Colts stick to the plan, reinforce O-line, defensive front-seven

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – On a Friday that would go a long way toward reshaping the future of the Indianapolis Colts, Braden Smith had a more pressing, personal commitment.

Despite expecting to be involved in the second-day of the NFL draft, he was in the stands – front row for all to see – at College Station (Tex.) for Auburn’s women’s softball game against Texas A&M. His fiancée, Courtney Shea, is the Tigers’ starting catcher.

“Happy wife, happy life,’’ Smith said.

As it turns out, there was enough happiness to go around.

Just as the national anthem was about to begin, Smith’s cell phone buzzed to life. It was the Colts, who would take him with one of their team-record four second-round picks.

Answer it, or let it go to voicemail and sing along?

“I had to answer it,’’ said Smith, an All-American guard at Auburn who started his final 41 games. “It was a couple of seconds before they started doing the anthem.

“Definitely can’t decline that call.’’

Even though he was an obvious distraction.

“I was in the very front row, so I’m assuming they were (watching),’’ Smith said. “I mean you’ve got someone blabbing on their phone during the national anthem.

“They were probably like, ‘What’s wrong with this guy?’’’

From a personnel and philosophical standpoint, there was nothing wrong with how general manager Chris Ballard maneuvered his way through the second day of the draft. He once again turned his attention to what has been a substandard offensive line and defensive front seven.

“It’s hard to sustain winning when your foundation – your O-line and D-line – aren’t good,’’ Ballard said.

Thursday, he invested the 6th overall pick in Notre Dame All-American guard Quenton Nelson. Twenty-four hours later, Ballard opted for Smith with the draft’s 37th overall pick, further reinforcing an offensive line that allowed a league-high 56 sacks last season and has yielded a league-high 691 quarterback hits since Andrew Luck’s arrival in 2012.

It marked just the third time in the modern era of the draft (since 1970) the Colts addressed their offensive line with first- and second-round draft picks. In 2011, they went with Anthony Castonzo in round 1 and Ben Ijalana in round 2. In 1997, it was Pro Bowl tackle Tarik Glenn in round 1 and Adam Meadows in round 2.

“I guess that obviously means they need some help on the O-line,’’ Smith said.

Coach Frank Reich said the guard-heavy draft was “about competition.’’

“You’re not looking for five starters,’’ he said. “You’re looking for eight or nine starters on the offensive line. That’s usually the way it rolls in the year. You want that depth. You want that competition. It brings that physicality to the offense that you want.’’

Ballard’s first five picks – four on Friday – reinforced his commitment to building the Colts through formidable offensive line and defensive front-seven.

Along with Nelson and Smith, he added South Carolina outside linebacker Darius Leonard with the 4th pick of round 2 (36 overall) and Rutgers defensive end/outside linebacker Kemoko Turay with the 20th pick of round 2 (52nd overall following a trade-back with Philadelphia).

Another trade, this one with Cleveland, added a fourth second-round pick. To move into the No. 64 slot, Ballard sent the Browns his third- (67 overall) and sixth-rounders (178).

The yield: Ohio State outside linebacker Tyquan Lewis.

Leonard, Turay and Lewis share similar characteristic: speed and the abilty to play in space. Turay was so certain he was headed to Indy that he wore a Colts T-shirt all day.

“Look, you win up front,’’ Ballard reiterated. “You win when you rush. You win with speed. That’s how we’re going to play. We’re going to play with seven, eight defensive linemen and they’re going to play in waves.

“The defensive line is always going to get the priority with us.’’

A capsule look at Friday’s four additions:

  • OLB Darius Leonard, South Carolina State (round 2, 36thoverall): the 6-3, 235 pounder started all 43 games in four seasons at FCS South Carolina State. He set the school’s career record with 394 tackles, highlighted by 53 tackles for loss, 21.5 sacks, six interceptions and eight forced fumbles. He had 14 tackles at the Senior Bowl and 19 tackles against Clemson in 2016.

“The athlete, the speed,’’ Ballard said of Leonard, the fifth-ranked linebacker on the Colts’ board. “That’s what we want at linebacker. We want guys that can play in space, close (on) the football and you have to do that with speed. Speed is on a premium.’’

  • G Braden Smith, Auburn (round 2, 37thoverall): 6-6, 303 pounds and a 41-game starter at Auburn. Started 41 consecutive games and allowed only 11 quarterback “hurries’’ in 1,103 career passing opportunities. He likely settles in at right guard.

“He was the last starting-level guard,’’ Ballard said. “Pairing him with Nelson gives us two young guards going forward that can really help set the depth of the pocket and really help in our run game.’’

  • DE Kemoko Turay, Rutgers (round 2, 52ndoverall): started just 10 of 44 games at Rutgers and overcame surgery on both shoulders. Generated 103 tackles, including 20.5 for loss, 15.5 sacks and three blocked kicks.

“He didn’t look like a project at the Senior Bowl,’’ Ballard replied when asked if Turay is a developmental player. “He looked like the friggin’ best pass rusher at the game.’’

  • DE Tyquan Lewis, Ohio State (round 2, 64thoverall): Appeared in a school-record 55 games with 36 starts. Lewis was a two-time team captain and two-time first-team All-Big Ten selection. Finished with 112 tackles, including 36.5 for a loss, and 23.5 sacks.

One more day

The Colts head into the final four rounds of the draft Saturday with four overall picks: one in round 4 (104 overall), two in round 5 (140 and 169) and one in round 7 (221).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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