INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A shiver went through Quenton Nelson when his cellphone buzzed to life Thursday evening.
Chris Ballard was on the other end, and the messenger of surprising news: the Indianapolis Colts general manager was investing the 6th overall pick in the NFL draft on the Notre Dame All-America guard. You know, the guy with a nasty streak.
Nelson had met with Ballard and offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo at his pro day March 22, but the Colts didn’t tip their hand.
“I was definitely a little bit surprised by the pick,’’ said Nelson, who watched the draft unfold with family, friends and Irish teammates at his family’s lake house less than 3 hours from Lucas Oil Stadium. “They kept it away from me a pretty good amount that I was going to be their pick.
“I really had no idea when I was going to be picked, to be honest. I knew I was going to be a Colt when I felt my phone buzzing in my hand and saw Indianapolis area code. Everyone went nuts. It was an amazing time.’’
Ballard revealed his decision Thursday evening, insisting it was impossible to pass up such a “unique’’ talent.
“You win games up front,’’ he said. “Quenton Nelson, we thought, was the best offensive lineman in the draft. He’s got everything we want in terms of character, work ethic, toughness, passion for the game.
“And he is going to be great for this team and great for the city of Indianapolis.’’
The decision to add the 6-5, 330-pound Nelson to the offensive line makes sense, but also goes against the historical norm.
He’s just the second guard taken by the Colts in the first round since their relocation in 1984. They selected Ron Solt with their second first-rounder in ’84, 19th overall. More to the point, Nelson is the first guard to be selected with a top-6 pick since New Orleans took Jim Dombrowski in ’86.
“I think we see now the importance of the entire O-line, not just tackles,’’ Ballard said. “You can see it in the way they’re being paid. They’re making upwards of tackle money.
“Offensive linemen are harder to find. Big men are hard to find.’’
Nelson considers himself a cut above. He started 36 of 37 career games at Notre Dame and was a unanimous All-America choice last season.
“I would say I’m a very nasty offensive lineman that wants to finish his man every play whether it’s in the run game or the pass game,’’ Nelson said. “I want to work together with the whole O-line and have one of the best offensive lines in the NFL and protect one of the best quarterbacks in the game and establish a great run game.
“I definitely feel like I’m a guy that can come in and start from day 1.’’
A portion of the projected starting unit is impressive, on paper. It includes three first-round picks: left tackle Anthony Castonzo (2011), center Ryan Kelly (’16) and Nelson. It might include Jack Mewhort, a 2014 second-rounder, if he can make a full recovery from a knee injury.
Somewhere, Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett were smiling as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell announced Nelson’s name.
Since Luck’s arrival as the first overall pick in the 2012 draft, the Colts have tried, tried and tried some more to build an effective offensive line. They’ve failed, failed and failed some more. They’ve allowed a league-high 691 QB hits since ’12, according to NFL.com.
Luck has been sacked 156 times and hit more than 400 times in 70 regular-season starts. The steady abuse contributed to him missing all of last season – and 26 games over the last three seasons – with a torn labrum in his right shoulder. He still hasn’t resumed throwing a regulation football during a second rehab process.
Last season, Brissett absorbed 52 sacks and the Colts allowed 56. Both were league-highs.
“Protecting the quarterback is important,’’ Ballard said.
Nelson had ‘that feeling’
Ballard revealed he received at least one offer to trade back before selecting Nelson, but resisted the urge because it would have required him to slide too far back. The Colts were perched on the No. 6 rung following their trade-back from No. 3 with the New York Jets in March.
Ballard and his staff believed one of their top three premium players – Nelson, Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or North Carolina State pass rusher Bradley Chubb – would be available at No. 6.
Any question Ballard might have had regarding Nelson’s worthiness evaporated when he attended Nelson’s pro day. There was a presence about Nelson, similar to the type Ballard experienced when he was around running back Adrian Peterson and wideout Dez Bryant when evaluating them.
“I’m watching (Nelson) work out and I’m like, ‘Wow. this guy would be a great Colt,’’’ Ballard said. “You could feel him.
“I could feel (it) when I watched Adrian Peterson come out. I’ll never forget standing on the sideline and him running by me. I don’t know if you’ve every experienced that with a player, but I could feel Adrian. Same thing with Dez Bryant.
“You can feel Quenton Nelson that same way.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.