The Indianapolis Colts have a solid track record in the NFL draft. Since 1996, only six of their 21 draft classes have disappointed in terms of value with one, 2006, exceeding expectations by a margin large enough to be considered one of the best set of prospects during the past two decades.
Heading into this year’s NFL draft, the Colts’ prospects have produced a five-year Approximate Value, a single number on the seasonal value of a player at any position from any year, that was 22 percent more than what we would we would expect given the expected value of their picks. That’s the highest during the past 21 years with no one else breaking the 20 percent mark. The Green Bay Packers are the next best (plus-18 percent) followed by the Baltimore Ravens (plus-14 percent) and Seattle Seahawks (plus-14 percent).
The success no doubt comes from drafting two franchise quarterbacks — Peyton Manning in 1998 and Andrew Luck in 2012. Those two combined to produce 40 AV more than expected as the top overall picks in their respective drafts. But Indianapolis also had success with Hall of Fame wide receiver Marvin Harrison (1996), running back Edgerrin James (1999), offensive lineman Ryan Diem (2001) and defensive end Dwight Freeney (2002).
But the highlight for the Colts was the 2006 draft class, one of the most successful hauls over the past 20 years.
The best players acquired in that draft include three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Antoine Bethea (207th overall), left tackle Charlie Johnson (199th) and running back Joseph Addai (30th) — three key contributors to the Super Bowl-winning team from that same season.
Indianapolis has done so well over the past two decades there is little reason to expect them to not do it again. In fact, the Colts are expected to walk away from the 2017 draft with the fourth-highest expected value over the next five years, behind only the Cleveland Browns, San Francisco 49ers and Tennessee Titans.
Now it is up to rookie General Manager Chris Ballard to continue the trend.
Ballard, an NFL scout and executive since 2000, already put his stamp on the franchise. Starting inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson was released as a cost-cutting measure. Veteran cornerback Patrick Robinson was released after one season. Safety Mike Adams signed with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent while fellow free agent Erik Walden is still trying to find work as a linebacker after nine seasons in the NFL. Starting tight end Dwayne Allen, who was one year into a four-year deal, was traded to the New England Patriots.
Ballard will have the No. 15 overall pick, plus six others, to address the team needs at offensive line, defensive line and running back, while trying to maintain the high bar of success that preceded him.
“I think teams make big mistakes in the draft, and look I’ve been a part, Lord knows I haven’t been perfect in the teams I’ve been on, we’ve all made mistakes,” Ballard told reporters at his news conference. “But I don’t ever want to pass up a really good player that I think has a long career in this league that fits our criteria of what we want.”
If that’s the case, then the first player the Colts should take off the board is outside linebacker Haason Reddick from Temple.
Reddick, who could replace Jackson on the inside, led all outside linebackers playing a 3-4 defensive scheme in pass-rush productivity (31 total pressures on 127 rushes with eight sacks) per the game charters at Pro Football focus and would bolster a Colts’ pass rush that managed just 33 sacks (10th fewest) last season. PFF also rated Reddick, a “Swiss Army knife,” second among all draft-eligible 3-4 outside linebackers in run stop percentage.
Ballard has said he “will not be timid about moving around in the draft,” and could trade the No. 15 overall selection in an effort to stockpile more picks in this year’s draft. However, based on expected value over the next five years, the No. 15 pick is worth about 29 AV, which would require getting back two second-round picks for fair value. That’s unlikely to happen, making it in the team’s best interest to use the pick on a glaring need.
In the second round, Taylor Moton, an offensive lineman out of Western Michigan, makes sense.
Moton allowed only two quarterback hits and eight hurries on 467 attempts last season and has surrendered just two sacks in three years at the college level, and would be a welcomed addition to a Colts’ offensive line that allowed their quarterbacks to be sacked 7.6 percent of the time after adjusting for down, distance and opponent — the fifth-highest adjusted sack rate in the NFL last season.
Plus, any help keeping Luck upright will only benefit the team — his passer rating dipped from 112 to 72 under pressure in 2016 with his completion rate dropping from 71 to 51 percent in those instances.
Colts’ starting running back Frank Gore will be 34 years old when the season starts, prompting the organization to use its third-round pick on a replacement, perhaps looking at University of South Florida’s Marlon Mack as a future replacement.
Mack ran for 1,187 yards with 15 touchdowns and added 28 catches out of the backfield as a junior last season. More than half of that rushing yardage (621 yards) came on runs of 15 yards or more.
The Colts would have four picks after that one: two in the fourth round (122nd and 144th overall), one in the fifth (158th) and one in the sixth (200th). This year’s seventh-round pick was traded to the Cleveland Browns.
The draft positions that would provide the most value in the fourth round include offensive or defensive line help (19 AV and 16 AV, respectively, over first five years) along with a linebacker (15 AV). In the fifth round the franchise should again look at an offensive or defensive lineman (14 AV) and in the sixth round look for a backup quarterback. Even after you take out Tom Brady from the valuation pool a sixth-round quarterback could still provide enough expected value to make it worthwhile.
Yet even if the Colts nail the draft again, it still might not all come together in the first year.
“It takes time to build a team,” Ballard told Jared Dubin of CBS Sports. “Do we have work in front of us? Yes, we do. But it takes time.”
The Washington Post’s Reuben Fischer-Baum contributed to this post.