INDIANAPOLIS — Eight.
That’s the number of “premium” non-quarterbacks that the Indianapolis Colts thought would be available in the 2018 draft.
The Colts were coming off a 4-12 record in 2017, had the No. 3 pick in the draft and had several holes to fill on their roster.
As crazy as it sounds, that meant general manager Chris Ballard had flexibility with that pick, as he didn’t have his eyes set on only one position in the draft.
Linebacker. Defensive back. Offensive line. Defensive line.
Those were all positions of need — in no particular order — for the Colts. What Ballard had already shown was that he was not going to bank on free agency for a quick fix in improving the roster. He’d pursue a few free agents and then bank on a heavy dose of draft picks to rebuild a roster that had been flooded with underperforming free agents and draft picks that didn’t always stick around for second contracts. There were only six players from the 2012-16 drafts on the Colts’ Week 1 roster in 2018.
By the time the NFL scouting combine rolled around in February 2018, Ballard had publicly committed that quarterback Andrew Luck and his surgically repaired right shoulder would be fine, which meant the Colts weren’t pursuing Baker Mayfield or Sam Darnold with the third pick.
It was during their draft meetings in February that Ballard and his staff had their “heads wrapped around who would be on the board in the top 10.”
So that’s why, on the morning of St. Patrick’s Day last year, Ballard agreed to send the No. 3 pick to the New York Jets for the No. 6, No. 37 (second round) and No. 49 (second round) picks in the 2018 draft and a second-round pick in the 2019 draft.
How did that trade turn out for the Colts?
They signed their long-term fixture at left guard in Quenton Nelson, who was an All-Pro as a rookie, at No. 6. They drafted their eventual starting right tackle in Braden Smith at No. 37. They swapped the No. 49 pick with Philadelphia for the 52nd pick in the second round and 169th overall pick in the fifth round. Those two picks became defensive end Kemoko Turay and running back Jordan Wilkins. All four players were contributors during their rookie seasons.
There could have been some regret with the trade had the Colts blown the No. 6 pick.
What gave the Colts optimism about sliding back those three spots was that there were several teams that had their eyes on possibly taking a quarterback, such as the Browns, Jets and Giants, who picked in front of the Colts. Several other teams were wanting to move up to snatch their next signal-caller.
The first surprise of the draft came when Cleveland picked Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward at No. 4. Excitement oozed out of the draft room in Indianapolis because that meant either NC State pass-rusher Bradley Chubb or Nelson would be available at No. 6.
The Broncos took Chubb at No. 5, and then Ballard made the “easiest pick” that he has ever been a part of in taking Nelson, whom he personally scouted during Notre Dame’s pro day.
“I turned the pick in quick,” he said shortly after the draft. “The league had told us to wait until after five minutes. And after I did it, I was like, ‘Oh, s—,’ I turned it in too quick.”
Nelson wasn’t an exotic pick. In fact, some questioned why the Colts passed on Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith to make Nelson just the second guard selected in the top 10 of the draft since 2007.
Remember Ballard saying he felt confident that Luck would play in 2018?
The general manager had to watch in Kansas City as the director of football operations and in his first year in Indianapolis as his quarterbacks took a pounding because of poor offensive line play.
“[Experts] complain when our quarterback gets hit,” Ballard said. “[We’ve] been hit more than any other quarterback in the league over the last five years, but people forget that on draft day. It’s not sexy to draft on the O-line.”
Passing on Smith was also part of Ballard’s plan.
The Colts had their eyes on a linebacker from tiny South Carolina State University, a Football Championship Subdivision school, but they didn’t want anybody to know about that.
That player was Darius Leonard.
The Colts selected Leonard with their first pick in the second round, giving them the anchor of their offensive line in Nelson and their key component on defense in Leonard for years to come.
Nelson made the Pro Bowl and Leonard led the NFL in tackles last season. They became the first pair of rookies to be named to the All-Pro team since Hall of Famers Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers did it for the Chicago Bears in 1965.
The draft is vital to Ballard and the organization. Free agency began Wednesday and the Colts, despite having the most salary-cap space in the NFL, have signed only one outside player: receiver Devin Funchess on a one-year deal.
The approach has and will continue to be to build through the draft without relying heavily on free agency. That’s something Ballard learned on his path to becoming a general manager.
He showed it on March 17, 2018.
“I like them picks,” Ballard said, laughing, during the combine last month. “I think on draft day you figure out when you formulate a plan of who you have targeted, where can we get them? Do we have to move up or can we move back? I’ve always been under the premise in how I was taught in this league [that] the more picks you have — the more darts you have at the dartboard — the better chance you have to hit on players. Is our roster to a point where I think we can just go and draft three players? No. I still think we need to continue to add young talent. We like having draft picks.”