INDIANAPOLIS – It’s the age-old question that rears its head every year as the NFL Draft rolls around.
Take the best player available regardless of position?
Fill a need that could keep the offense or defense from maximizing its potential?
The tipping point: don’t allow a definite need to blur the evaluation/selection process.
“You just got to make sure you’re not passing a great player,’’ Chris Ballard said. “You don’t want to pass a great player just to take the need.
“Thinking about that a bunch: If we have this need but we have this guy leveled up (higher). If there’s a different level . . . you’re just going to take the better player. If it’s even, alright, then we’ll take the need.’’
That brings us to the Indianapolis Colts and this week’s NFL Draft.
They hold seven picks, including the 42nd overall. A byproduct of last offseason’s trade for Carson Wentz is being without a 1st rounder for the third time in four drafts.
Ballard is in the midst of a transformational offseason that has addressed quarterback (Matt Ryan), edge pass rush (Yannick Ngakoue), cornerback (Stephon Gilmore) and safety (Rodney McLeod).
Areas of concern remain, none more so than receiver. You might get us to lean toward left tackle, but Ballard and his staff believe Matt Pryor is at least a viable short-term answer.
The Colts possessed one of the NFL’s least effective wideout groups in 2021. Here’s where we remind everyone they were the only team in the league with just one receiver (Michael Pittman Jr.) able to compile more than 400 yards. The last time that occurred in Indy was in 1988.
Another reminder: T.Y. Hilton remains unsigned and Zach Pascal has relocated to Philadelphia. The returning wideouts not named Pittman combined for 28 catches and 387 yards in ’21.
So, yes, a serious need for a team that traded for Ryan and guaranteed his next two years at $54 million.
That in mind, it’s clear which path the Colts must travel in the draft.
Fill the need.
And by all accounts, the draft should offer ample options without reaching. As many as seven wideouts could be drafted in round 1 with another half-dozen projected as 2nd-round prospects.
A good portion of Ballard’s pre-draft press conference last week focused on the quality and quantity of wideouts in the draft, the difficulty of adequately assessing them based on a college environment replete with spread formations and looser coverage than they’ll face in the NFL and the appropriateness of investing an early pick on a pass catcher.
At one point, he took a playful jab at everyone – us included – who’s so receiver-obsessed.
“Can you imagine the freak out when we take two defensive guys?’’ Ballard said, laughing. “I can already see the article the next day.’’
In a more serious vein, he conceded the obvious.
“You want as many playmakers as you can get,’’ Ballard said.
Again, the draft offers that opportunity.
The Colts are in no position to get one of the top-tier prospects – Drake London, Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Jameson Williams, Treylon Banks – but should have a shot at Skyy Moore, George Pickens, Jahan Dotson, Christian Watson or Jalen Tolbert.
What can’t be ignored, though, is productive, even prolific receivers can be found after the hype of round 1 subsides.
NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah has six receivers ranked among his top 25 overall prospects and 13 among his top 100. There’s evidence, he insisted, for “all the hits’’ in the second and third (round) . . . even beyond.’’
Recent 1st-round hits jump off the page: Cincinnati’s Ja’Marr Chase (5th overall), Miami’s Jaylen Waddle (6th) and Philadelphia’s DeVonta Smith in 2021; Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson (22nd) in ’20; Dallas’ Ceedee Lamb (17th) in ’19.
But that dynamic group overshadows the quality churned out in later rounds.
Three wideouts reset the positional spending this offseason following two trades and an extension. Tyreek Hill is highest-paid receiver in NFL history at $30 million per season. Davante Adams is 2nd at $28 million and Stefon Diggs 4th at $24 million. Hill was a 5th-round pick by Kansas City in 2016, Adams a 2nd-rounder by Green Bay in ’14 and Diggs a 5th-rounder by Minnesota in ’15.
Other notable round 2 picks include Cincinnati’s Tee Higgins and Pittman in ’20; San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel, Tennessee’s A.J. Brown and Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf in ’19; Denver’s Courtland Sutton in ’18; and Pittsburgh’s JuJu Smith-Schuster in ’17.
Round 3? How about Washington’s Terry McLaurin (round 3, ’19) Pittsburgh’s Diontae Johnson (round 3, ’19), Dallas’ Michael Gallup (round 3, ’18), the Los Angeles Rams’ Cooper Kupp (’17) and Tampa Bay’s Chris Godwin (’17)?
The Pittsburgh Steelers found Antonio Brown in the 6th round of the 2010 draft with the 195th selection.
Some other wideout-related tidbits:
- Of the 23 who reached 1,000 yards last season, nine were 1st-round picks but 10 were taken in rounds 2-3. Kupp generated one of the greatest seasons in league history and won the receivers’ triple crown with 145 catches, 1,947 yards and 16 TDs.
- Over the last five seasons, 15 wideouts have been named 1st– or 2nd-team All-Pro. The breakdown: four 1st-round picks (Chase, Jefferson, Calvin Ridley, Julio Jones), four 2nd-rounders (Adams, Samuel, Metcalf, Michael Thomas), two 3rd-rounders (Kupp and Godwin), two 5th-rounders (Diggs and Hill), one a 6th-rounder (Brown) and two undrafted (Cole Beasley and Adam Thielen).
History clearly offers ample evidence a 1st-round pick isn’t necessary to acquire a productive wideout.
But history also offers a warning when it comes to the Colts and adding a wideout who’ll provide instant impact. And let’s be honest, immediate contributions will be required to keep defenses from focusing too keenly on Pittman.
Since the relocation in 1984:
- Just nine rookies have finished with at least 500 yards. Bill Brooks, a 4th-round pick in 1986, was the only to reach 1,000 (1,131), and Marvin Harrison (round 1 in ’96) the only other to crack 800 (836).
- Just eight managed at least 40 receptions in year 1. Brooks again set the standard with 65, followed by Harrison’s 64 and Austin Collie’s 60 in ’09 as a 4th-round pick.
The Colts probably would be satisfied if their next rookie receiver provided the type of production Hilton offered in 2012: 50 catches, 861 yards and seven TDs.