INDIANAPOLIS — One virtual NFL draft day and two offensive picks later, the Indianapolis Colts suddenly look significantly better.
OK, let’s settle for modestly improved since nobody ever knows for sure if rookies will make an NFL splash and/or live up to lofty expectations.
But it sure seems as if the Colts have added two impact contributors in USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. and Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, both selected in Friday’s second round.
The easiest spin for media on draft night is to praise GMs who know more about football because it’s their life and they have a scouting staff that scours the nation with a seasoned eye for spotting pro-ready talent.
That said, I like what Colts GM Chris Ballard did here. It’s fairly close to my prediction in the early Thursday morning hours.
The updated AllColts.com mock draft of best-educated guesses had the Colts taking a wide receiver at No. 34, then a running back at 44. As it turns out, the first projected pick of Clemson’s Tee Higgins was gone just one slot before to the Cincinnati Bengals at 33. And LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire wasn’t available for 44 because the Kansas City Chiefs snagged him with the last pick of Thursday’s opening round at 32.
So be it. As much as there was a lot to like about Iowa edge rusher A.J. Epenesa, who was a strong overnight suggestion after the Colts didn’t make a first-round selection on Thursday, Pittman and Taylor provide the offensive punch desperately needed.
The Colts haven’t had a solid wide receiver with size since Reggie Wayne, who retired after 2014. Yeah, Devin Funchess stopped by for one game last year, but that didn’t really count for much before he got hurt.
What jumps out about Pittman is he’s nasty tough. He’s got speed, too, but his physical nature in taking on cornerbacks jumps out. So, too, do his ball skills. Quarterback Philip Rivers can throw the ball up high and have Pittman go get it. And if we remember anything from Rivers’ 16 seasons with the Chargers, he likes to do that.
Pittman, 6-4 and 220, is also of NFL pedigree. He’s the 22-year-old son of a former NFL running back and Super Bowl winner of the same name. That means this stage won’t be too big for him. He’s envisioned becoming a pro ever since he could remember because he was watching his dad play for the Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos. Dad rushed for 124 yards on 29 carries in the Bucs’ 48-21 win over the Oakland Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003.
So check that wide receiver box, although the Colts could use another one.
While some were surprised that running back was suggested as a possibility, the main point that needed to be made is Marlon Mack is entering a contract year. He’s been nicked up at times in three seasons. He's an effective, speed guy with a decent stiff-arm, but has missed six games the past two seasons. Not knocking him too much here. The Colts have received decent value from the 2017 fourth-round pick.
Those quick to say the Colts can just re-sign Mack have to also consider the other players entering contract years, and how they’re all ahead of the running back in the pecking order of priorities. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, center Ryan Kelly and defensive end Justin Houston are looking to get paid after 2020.
The initial thought for many is that the Colts were set at running back. Not really. Reserve Nyheim Hines is a great third-down, pass-receiving specialist in addition to cementing himself on special teams with two punt-return TDs against Carolina last year. Jordan Wilkins has more power than Mack with a few decent runs, but not near enough to get more reps. Put the three together with Mack and you’ve got everything that Taylor brings to the table.
He’s a 5-10, 226-pound workhorse — 926 carries in three years — who proved in his final college year that he can be a decent pass catcher — 26 catches for 252 yards and five TDs. Taylor is a former track star, so speed isn’t an issue. When you watch him, he powerfully breaks tackles and has the patience and vision to wait for holes develop, depending upon how the play is blocked.
When asked about having 18 fumbles in college, Taylor acknowledged he needs to improve his ball security and said that most of those fumbles came in his first year. Fair enough. All that truly matters is how he handles the ball in the NFL. Cough it up a few times and the past will seem more damning. Clean it up and nothing is said.
Because Ballard sacrificed a fifth-round selection to move up to Cleveland’s second-round spot to take Taylor, it wasn’t surprising to see the Colts GM trade down in the third round. He’s now done that in each of his four drafts.
The trade down with Detroit cost the Colts the No. 75 overall pick in the third as well as the 197th in the sixth round, but Ballard pocketed No. 85 in the third round, No. 149 in the fifth round and No. 182 in the sixth round. So he got a fifth-round choice back and moved up 15 spots in the sixth round.
When the Colts were back on the clock again, Ballard chose Utah safety Julian Blackmon at No. 85. Eyebrows might raise a bit again, but it was telling that teams were reportedly contacting Ballard earlier in the week about Colts safety Malik Hooker, a 2017 first-round choice who has shown flashes of dynamic playmaking ability while lacking consistency. We won’t know how seriously Ballard considered those calls, but the fact that he received them suggests some uncertainty about Hooker’s future.
In an ideal scenario, Blackmon would compete against second-year pro Khari Willis for snaps alongside Hooker. The Colts were thin at the position, so this pick made sense. But Blackmon is coming off a torn ACL, so don’t be surprised if he needs a rookie season to get his strength back. The old rule of thumb on ACLs is one year to heal, a second year to trust the knee.
Blackmon said the Colts contacted him and advised not to be surprised if he was selected earlier than expected. He said the Colts also told him not to worry about the knee, just work hard in rehab to get back. That makes it sound like Blackmon is more of a future fit for this defense beyond 2020.
Circle May 4th on your calendar. That’s the deadline for Ballard to decide on picking up the 2021 option on Hooker’s contract. If he doesn’t do it, then Hooker is entering a contract year, too, and might be gone after 2020. That could make the Blackmon pick take on more significance, if he's a keeper.
Critics will wonder why the Colts didn’t draft a quarterback for the future. Ballard obviously didn’t think enough of the guys available after four were selected in the opening round. And that suits me just fine. Philip Rivers is getting paid $25 million and backup Jacoby Brissett $21.4 million to handle the position in 2020. If Rivers shines, he gets a new contract. Same for Brissett, although that seems more unlikely.
If the quarterbacks fail this team, then Ballard will face the heat for not properly addressing the most important position. Say this for him, he tried and took what he thought were his best options this time around. If the QB position is an obvious need after 2020, it's doubtful he'll make the same mistake twice. For now, we give Rivers a chance, although Ballard and head coach Frank Reich still seem too overly optimistic about Brissett's ability and value.
So far, Ballard has addressed three positions of need. And lest we forget he traded the first-round pick, 13th overall, to add All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who becomes a D-line cornerstone.
For those interested in grades, the Colts get a B-plus so far. The Buckner trade was brilliant. Pittman and Taylor are solid additions. Blackmon is a bit of a reach, coming off the injury, but perhaps he develops into the player expected.
Those are just subjective early takes. Time always tells.
At least for now, this Colts draft has been promising.