After flawed ’13 draft, Colts banking on better returns

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Hugh Thornton #69 of the Indianapolis Colts talks to a member of the coaching staff during Indianapolis Colts Rookie camp on May 11, 2013. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – As the sole survivor of a flawed draft class, Hugh Thornton is the prime example of the importance of the Indianapolis Colts’ last three draft experiences.

The team clearly whiffed in 2013. It’s banking heavily on the subsequent drafts compensating for that sweeping miscalculation of talent.

“Those are my friends, guys I came in with,’’ said Thornton, a third-round pick in 2013 who has started 32 games at guard. “They will always be my friends. We went through a lot together.

“But this is a business. There will be more guys.’’

In this instance, there has to be more guys. Better guys.

The Colts open a three-day rookie minicamp Friday at their West 56th Street complex when the next wave of “guys’’ flood the building and practice fields.

The consensus is first-round draft pick Ryan Kelly is a can’t-miss prospect, and the team’s latest center of the future. He replaces the previous center of the future, Khaled Holmes, a fourth-round pick in ’13 who was waived Monday.

Beyond Kelly, there appears to be several promising players – offensive tackles Le’Raven Clark and Joe Haeg, safety T.J. Green, linebackers Antonio Morrison and Trevor Bates, defensive tackle Hassan Ridgeway and center Austin Blythe.

That group buttresses the last two draft classes that produced wide receivers Phillip Dorsett and Donte Moncrief, guard Jack Mewhort, defensive linemen Henry Anderson and David Parry, safety Clayton Geathers, cornerback D’Joun Smith and offensive tackle Denzelle Good.

A franchise must have a core of high-profile players who perform at an elite level: Andrew Luck, Robert Mathis, T.Y. Hilton, Anthony Castonzo, Vontae Davis, D’Qwell Jackson, Adam Vinatieri, Pat McAfee. The NFL is about difference-making talent.

But a long-term foundation rests with deep drafts that fill the roster with competent talent that’s incredibly affordable for their first four seasons. That’s especially true with a franchise like the Colts, which will be limited in acquiring veteran free-agent talent once Luck gets his enormous contract extension.

General manager Ryan Grigson invested 30 picks in his first four drafts. Only 13 of those players remain on the roster. Again, Thornton is the last man standing from a ’13 group that included first-round bust Bjoern Werner, Holmes and defensive tackle Montori Hughes.

Missing on Holmes necessitated targeting Kelly last week rather than going after a legitimate pass-rush threat. Missing on Werner meant signing veteran Trent Cole last offseason – Werner was moved from rush ‘backer to Erik Walden’s strong-side backup in ’15 – and leaves the team perilously thin at that position moving forward.

If we take the glass-half-full approach, as many as 10 of Grigson’s picks from the previous four drafts could start in ’16: Luck, Hilton, Dwayne Allen, Thornton, Mewhort, Moncrief, Anderson, Parry, Geathers and Good. Dorsett and Smith should see extensive playing time, especially when offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski uses three-receiver sets.

The number increases with Kelly and perhaps Clark or Haeg at right tackle.

Owner Jim Irsay has to be encouraged.

“The draft is where we’re going to be better,’’ he said earlier this year. “I think we have to over these next two drafts continue to identify guys, particularly defensively, that are going to be key guys as we go forward.’’

Dorsett endured a lackluster rookie season – 18 receptions, 225 yards, one touchdown – in large part due to a broken left fibula that kept him out of five games.

The Colts are committed to getting him more involved in ’16, and Dorsett is eager to maximize the opportunity.

“I definitely expect greatness from me,’’ he said.

Dorsett also expects greatness from so many of the team’s younger talent.

“All of us have a chip on our shoulder,’’ he said. “We want to do more. I want to do more. I see it every time we go work out.’’