No team in recent years has been busier in the second round of the NFL Draft than the Indianapolis Colts.
The second round is where they got their All-Pro linebacker. It is also where they found their starting right tackle and their record-breaking running back. The Colts’ No. 1 wide receiver? He is also the product of a second-round selection.
The Colts seem to have a special affinity for second-round picks. Maybe that’s because they’ve made more second-round choices than any other team since general manager Chris Ballard assumed control of the front office in 2017. The Colts’ 11 second-round selections stand apart during that timeframe, with no other team having more than seven second-round choices in the same span.
And the Colts have gotten significant mileage out of those picks. Case in point: Of the five first-team All-Pros drafted leaguewide in the second round during this five-year stretch, two of them were chosen by the Colts (Darius Leonard and Jonathan Taylor).
This is of particular resonance heading into next week’s 2022 draft because the Colts do not possess a first-round pick. Their top pick will be No. 42, right in the thick of the second round. Now’s a good time to look at some lessons from the plethora of second-rounders they have had and to consider what those takeaways portend for this year’s second-round choice.
More shots at the board
One of the driving forces behind the Colts’ high number of second-round choices is their willingness to part with first-round choices in trade-down scenarios. The Colts have done this twice in the five drafts Ballard has overseen, with each deal netting them multiple second-round picks.
Obviously, the first round tends to contain a higher concentration of elite players. But it’s also true that the hit rate for picks, even those in the first round, is not good. The Colts’ front office takes a simple approach: The likelihood of hitting on picks increases with the sheer number of opportunities. A novel concept? Not at all. But accumulating picks in the second round has allowed the Colts to have numerous shots at the top-100 prospects, an area of specific concentration for most teams.
The Colts have netted five second-round picks via the two trades that flipped first-round choices into multiple later picks. The much-celebrated trade with the Jets in 2018 alone netted three second-round choices, among other picks. That trade sent the Colts ‘third overall pick to New York in exchange for the Jets’ sixth overall pick. The Colts used that selection on All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson. But the second-round choices acquired in that trade were critical, too. They produced right tackle Braden Smith, who last year signed a $ 72 million extension with Indianapolis, defensive end Kemoko Turay, who was moderately productive when not injured, and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, a three-year starter who last month was traded to the Raiders for Yannick Ngakoue.
A 2019 trade with Washington sent the Colts’ first-round choice (26th overall) to the Commanders in exchange for a pair of seconds. One of those picks was subsequently traded, leading to the selection of defensive end Ben Banogu later in the second round. In 2020, the Colts used the second of those second-rounders on starting receiver Michael Pittman.
Did all of the picks acquired in the two trades pan out? Hardly. But the goal was to increase the Colts’ chances of hitting on more players. When it comes to something as unscientific as the NFL Draft, the only way to do that is to secure more opportunities. The Colts certainly did that, and history can ultimately decide whether that proved to be a good decision.
It’s not difficult to determine which second-round pick was the Colts’ most notable during this stretch. Leonard’s three All-Pro selections in his first four seasons make him a slam-dunk choice.
But there’s a bigger takeaway from the Leonard pick beyond his incredible production. Interestingly, Leonard plays the same position as Roquan Smith, the similarly athletic Bears linebacker who was chosen with the eighth overall pick, one round before Leonard. The Colts got the better player, just 28 spots later.
It’s a reminder of the kind of talent that is routinely available in the second round. Once all the quarterbacks and pass rushers are gobbled up, there are potentially elite players still available in Round 2.
And having multiple second-round choices that year allowed the Colts to come back and draft Smith one spot later, at 37th overall. It might be the greatest example of the Colts’ draft philosophy paying off.
Colts’ second-round picks 2017-2021
What you won’t find
The Colts’ 2017 second-round choice, cornerback Quincy Wilson had a rocky tenure in Indianapolis. Wilson started 10 games in three seasons before being traded to the Jets in 2020.
There’s a takeaway here, too. It’s notable that a handful of top cornerbacks were drafted in the first round in 2017 – Marshon Lattimore, Marlon Humphrey, Tre’Davious White and Adoree ‘Jackson among them. It’s a necessary reminder that when it comes to premier positions like cornerback, the top talent tends to fly off the board early.
It’s one thing to find a weak-side linebacker in the second round, even one as good as Leonard. But finding an elite cornerback, pass rusher or left tackle, is a much more difficult ask.
There’s potential evidence of this when you look at the Colts’ recent record in the second round. Their hits have come at positions like linebacker (Leonard), interior offensive line (Smith was initially projected to be a guard) and running back (Taylor). Those are not considered to be high-priority positions when compared to some other key spots.
Where the Colts have arguably missed is at positions like cornerback (Wilson) and edge rusher (Banogu). You can find talent at any position throughout the draft. But the elite players at certain positions are always going to come off the board sooner rather than later. Finding quality starters at those positions outside the first round requires top-notch scouting and a lot of luck.
Just look at the pass rushers the Colts have gotten in the second round for evidence of this. Most had very clear knocks coming out of college, which is the primary reason they were still available in the second round. Turay had injury issues and meager production in college. Banogu’s ultimate position was something of a question because of the hybrid role he played at TCU. And Dayo Odeyingbo, a 2021 second-round choice, was impacted by a torn Achilles he sustained while training for the Senior Bowl. In most cases, pass rushers with cleaner resumes would not be available in the second round.
Overall, the second round has been pretty productive for the Colts. Five of their 11 selections under Ballard became full-time starters (Leonard, Smith, Ya-Sin, Taylor, Pittman). Three others have been key rotational players and solid contributors (Tyquan Lewis, Turay, Odeyingbo).
Without a first-round pick, it’s vital that the Colts add to this tally in 2022.
(Photo of Jonathan Taylor and Michael Pittman: Rich Barnes / USA Today)