KRAVITZ: Colts draftee Nelson gives Indy an interior building block for its porous offensive line

In this Oct. 21, 2017, file photo, Notre Dame offensive lineman Quenton Nelson goes up against Southern California defensive tackle Brandon Pili (91) during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
Published:
Updated:
Bob Kravitz

You wanted splash. You wanted flash. You wanted a game-breaker, or at least somebody who plays a position that keeps opposing coaches up late on Monday and Tuesday nights. You wanted Saquon Barkley or Bradley Chubb, and if the Colts had remained at No. 3 rather than trading back and getting a second-round haul from the New York Jets, they could have selected the North Carolina State edge rusher.

So maybe, just maybe, you’re a bit disappointed, or perhaps underwhelmed, at the Colts’ decision to take Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson with the No. 6 selection in Thursday’s NFL Draft.

Don’t be. Don’t be disappointed. Don’t be underwhelmed. Just because Nelson doesn’t play a sexy position doesn’t mean he can’t be a foundational player around whom the Colts can build their perpetually porous offensive line. How long have we been screaming for this organization to build a wall – sorry, Mr. President – to protect the $140 million quarterback? How much abuse do Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett have to take before something significant is done?

All of a sudden, the Colts’ offensive line has a pedigree, if not a body of work that makes you take notice. Anthony Castonzo, a first-round pick. Ryan Kelly, a first-round pick. Jack Mewhort (if he can stay healthy), a second-round pick. Nelson, not only a first-round pick, but a HIGH first-round pick, getting selected in a spot where interior offensive linemen rarely land.

But general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich believe he’s a plug-and-play guy, a long-term rock of excellence in the middle of the offensive line, somebody who has a chance to play in multiple Pro Bowls.

“I think we see now the importance of the entire O-line, not just tackles," Ballard said. “You can see it in the way they’re being paid. The last few years, they’re making upwards of tackle money. We saw a couple of guards here this year, one in the $13 million range and the other in the $11.5 million range. So I think people are realizing… offensive linemen in general are hard to find. Big men are hard to find, so we are seeing more of a premium put on them. Protecting the quarterback is important."

In doing some research on Nelson, I fell across this quote from former Washington and Houston general manager and current NFL Network analyst Charlie Casserly, who called Nelson “the best offensive lineman to enter the Draft since 2000."

Here is what Athlon, one of the 10,000 draft guides, wrote about Nelson before the draft:

“The most dominant offensive lineman in college football last season, Nelson is one of the best interior linemen to come into the NFL in years. He explodes off the line of scrimmage and overwhelms defenders in a phone booth with the exceedingly strong hands to manhandle defenders. Equally effective moving to the second level, he is a balanced and coordinated athlete who hits his targets, locks on and drives them into the ground. He’s a mover who can pull as an outstanding lead blocker. As a pass protector, he has the light feet to mirror against quickness and the heavy anchor to stonewall power rushers.

“…He is scheme-diverse and has the potential to be an All-Pro player the minute he steps onto an NFL field."

Guards don’t jump out of your TV like an electric running back, a gun-slinger quarterback or a balletic wide receiver, but they are essential building blocks. Think David DeCastro. Or Kyle Long. Zach Martin. Two-time Pro Bowler Brandon Scherff, who Washington selected with the fifth pick in 2015.

By now, it’s probably not necessary to state the obvious, but here goes anyway: Since Luck entered the league in 2012, the offensive line has stunk. I mean, noxious. The Colts have tried to build one; former general manager Ryan Grigson drafted Kelly, Khaled Holmes and others and went hard and heavy after free agents like Gosder Cherilus and Donald Thomas, both of whom were waylaid by injuries. It just didn’t work out, and it left Luck (and his backups) spending most of their Sundays running for their lives. The Colts have routinely landed near the bottom of the league in quarterback hits allowed, sacks allowed and every other area that screams, “Run for your life.’’ For years, the middle of the Colts’ offensive line has been found wanting when opponents brought blitzes up the middle.

And the running game? Don’t ask. Granted, it’s not like Indy has had running backs like Ezekiel Elliott or Saquon Barkley (who is going to take the NFL by storm, by the way), but it was routine for running backs to get hit just a step or two after they took the handoff. Jim Brown and Barry Sanders wouldn’t have been productive behind that group.

Nelson, who is a condominium complex on legs, figures to provide the Colts with the kind of anchor they so desperately need, and have needed, for years.

With Nelson, it wasn’t just what Ballard saw at his Pro Day, it’s what he felt.

“Oh, you could feel him,’’ he said. “So I could feel when I watched Adrian Peterson work out. I’ll never forget standing on the sideline and him running by me. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that with a player, but I could feel Adrian. Same thing with Dez Bryant. When Dez Bryant was at Oklahoma State, I’ll never forget the kid running by me and I could feel it. You can feel Quenton Nelson the same way."

Yes, they could have grabbed Chubb had they stayed at No. 3 and not dealt that pick to the New York Jets. But the move made sense for this draft given the depth and talent in the second and third rounds. The Colts have five picks in the first 67 selections, which, if they’ve done a good job scouting and drafting, figure to help them establish a talent foundation for years to come.

All they’ve got to do is get it right, or at least mostly right, because this is a massively important draft for the Colts as they change directions and attempt to rebuild.

Not sexy, necessarily, but smart. Really smart.

Want more Kravitz? Subscribe to The Bob Kravitz Podcast on iTunes,Google Play, Stitcher or TuneIn. If you have a good story idea that's worth writing, feel free to send it to bkravitz@wthr.com.