While the NFL Draft cannot be considered an exact science where an evaluator can simply put numbers next to a name and build a championship contender based on those scores, there are teams in the league that have come away with some of the top draft classes consistently over the years. There is no set strategy on how to build a team via the draft, but there are tendencies that go both ways which have aided the process of separating the year in-year out contenders in contrast to the teams that seem to have a top ten selection each April. I have spent enormous amounts of time examining the past twelve draft classes of arguably the most consistent franchise in the NFL, the Indianapolis Colts. I have come up with three well-defined, clearly followed draft strategies. The six-time NFL Executive of the Year is still going strong and coming away with top tier draft classes even with the evolvement of the game because of his will to follow what works and refusing to tweak what has worked for him.
1. Build Around Your Strengths
In 1998, Polian made the decision between two quarterbacks that have been the main reason for his organization’s success over the past decade. Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf got the project to rebuild the storied franchise rolling right away. As good as Manning has been, and my words cannot do justice to just how vital he has been to the Colts consistency, he has not done this alone. Polian has, from the very beginning, surrounded Manning with some of the best talent the NFL Draft has had to offer since his career began. Year after year, the Colts have entered the month of April with an already-strong offensive unit. The experts and analysts were constantly throwing defenders in to the Indianapolis mock draft slots with explanation that with an already potent offense in place, why not build up the weaker side of the ball? Polian thought otherwise. In eleven drafts following the Peyton Manning class, here is the breakdown of which positions the Colts drafted with their first selection.
Running Back: 3
Wide Receiver: 2
Tight End: 1
Offensive Line: 1
Defensive Line: 1
More than half of those eleven selections have not only been spent on the offensive side of the ball, but at the skill positions. With Marvin Harrison already in place, Polian could have made the effort to improve the struggling defense with first round talent but he opted to put that first round talent next to his franchise player, Peyton Manning. There may not be a quarterback in the league that has had the consistent flow of talent around him than Manning has, but that does not take away from his status as a top tier signal caller in the least. However one does have to make a note of this when trying to figure out why the Colts’ offense has been such a consistent force throughout the entire Peyton Manning-led era. Once he was in place, Polian piled on the talent at the skill positions even though it appeared that these selections were creating a logjam. Enhancing a team’s strengths can hinder the team’s weaknesses.
2. Find Players That Fit the System
One of the glaring issues I see among NFL coaches and General Managers is their overconfidence when it comes to changing a player’s ways. Sure, the fulfillment of taking an off the field wreck and making him a grown man that makes the right decisions is great, but I am talking about on-field ability. Bill Polian has done a fantastic job of implementing the Colts’ scheme-based needs in to his draft board without sacrificing a ton of value. They run a Tampa-Cover 2 defense that is based mainly on speed and quickness while overlooking size. Most outsiders have, for years, discussed the need for a run-plugging, big body at defensive tackle within the interior of that Colts defense. However Polian stuck with what the scheme demanded and kept on loading up on the quicker linemen and faster linebackers. Where most evaluators see a “passing down” defensive lineman, Polian sees a piece to the puzzle that strengthens the defense because of the scheme that has been put in place. The starting offensive line can be used as a prime example.
Manning has been one of the least touched quarterbacks in the league over the past decade and while a lot can be attributed to his uncanny ability to sense pressure from all angles, the offensive line as a unit has been one of the most consistent in the league throughout his tenure. With such a strong group of blockers up front, one must assume that Polian spent plenty of early picks on offensive linemen, right? Since 1998, the Colts have spent one selection on an offensive linemen in the first two rounds (Mike Pollak – 2008 – 28th pick of Round 2). They have approached the construction of their offensive line with zone blocking scheme in mind. Up front, that scheme calls for smaller, quicker linemen that can move laterally and reach the second level in a blink. Where most evaluators saw a blocker that was too small for every down duty Polian saw an important piece to his championship puzzle. Jake Scott was taken in the fifth round of the 2004 NFL Draft after an impressive career as the starting right tackle for Idaho. He was projected as a backup at the next level that could be taken off the board late in the draft. Polian saw the fit within the interior offensive line on his squad and Scott was a starter in year one, giving the Colts a strong and reliable presence inside. Charlie Johnson has taken over the reigns as Manning’s blind-side protector, but the 2006 6th round pick was once again viewed as a guy that was too small for the NFL trenches. Polian once again saw the fit because of his ability to move east-west and the Colts are now sitting pretty with cheap talent at left tackle while teams are shelling out $25+ million in guaranteed money for the position.
