All of the questions about Andrew Luck were answered last season. The Indianapolis Colts are building around an elite quarterback who’s back in good health and, just as important, intelligent leadership is finally in place in the front office.
After acing the NFL Draft in 2018, Colts general manager Chris Ballard pulled another “A” in this year’s draft, even without a first-round pick and a big-name player. Ballard is building a team that appears immediately capable of trading punches with New England and Kansas City atop the AFC.
Several handicappers and oddsmakers will ask, why watch the draft? What’s the big deal? It means nothing to Super Bowl futures and season win totals and blah, blah, blah. While there is truth in that line of thinking, the reason you watch the draft is to learn more about the teams, and there’s always a lot to learn.
The win totals that were posted after the draft are not airtight. For example, after last year’s draft, the Los Angeles Rams and New Orleans Saints each opened at 9½ wins. The Rams and Saints wound up sharing the NFL’s best record at 13-3.
The win total for Chicago opened at 6½, and the Bears, who had a strong draft haul, finished 12-4.
The Colts improved to 10-6 last season, partly due to their rookie class. Of course, Luck’s comeback was the biggest factor. Luck passed for 39 touchdowns, second to the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes, who threw for 50 TDs before tossing the Colts out of the playoffs.
The draft can help reveal which teams are building rosters the right way. Ballard, coach Frank Reich and the Colts are building the right way. Only an injury to Luck could sabotage that.
Indianapolis needed to add toughness and versatility to its defense.
The Colts’ defense was shredded by tight ends last season, allowing 103 receptions and 79 percent completions to tight ends. Ballard’s first pick was Rock Ya-Sin, a physical cornerback from Temple, in the second round.
The Colts also lacked a pass rush, ranking 19th in the league with 38 sacks. Ballard signed Justin Houston from Kansas City, and picked outside linebacker Ben Banogu, an athletic edge rusher from TCU, in the second round. In the third round, Ballard selected Stanford outside linebacker Bobby Okereke, who’s fast and versatile and matches up with tight ends.
Luck needed a speed receiver, and the Colts grabbed Ohio State’s Parris Campbell with their third pick of the second round. Reich coveted Campbell, who ran a 4.31 40-yard dash at the combine and made 90 catches with 12 touchdowns last season.
While the mainstream media focus on quarterbacks and hype first-round picks, the draft is often won in subsequent rounds. There is more to their draft class, but the point is the Colts checked off the boxes they needed and addressed weaknesses.
The Colts are coming on strong, and I recommend betting over their win total of 9½.
Each year, knee-jerking fans, columnists and talk-show hosts kick into a predictable routine of jumping to conclusions. But the objective here is not to grade each team’s draft class or designate the winners and losers from the three-day extravaganza in Nashville. For betting purposes, this is the important question: Which teams exhibited smart draft plans and picked players who could make significant impacts on the upcoming season?
In addition to the Colts these other 10 teams had the most intriguing drafts:
The Cardinals flubbed the Josh Rosen deal, essentially giving away their first-round quarterback from last year for next to nothing. Kyler Murray is the obvious key to this class. If the small gunslinger from Oklahoma is a big hit, the Rosen mess will be swept under the rug. Murray is a major risk, but Arizona had the league’s lowest-scoring offense last season and new coach Kliff Kingsbury is changing everything. He grabbed three wideouts — Andy Isabella (Massachusetts), Hakeem Butler (Iowa State) and Keesean Johnson (Fresno State) — with different skill sets in the middle rounds. The Cardinals retooled their offense and addressed their defense with a few quality picks. This will be an entertaining experiment to watch. It’s a boom-orbust class and there’s no way to grade it for two to three years.
A year after gambling on quarterback Josh Allen in the first round, the Bills got lucky when Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver fell into their lap at No. 9. Oliver, a disruptive run defender, was an outstanding value pick in that spot. The Bills had run-blocking issues last season, and their running backs are aging. The second-round pick was Oklahoma offensive tackle Cody Ford, a 6-4, 330-pound drive blocker, and running back Devin Singletary from Florida Atlantic was picked in the third round. Allen showed promise in the second half of his rookie season, and the Bills should be slightly improved.
John Elway has critics, but he also should have no regrets about his past two draft classes. It’s not as if he has passed on Mahomes or Luck. He passed on quarterbacks with questionable futures. By getting Missouri’s Drew Lock in the second round (No. 42), after most mock drafters had Lock going to the Broncos at No. 10, Elway played a cool hand. Lock has time to develop behind veteran Joe Flacco. Elway traded down to No. 20 and snagged Iowa tight end Noah Fant, who will be a weapon for Flacco. Kansas State offensive tackle Dalton Risner (6-5, 310) was another outstanding second-round selection. Believe it or not, the Broncos, who made a coaching change to defensive mastermind Vic Fangio, are rising in the AFC West.
