INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time in two years, Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard was back in front of a room of reporters, taking them through the film of the 2021 class the team just drafted. He acknowledged the fact that he hadn’t been able to do the session in 2020, another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ballard’s talk traditionally covers far more than just the draft class on hand, and he couldn’t help but reference the 2020 class again, a group of rookies that has the Colts excited about the way they’ve already played and what’s to come in the future.
Jonathan Taylor’s potential was already on display in the final two months of the 2020 season. The Colts think Michael Pittman Jr. is just scratching the surface of what he can do with his skill set, work ethic and toughness. Free safety Julian Blackmon might have had a little trouble keeping up his pace down the stretch, but the Colts think a full offseason with a healthy knee might mean the big plays Blackmon made early come more often in his second year.
The rest of the class — particularly Jacob Eason, Danny Pinter, Isaiah Rodgers and Dezmon Patmon — have shown enough that Indianapolis is eager to see how they develop in their second NFL season.
The lesson of the 2020 class is simple.
The longer Ballard and his staff work together in Indianapolis, the better they’ve gotten at marrying talent with the kind of players the Colts want, the resilient, driven players who get better.
“Last year’s group was as good as we’ve done,” Ballard said. “All extremely talented with high character.”
Ultimately, the 2021 class will likely be judged mostly on Ballard’s decision to use his top two picks on defensive ends Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo, two players the Colts believe will develop into the sort of foundational pass rushers Indianapolis has had trouble developing so far.
But the Colts have also found more than their fair share of key contributors on the third day of the draft under Ballard — Nyheim Hines, Grover Stewart, Khari Willis, Marlon Mack, Anthony Walker, to name a few — and as Ballard kept clicking through the film of the class the Colts selected, it’s clear Indianapolis thinks it might have found a few gems beyond Paye and Odeyingbo.
Kylen Granson, TE
When the Colts got Granson on the field for rookie minicamp, they found out the playmaking, field-stretching tight end they selected in the fourth round is further along than they expected.
A rookie tight end almost always has significant work to do as a route runner.
“SMU did a great job with this guy, teaching him how to run routes and get open,” said Ballard, who mentioned he’s known SMU head coach Sonny Dykes a long time.
Colts head coach Frank Reich, who has always considered the F tight end, or pass-catching tight end, a critical part of his offense, loved Granson on tape. The more Indianapolis talked to coaches at SMU and people who knew Granson, the more they realized the tight end has the intelligence to handle all of the varied roles he’ll be asked to play.
The only trait the 6-1 Granson is missing from the prototypical F tight end profile is the height, but Granson’s speed, receiver-like ability to run after the catch and hands more than make up for the missing couple of inches in the Colts’ mind. A few draft analysts mentioned that they thought drops were an issue for Granson; Ballard didn’t see that on tape.
“You can do a lot of things with this guy because he can handle it mentally,” Ballard said. “In our league, I always feel like when teams are playing man coverage in the slot, this is where you get the mismatches, and these little man-beater routes that they’ve got to be able to win. If they don’t play nickel on you, that’s a safety or a backer on you, and even if they do play nickel, you’ve got a little bit of a size advantage with a 6-2, 245-pound guy versus a smaller corner.”
Shawn Davis, S
Colts safeties coach Alan Williams was impressed by Davis’ mental ability, a trait Ballard said is critical at the safety position, comparing Davis to the way Khari Willis was able to digest information in his first couple of days as a Colt.
If a safety can’t handle the mental side, Ballard said, he’s not going to ever be able to start in the NFL.
Davis already has that ability, and he hits like a tank. Davis is probably more of a strong safety than a free safety, but he can handle both positions, and if he emerges, the Colts could go back to using the three-safety approach they often used in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ first two years in Indianapolis.
“He plays the way we want. He hits, he’s physical, he’s really instinctive, gives us another safety in the mix,” Ballard said. “At worst case in his career, he’s a third safety for us, and if he ascends, he becomes a starter.”
Sam Ehlinger, QB
Ehlinger, a sixth-round pick, is going to get his chances to compete in a quarterback room that’s awfully young behind Carson Wentz. Ehlinger joins last year’s fourth-round pick, Jacob Eason, and another young quarterback, Jalen Morton, and at this point, it’s likely the Colts give those guys a chance to show what they can do this offseason.
“Matt Terpening has been wearing me out on Sam Ehlinger for two years,” Ballard said. “What this guy is, he’s got rare character.”
Ehlinger’s a different type of quarterback than Eason, who is a prototypical pocket quarterback with an incredible amount of throwing ability. Ehlinger, on the other hand, is more mobile, and the Colts picked him in part because of the way he carried Texas in his four years at Austin.
“Frank will be creative with him,” Ballard said. “He’s not traditional, but he’s a good (run-pass option) thrower, he’s a strong runner, he’s got enough arm — I don’t think it’s a powerful arm, but it’s enough arm to play.”
Mike Strachan, WR
Time constraints kept Ballard from going deep on Strachan’s film.
But he did say that when the Colts got the 6-5, 226-pound receiver from Charleston on the field for rookie minicamp, they were surprised by how ready Strachan looked to play at the NFL level. A small-school player who dominated the Division II level and didn’t play last year, Strachan might have seemed like a bet on his impressive physical gifts, but Indianapolis was impressed by what it saw in the team’s rookie minicamp.
Will Fries, OL
Film study on Fries, like Strachan, was cut short for time.
Ballard did say that Fries is going to have a chance to compete for a roster spot with the Colts, and it’s safe to say his versatility will help in a competition that includes several veterans Indianapolis picked up over the last couple of seasons.