Looking at the Colts personnel on the defensive side of the ball only strengthens the notion that Polian implements the Tampa-2 scheme in to his draft board. He consistently looks past the run pluggers at defensive tackle while going after the smaller gap shooters. For years, analyst after analyst has been calling for Gary Brackett’s replacement at middle linebacker. Instead, Polian has aggressively pursued speedy players to put around him. Phillip Wheeler in 2008, Clint Session in 2007, Freddy Keiaho in 2006. Those three linebackers could not hack it as every down players in a lot of schemes, but because of the consistent scheme in place, they can play at a high level and lift the others around them. Size does not deter Polian away from selecting a good football player because the defense feeds off speed and quickness, something each one of these guys possess.
In 2003, The Colts spent the third pick of the round five on a 230 pound defensive linemen that most pegged as a projected undrafted free agent. Seven years in to his career, Robert Mathis has developed in to one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the NFL. He won the starting job in 2006 and has notched 37.5 sacks since, giving the Colts one half of the top edge pass rushing tandem in the league. His lack of size would prevent him from strong every down ability on most teams across the league, but Polian saw the fit within the Colts scheme and this selection ended up being one of the best under his tenure. Dwight Freeney is a slightly different case, as he was widely considered a top 25 player in the 2002 draft class. However there were concerns about his ability to hold up against NFL linemen in the trenches, but yet again Polian saw the perfect fit for the system. Freeney was an explosive edge rusher that showed a knack for stripping the ball out of the quarterback’s hands in the pocket. When he could not record the sack, Freeney consistently took the best angle towards the ball and he attacked it. The Colts edge-heavy scheme
3. Draft the Overachievers
Because the period between the final game and draft day tend to drag on, many evaluators tend to place too much weight on certain measurables rather than actual game ability. This portion of the Colts drafting strategy is what has set them apart from the rest of the pack every April.
In 2003, The Colts spent the third pick of the round five on a 230 pound defensive linemen that most pegged as a projected undrafted free agent. Despite the lack of the desired size in a defensive end, Robert Mathis recorded 30.5 tackles for loss and 20 sacks his senior season at Alabama A&M. Seven years in to his career, Mathis has developed in to one of the most dangerous pass rushers in the NFL. He won the starting job in 2006 and has notched 37.5 sacks since, giving the Colts one half of the top edge pass rushing tandem in the league. The Colts roster is stacked with stories similar to this one in the sense that they obtain players that get the most out of themselves.
Every year we see and hear discussions that center around a player’s “motor” or “effort”. Teams will gamble on top tier athletes with the hope that the switch turns on once they sign their name on a dotted line that guarantees them a bundle of cash. That gamble is something that makes Polian cross a name off the board without hesitation because as important as talent is, football is a game of heart and passion. Every time Indianapolis is on television, it is easy to see how much fire that team plays with in comparison to their opponent. Their defense is stacked with players that are not entirely impressive on paper, but nothing on paper can measure their passion. Examples can be found across the board.
At a position where size is becoming a huge asset, the Colts spent the 12th pick of the 2nd round on a 5’9 safety. Four years in Bob Sanders’ career, he was the recipient of the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award. He was never the biggest player on the field, but his impact was enormous each and every week. He has more presence in the defensive backfield than anyone on the Iowa roster because of his sheer will to be the best. Eric Foster out of Rutgers was given the opportunity to play for the Colts despite the popular notion that he lacked the tools to hack it in the NFL trenches. The 6’1 – 270 pound defensive tackle has become a key component of the Colts attacking defense. He may very well be the smallest interior lineman in the league, but he excels as a result of the fire he plays with. Another standout from Rutgers, Gary Brackett, continues to prove the naysayers wrong with each season that passes. It seems we are all waiting for the 5’11 – 235 pound middle linebacker to fail, but he continues will that defense to wins while recording 100+ tackles and providing top tier coverage ability. He does not have the size of Brian Urlacher and he does not have speed of Patrick Willis, but he gets the most out of himself and plays on a Pro-Bowl level.
Polian has done a fantastic job of putting together this year-year out Super Bowl contender by sticking with what works every April. He lets the game tapes and interview sessions make up his draft board while minimizing the importance of workout numbers and weigh-in sessions. Because that has yet to catch on across the league, the Colts continue to run away with the some of the best results of every draft.