulk of the Colts’ roster through the draft.
That in mind, we turn to McShay’s latest three-round mock draft: round 1 (26 overall), Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram; round 2 (34), Ole Miss wide receiver A.J. Brown; round 2 (59), Ohio State defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones; round 3 (89), Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love.
“What I’ve seen from (Ballard) is he’s going to find the best player,’’ McShay said. “It may not be at a position that jumps out and it may not be at the position everybody wants, but he’s going to find good players, especially in the early rounds.
“I can mock whoever I want there and make my guesses, and we all know the needs that they have. They could use another defensive back, they could use a little bit more help at receiver, more pass rushers.’’
McShay’s assessment of the four players he aligned with the Colts’ first four picks:
- Abram: “A great player coming out of Mississippi State.’’
- Brown: “A slot receiver, big, physical guy.’’
- Jones: “At 59 I think would be a value coming out of Ohio State. It kind of clicked for him this past year.’’
- Love: “Another good football player, probably a little bit better in zone than man-to-man, but has really good instincts and will support the run.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.
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