Nick Foles is not part of this draft class, but adding the veteran QB set the table for the Jaguars’ offseason. Most experts predicted the Jaguars would pick Florida offensive tackle Jawaan Taylor at No. 7, but they got him early in the second round. Kentucky edge rusher Josh Allen was a steal when he slipped to the seventh spot. All of the Jaguars’ picks were solid, and they might have a fifth-round steal in Temple’s Ryquell Armstead, a big and fast running back who has real upside and could replace Leonard Fournette.
In two or three years, we might say the Dolphins were big winners in this draft simply by making the trade for Rosen, a potential franchise quarterback who comes cheap. The AFC East now has three second-year QBs (Rosen, Allen and Sam Darnold) taking aim at Tom Brady. New coach Brian Flores, a longtime Patriots defensive assistant, went defense in the first round by taking tackle Christian Wilkins from Clemson. The class as a whole is nothing to brag about, but Rosen could change that. With the quarterback question answered for now, Flores can focus on rebuilding the rest of a weak roster.
Two months after winning another Super Bowl, Bill Belichick was a winner in the draft. With the final pick of the first round, Belichick grabbed a big receiver for Brady. Arizona State’s N’Keal Harry (6-2, 230) was a shrewd pick. Defensive end Chase Winovich went in the third round (No. 77) and will boost the pass rush. Winovich was more productive in college than his Michigan teammate, Rashan Gary, who went No. 12 to Green Bay. The Patriots’ later picks in the third, Alabama running back Damien Harris and West Virginia offensive tackle Yodny Cajuste, show the continued commitment to a power run game. Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham brought value in the fourth round as a backup quarterback. This class gets an “A” grade and again shows why predicting the Patriots’ demise is a losing proposition.
NEW YORK GIANTS
General manager Dave Gettleman rolled the dice on Duke quarterback Daniel Jones at No. 6, and Gettleman will be defined by that move. If Jones sits more than a year behind Eli Manning, that seems like a dumb move. But I do like Jones and think he’ll eventually be better than most cynics expect. The Giants’ next four picks were on the defensive side — Clemson tackle Dexter Lawrence, Georgia corner Deandre Baker, Old Dominion end Oshane Ximines and Notre Dame corner Julian Love — and all could start for a defense that needs much help. But this still is the worst team in the NFC East, and Gettleman did not help himself by rambling like a clueless fool in a post-draft press conference.
Jon Gruden’s endless optimism can be intoxicating. He has convinced VSiN’s Brent Musburger on the Raiders’ rebuilding plan so much so that Musburger raced to the window to bet Oakland at 13-1 odds to win the division. Gruden and general manager Mike Mayock turned their trio of first-rounders into Clemson defensive end Clelin Ferrell, Alabama running back Josh Jacobs and Mississippi State safety Johnathan Abram. Ferrell seemed a reach at No. 4, but if the Raiders are right about him, the reach debate is irrelevant. Gruden and Mayock made sound picks top to bottom, though Ferrell’s impact is the key. The Raiders face the toughest schedule in the NFL this season. If Antonio Brown and Derek Carr are a hit together, the Raiders can contend for something when they arrive in Las Vegas in 2020.
This is a pivotal year for general manager John Lynch, who has had a few big swings and misses. The 49ers made some bold offseason moves prior to the draft and, with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returning, the time to see results is now. Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa was the obvious choice at No. 2. Wide receivers Deebo Samuel (South Carolina) and Jalen Hurd (Baylor) were impact picks in the next two rounds, and tight end Kaden Smith (Stanford) was a smart pick in the sixth. San Francisco was a hot team last summer, and it appears the bettors were a year ahead of schedule. The 49ers should top, and at least equal, their posted win total of 8.
Instead of trading future assets to move up for a quarterback, the Redskins stayed at No. 15 and nabbed Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, who will be compared with the Giants’ Jones for years to come. Even if Haskins busts out, at least Washington did not make a bad trade. Mississippi State defensive end Montez Sweat fell to Washington at No. 26, where he was great value. Third-rounder Terry McLaurin is a fast wideout who caught passes from Haskins in college. Stanford running back Bryce Love, returning from a knee injury, was well worth taking in the fourth round. The Redskins, who usually screw up, got this draft right.