INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Second-year Colts general manager Chris Ballard has used five NFL draft picks in two days on prospects he is hoping will toughen up his rebuilding team in the trenches.
Granted, the needs are numerous for a franchise that finished 4-12 last year and has missed the playoffs for three consecutive years, but Ballard bypassed skill-position players for a second consecutive day with Friday’s second-round selections of South Carolina State outside linebacker Darius Leonard, Auburn guard Braden Smith, Rutgers defensive end Kemoko Turay and Ohio State defensive end Tyquan Lewis.
The Colts moved up three spots in a trade with Cleveland to select Lewis with the final choice of the second round. That’s four of five players taken who play along the line after Ballard used Thursday’s No. 6 overall pick on Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson.
“No question the emphasis on our fronts, the front seven on defense and the O-line,” Ballard said. “I had some frustrating moments last year, where I thought physically we didn’t match up against teams, especially in our (AFC South) division. It’s hard to sustain winning when your foundation, your O-line and your D-line, aren’t good.”
Nelson and Smith signify a concerted effort to better protect quarterback Andrew Luck, who missed all of 2017 due to shoulder surgery. The Colts allowed a league-high 56 sacks last season.
It’s just the third time since 1970 that the Colts have used first- and second-round selections on offensive linemen. In 2011, they added current starting left tackle Anthony Castonzo in the opening round and guard Ben Ijalana in the second. In 1997, they drafted eventual Pro Bowl left tackle Tarik Glenn in the first and guard Adam Meadows in the second.
New head coach Frank Reich, an assistant with the Super Bowl-winning Philadelphia Eagles last season, attributed the championship to the play of the fronts on both sides of the ball.
“It’s not a new philosophy,” he said. “I’m glad Chris and I share that same belief. That’s a conviction we’re going to stick to.”
Nelson, lauded for his physical style and nastiness, was generally regarded as the draft’s best guard prospect. Smith, a 6-6 and 315-pound lineman named to All-SEC teams in his last three years, allowed just 11 hurries in 1,103 pass-blocking snaps last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
“It’s about competition,” Reich said. “My experience has been you’re not looking for five starters, you’re looking for eight or nine starters on the offensive line. That’s usually the way it roles in the year. You want that depth.”
But a 29th-ranked defense that ranked next to last in sacks is also in need of an identity and playmakers. Leonard, a MEAC defensive player of the year taken with the 36th overall pick, is projected to be a weak-side linebacker who can play all three downs in the Colts’ new 4-3 scheme. The 6-2 and 234-pound defender has the skills to not just make tackles but rush the passer and cover tight ends.
“The athlete, the speed, that’s what we want at linebacker,” Ballard said. “We want guys who can play in space and close to the football. You have to do that with speed.”
Leonard boosted his stock against quality competition, particularly with a season-high 19 tackles against Clemson and 14 tackles in the Senior Bowl.
Turay, the highest-drafted defensive end in Rutgers history, has impressive pass-rush skills but not the gaudy statistics; he started nine of 12 games and had 65 tackles, seven for loss, with four sacks last season. He’s raw and considered somewhat of a project, and his development was slowed by two shoulder surgeries in college.
But Ballard sees tremendous upside.
“He didn’t look like a project at the Senior Bowl,” Ballard said. “He looked like the freaking best pass rusher at the game.”
Smith, a two-time All-Big Ten first-team selection, had 9.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks for the Buckeyes last season.
“You win up front,” Ballard said. “You win when you rush. You win with speed. That’s how we’re going to play. We’re going to play with waves, seven and eight defensive linemen.”
The Colts parted with a sixth-round pick in the Browns deal, but added a fifth-round selection in a trade with the Eagles by moving down three spots in the second round before taking Turay. That gives the Colts a fourth-round pick, two in the fifth and one in the seventh as the draft comes to a close on Saturday.
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