INDIANAPOLIS – Chris Ballard sent more than a few shockwaves across the NFL landscape March 17, 2018. Holding the 3rd overall pick in the draft, he wanted to add more than one lottery pick to the Indianapolis Colts’ roster.
What to do? Swing a deal with the New York Jets that would deliver a generational guard, two other starters and a pair of backups, that’s what.
Frank Reich, still settling in as the Colts’ new head coach, trusted Ballard’s judgment.
“That’s what he’s hired to do,’’ he said earlier this week. “He’s hired to lead this ship in that regard. Now, he didn’t just say, ‘Hey, we’re going to move back three spots.’ There were a whole lot of other conversations with that. ‘Here’s why. Here’s what we think is going to happen.’
“I just trusted Chris and turned out to be a great move.’’
The Jets moved up to grab their quarterback of the future: Sam Darnold. The jury remains out whether he’s the answer. He brings an 11-17 record as a starter when the Jets meet the Colts Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
The Colts? As Reich mentioned, a great move.
For the 3rd overall pick, Ballard received the 6th overall pick, two second-rounders in the 2018 draft and a ‘19 second-rounder. That package turned into All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson, starting right tackle Braden Smith, defensive end Kemoko Turay, running back Jordan Wilkins and starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (the ’19 second-rounder).
Guards seldom demand a ton of attention during the early portion of the draft. The last time the Colts had taken a guard in round 1 was Ron Solt in 1984. The last time a true guard had been selected with a top-6 pick was Jim Dombroski by the New Orleans Saints in ’86.
“I 100 percent agreed with Chris on this,’’ Reich said. “For this big of a move, both in the trading back and the drafting of a guard, I think it’s appropriate to say that it was probably good that the GM and the head coach both 100 percent agreed that this is a generational player.
“That was the case in evaluating Quenton.’’
Nelson has met or exceeded everyone’s expectations. He’s started all 36 games, including the playoffs, and injected a nasty edge into the offensive line. He’s the first offensive lineman and just the seventh player since the 1970 merger to be selected first-team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons.
Reich has witnessed Nelson’s dominance on the practice field and in games. He frequently just shakes his head at how Nelson goes about his business.
“What they say about great players is they make the difficult things look easy,’’ Reich said. “Quenton has been doing that for three years. I mean with regularity. You just come to expect it.’’
Milestone for the Maniac
The magnitude of the accomplishment didn’t make a serious impact on Darius Leonard.
There should be more, insisted the Maniac, the Colts’ ultra-productive linebacker.
The accomplishment: with six tackles in last Sunday’s win over the Minnesota Vikings, Leonard pushed his career total to 300. He’s the only player since at least 1987 to pile up that many in his first 30 games.
The numbers whirled in his mind. He did the math.
“That’s 10 tackles a game,’’ Leonard said on a Thursday Zoom conference call. “That’s not my standard. I’m 15 tackles or more a game. If I didn’t do that, I didn’t have a great game.’’
Leonard has eclipsed his lofty standard only twice in his career – 19 tackles at Washington, 17 against Buffalo, both as rookie – but has piled up double-digit tackles 15 times. He’s had at least 13 tackles in each of his two postseason games.
It’s the total body of work that demands attention. He was NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018 after setting a franchise record with an NFL-leading 163 tackles. He was second-team All-Pro as a rookie, a first-team selection in ’19. He’s the first player since at least 1982 to generate 10-plus sacks and five-plus interceptions in his first 25 games.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.