Colts impressed by toughness of first-round draft choice

Friday, April 27, 2018
Indianapolis Colts’ GM Chris Ballard (left) introduced first-round draft pick Quenton Nelson (middle) at a news conference on Friday. Also pictured is head coach Frank Reich.
AP photo

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Quenton Nelson made quite a first impression on the Indianapolis Colts.

He’s hoping to have the same impact on Andrew Luck.

The Colts finally gave their franchise quarterback some extra protection by taking the Notre Dame guard, the highest-rated offensive linemen in the NFL draft, with the sixth overall pick on Thursday night. He is the first guard selected in the first round by Indy since Ron Solt in 1984.

“I would say that I’m a very nasty offensive lineman who wants to finish every play whether it’s in the run game or the pass game,” Nelson said. “I want to work together to have the best offensive line in the league and protect one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.”

He’s the first guard to be selected in the top six in more than two decades, and it didn’t take the 6-foot-5, 330-pound Nelson long to convince the Colts he was worthy of it.

General manager Chris Ballard said he watched Nelson play once last season, against Miami. But because of an extended coaching search and the transition to a new staff, Ballard only made it to one pro day — in South Bend in March.

He spoke with Nelson after the workout, then headed home to explain to his staff why he thought Nelson was ahead of his college teammate, tackle Mike McGlinchey, who was taken by San Francisco at No. 9.

“You could just feel it,” Ballard said as he struggled to explain the sensation. “I could feel it when I watched Adrian Peterson coming out. It was the same thing with Dez (Bryant). You can just feel it sometimes. With Quenton Nelson, it was the same way.”

Back at team headquarters, others concurred.

Perhaps that explains why Ballard was willing to trade back three spots and then turned down another offer to move back. Ballard didn’t say which team made the offer, but just minutes after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced Nelson’s name Buffalo traded up from No. 12 to No. 7.

New coach Frank Reich jumped on board after watching Nelson’s tape.

“My first impression is that this is the best offensive lineman I’ve seen coming out in a while,” he said. “His ability to pull is so far greater than anything we’ve ever seen.”

Nelson also fills a huge need for Indy as Luck attempts to come back from a shoulder surgery that kept him out for the entire 2017 season. In 70 career starts, Luck has been sacked 156 times and taken 691 hits — the highest total in the league over that span according to the NFL. Last year, Indy allowed 56 sacks.

Nelson, who started 36 games at left guard for the Irish, will now play alongside center Ryan Kelly, Indy’s first-round pick in 2016. The line also will be comprised of left tackle Anthony Castonzo, a first-round pick in 2011; veteran guard Matt Slauson, a free-agent signee; and possibly guard Jack Mewhort, a second-round pick in 2014 who is trying to come back from two injury-plagued seasons.

If Luck makes it back, Nelson’s presence should certainly help him stay upright.

He was a second-team All-American last season and one of four finalists for the 2017 Outland Trophy, which is awarded to the nation’s best interior lineman.

“I definitely feel like I can come up and start from Day 1,” said Nelson, who watched the draft from his family’s lake home less than a three-hour drive from Lucas Oil Stadium.

The Colts are banking on it.

“He has everything we want. He’s tough, passionate, he loves the game,” Ballard said. “He’s nasty, he’s tough and his football character is off the charts. He’s got unique size and bend and straight power.”

Colts’ picks on Friday night:

Round 2

Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State — After going offense with their first-round pick, the Indianapolis Colts went to the defensive side of the ball to start their haul of second-round choices in the 2018 NFL Draft.

Leonard — who measures in at 6-foot-2 and weighs 234 pounds — looks to immediately compete for a starting job at one of the three linebacker spots in the Colts’ new 4-3 base defense under coordinator Matt Eberflus.

After not receiving any stars in the high school recruiting scene, Leonard had a chance to walk-on at Clemson, but instead decided to play for the FCS Bulldogs. He redshirted his true freshman year, but started the next four seasons, two of which ended in MEAC Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Last season, as a redshirt senior, Leonard compiled 114 total tackles — 12 of which were for a loss — while also earning 8.5 sacks, 10 quarterback hits, one forced fumble and two INT.

Braden Smith, OG, Auburn — At 6-foot-6 and 315 pounds, Smith certainly looks the part, but his play on the field — he’s described by some, like Nelson, as a “mauler” — is his calling card.

Smith was a decorated offensive lineman at Auburn, where he appeared in 54 games with 41 consecutive starts from 2014-17. He was an AP/CBS/SB Nation First-Team All-American last season, and winner of the SEC’s Jacobs Blocking Trophy.

A team captain, he was a mainstay at right guard for the Tigers.

Kemoko Turay, DE, Rutgers — The 6-5, 253-pounder redshirted in 2013 while honing his skills, which appeared to have paid off as he earned Freshman All-American honors.

He played in all 13 games as a reserve, but led the team with 7.5 sacks (26 total tackles) and tied for the FBS lead with three blocked kicks. His production dropped off over the next two years, however.

Turay started once in 11 games played in 2015 (nine tackles, two sacks) and played in eight games as a reserve in 2016 (three tackles, two sacks) after undergoing two surgeries on his right shoulder before the season.

Round 3

Tyquan Lewis, DE, Ohio State — Lewis was on the field regularly as a true freshman during the Buckeyes’ national championship season, played in every game and making nine tackles, 2.5 for loss.

Lewis then became a starter as a sophomore, receiving honorable mention All-Big Ten accolades after lining up for all 13 games, recording 54 tackles, 14 for loss and a team-high eight sacks. He took over as a leader on the defensive line as a junior in 2016, winning the conference’s Defensive Lineman of the Year award (29 tackles, led team with 10.5 for loss).

and eight sacks).

by consistently winning the leverage battle against left and right tackles, as well as working as hard as any defender in the country to get to the ball. Lewis was a first-team All-Big Ten pick again in 2017, starting 10 of 14 games played, making 20 tackles, 9.5 for loss, seven sacks, and two forced fumbles for the conference champs.

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