When the New Orleans Saints landed a Mardi Gras float full of immediate starters in the 2017 NFL Draft, the franchise instantly became a top contender in the NFC for the foreseeable future. The key to the Saints’ quick surge was simple: they made the most of their two first-round picks, moved swiftly to trade up for a game-changing talent who slipped to the third round, and added year-one role players on day three.
But while New Orleans takes the crown for one of the best drafts of the past several decades, the 2018 Indianapolis Colts’ haul was almost equally impressive. With any luck, the Green Bay Packers will be this year’s draft winner at season’s end.
What the Saints, Packers, and Colts have in common the past three years is a slew of top picks. The Saints had three of the top 42 selections, while Indianapolis owned three in the top 37. Green Bay, with two first round picks and three choices in the the first 44 trips to the podium, is in a prime position to bolster its roster in a way similar to both of those teams. But the Packers can model the Colts’ success by spending draft capital on many of the same positions.
Indianapolis fortified its offensive line for the next four-plus years by drafting guard Quenton Nelson with the sixth pick and tackle Braden Smith 37th overall. While Nelson was widely regarded as a generational guard prospect, Smith was a significant find for the Colts as a college right guard who successfully converted to right tackle in the NFL. On top of improving the protection for Andrew Luck, the Colts used their first selection on the second day to reel in linebacker Darius Leonard. All Leonard did as a rookie was post 163 combined tackles, seven sacks, four forced fumbles, and two interceptions en route to Defensive Rookie of the Year and First Team All-Pro honors.
On top of this impressive trio, the Colts also owned two additional second round picks and netted a four-sack contributor in Kemoko Turay and a mostly-injured Tyquan Lewis at defensive end. While the Packers do not have the luxury of four second-round selections to play with, they will surely be on the lookout for assistance along the offensive line, defensive line, and linebacker in the first two days.
While none of Indianapolis’s first five picks would have been considered sexy, their contributions speak volumes about the impact trench players can make in a short amount of time. The depth and overall caliber of talent on the Colts’ roster was vastly improved and, most importantly, the new line kept Andrew Luck upright. Colts quarterbacks were sacked 56 times during the 2017 season, but the insertion of Nelson and Smith immediately cut that number to 18 in 2018. The results — a 10-6 season and wild card playoff victory — were evident.
While the Packers recently signed Billy Turner to alleviate issues at right guard, Green Bay is entering a contract year with Bryan Bulaga at right tackle and the final two years of left guard Lane Taylor’s extension. Future replacements are important to begin grooming, but it is just important to build depth for the inevitable injuries of the 2019 season. Green Bay has been exposed in such situations over the past two years, making a top-tier offensive linemen in the first day far from a surprising proposition.
Even with its free agent splashes, Green Bay also figures to add to its defensive front seven. A pass rusher and a speedy off-ball linebacker are definite possibilities as Blake Martinez heads into his own contract year. Mock drafts everywhere have accounted for these needs, but these particular positions were invaluable to the Colts in the first two days.
Much like their later selections.
A pair of running backs, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins, played roles for Indianapolis after being taken in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively. Daurice Fountain (practice squad) and Deon Cain (injured reserve) were high-upside players taken on the third day that could still surprise in 2019. Seventh-round linebackers Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin played steady special teams roles as rookies, while Franklin developed into the starting strong-side linebacker by season’s end. Across the board, the Colts nailed the draft and still could see plenty of improvement next season.
In many ways, fans could see the Packers take a similar route in rounds four through seven. Green Bay has targeted the skill positions, namely running back and receiver, on the third day in recent years. Outside of Josh Jacobs, the 2019 NFL Draft is not filled with many elite backs. Hines was an impact player in the passing game for the Colts and Green Bay could find a spark-plug type of talent in the middle rounds to fill a similar role. At receiver, the draft offers a number of second round-caliber prospects. While the Packers’ success in the second round at the position is noted, the sheer amount of players available could give the team a significant steal early in round three. Meanwhile, tight end is a deep position in this year’s draft pool and Green Bay could also find that type of pass catcher without having to use a premium pick.
In 2018, Indianapolis trusted its board enough to wait on Leonard in round two despite Roquan Smith being available with the sixth pick. That kind of foresight allowed the team to maximize its first two picks with instant Pro Bowlers. With three relatively-high selections, the Packers have an opportunity to plug holes and see quick dividends like both the Saints and Colts. With any luck, they will find even half that success.