The old adage that defense wins championships may or may not be true, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a title-winning team that didn’t build heavily through the draft. Rookie classes, naturally, are evaluated on the perceived upside of the NFL newcomers, but which rookies are ready to contribute right out of the gate? And, how do they fit in with their new team schematically?
To help us forecast the immediate future of these NFL neophytes, we enlisted the help of draft guru Dave-Te Thomas who has served as a scouting personnel consultant to NFL teams for multiple decades.
Now, we continue PFR’s Impact Rookie series with his insight on the Indianapolis Colts’ draft class:
One can argue that head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson are like oil and vinegar, as they just don’t seem to mix. Now, with both having their jobs on the line, they hope they can find the right ingredients for the team’s salad before both are tossed by ownership. Grigson does not have a great track record to survive another draft disaster, but outside of his first two choices in the 2016 draft, the other six selections will have a fight on their hands to secure roster spots.
Since taking over as general manager in January 2012, Grigson has overseen the draft with less than stellar results. Not counting his cache in 2016, he’s drafted 26 players from the 2012-15 phases. Based on his current roster, seven of those choices have earned starting jobs for the Colts. Four others precariously hang on to reserve roles, while eighteen others are no longer with the team, including a slew of them no longer in the league. Now, Grigson hopes he can stem the tide from those draft day disasters that also include 2013 first round selection Bjoern Werner.
Grigson’s first-ever draft selection was a no-brainer, taking franchise quarterback Andrew Luck with the top pick in 2012. However, Luck has been constantly harassed in the pocket while playing behind what is unanimously considered the worst offensive line in pro football last year. To protect their quarterback, the team pulled out a page from Hall of Fame coach Paul Brown’s mantra for building a team – start with a franchise-type center and build your line around him.
First Round – Ryan Kelly, C (Alabama, No. 18)
Luck looked like the Titanic – a total wreck – just seven games into the 2015 season. That was all the games the franchise QB would appear in, as five others tried their hand at quarterback after Luck was lost for the rest of the season. The former Stanford product produced his worst pro season ever, as he completed just 55.3% of his passes and had almost as many interceptions (12) as touchdown tosses (15).
The offensive line allowed 35 sacks last year. Luck was hit an incredible 121 times after getting rid of the ball and the running corps remained dormant, averaging 3.6 yards per attempt while reaching the end zone just six times. On top of it, those ball carriers coughed up the sphere nineteen times, resulting in eleven recoveries by the opposition.
Something needed to change in the trenches – enter Ryan Kelly, perhaps the “toughest hombre” to play in the pivot since the heydays of the Bears’ Olin Kreutz. With multiple national title rings on his fingers, Kelly brings that instant nastiness to the line that has been missing since Jeff Saturday was snapping the ball to Peyton Manning.
In the Colts’ zone blocking scheme, the center needs to be athletic enough to work down the line, along with having the agility to block in the second level. Against 3-4 defensive alignments, they are also required to have that strong anchor, in order to stall the two-gap charge from the nose guards. In most cases, size does not matter –intelligence, strength and balance are more important. Field smarts are needed to immediately identify the defense’s pressure packages.
Strength is needed, in order to stall the bull rush and help in widening the rush lanes. Quick feet and fluid retreat skills are required, as it is often the center that has to drop back and protect the pocket in passing situations. A long reach, firm anchor and great balance are important for the center, as he is usually asked to work in combination with his guards getting out in front on traps and pulls. These are all the traits that Kelly brings to the table, giving the team an immediate upgrade from former starter, Khaled Holmes.
Kelly might also have some “new friends” on the offensive line, as third round pick, Le’Raven Clark, will serve as an understudy behind Anthony Castonzo at left tackle. Five round choice, Joseph Haeg, shifts to right tackle, where he could mount a challenge for Denzelle Good’s precarious hold on the starting job. Toss in seventh round center/guard Austin Blythe for good measure, as there are no other back-ups to Kelly at center on the roster.