INDIANAPOLIS — There was an easy play when the Colts went on the clock with the No. 21 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft Thursday night. With an emphasis on the word easy.
"I've made some pretty easy picks where you just knew, when you pulled the card it was an easy pull," general manager Chris Ballard said. "And pulling the card of Kwity Paye was very easy."
But why was drafting Paye, the 6-foot-3, 261 pound defensive end from Michigan, such a straightforward call for Ballard and the Colts? Here's what we learned about the pick and the process that led the Colts to Paye, and Paye to the Colts, on Thursday.
*1. The Colts loved more than Paye's tape. *
First and foremost, Paye was someone who "pops" off the tape, Ballard said. That's the first criteria that gets any first-round pick high atop a team's draft board.
But there's more to Paye than a standout all-22 reel. He was a team captain at Michigan in 2020 and is widely regarded for possessing a strong, determined work ethic — just the kind of player who the Colts expect will smoothly assimilate into the culture in place in Indianapolis.
"It's easy to draft talent. That's not hard to do," Ballard said. "But to draft talent with character, that's difficult. That doesn't always come together. And we've been really fortunate around here to be able to do it as part of who we are and what we look for, and our scouts do a tremendous job vetting each and every player and we have a very strict criteria of what we're looking for."
Paye said that work ethic is the product of watching his mom work so hard to support him and his brother. Paye's mother, Agnes, was a refugee of the first Liberian civil war who fled to Sierra Leone, where she gave birth to Paye's brother, Komotay Koffie; she later fled to Guinea, where Paye was born. The family then moved to Rhode Island, where Paye picked up football.
"What his backstory tells you is this kid, he's got some survival skills and when it gets hard in this league, he's going to be able to handle it," Ballard said. "This is a hard league. It's hard and you're going to fail. Players are going to fail. You're going to have some bad moments and you gotta have something in side of you that allows you to push through it."
"I think it's one of the really good things that our scouts are able to do is to find those type of players, from Quenton (Nelson) to Braden (Smith) to Darius (Leonard), you can go down the list of guys who, they might not have had the first start to their careers (be) great. But they just kept battling and they have a confidence level that they're going to be good players in this league. And I think Kwity has that."
*2. Paye adds another brick to what the Colts are building on defense. *
Ballard said he keeps these words from Rod Marinelli, who was the Bears' defensive coordinator when Ballard was Chicago's director of pro scouting in 2012, in mind: "The star of the defense is the defense."
Paye's impressive individual profile is one thing. But how he fits on a defense with an established, impressive roster including Leonard, DeForest Buckner, Grover Stewart, Bobby Okereke, Xavier Rhodes, Kenny Moore, Julian Blackmon and plenty others? That's another thing.
"When you continue to drop talent that plays with the effort that we want to play with," Ballard said, "you're just going to continue to ascend."
Ballard, too, said he already heard from a number of players on the Colts' defense who were fired up about picking Paye.
"He already plays the way we want to play," Ballard said. "He's gonna fit in pretty quickly."
*3. It was much more about the player than it was the need. *
Most draft analysts predicted the Colts would use their first round pick on a defensive end or offensive tackle, two positions largely considered needs for this team. Paye, then, does fit a "need," but also doesn't play the other spot considered a "need" here.
Paye was the best player on the Colts' board when they went on the clock. So there was no need-based tiebreaker necessary.
"When you force something, you usually create two holes and you can't do that in the draft," Ballard said. "You have to take what you think is the best player at the time. If it's even, then sure, we'll take the need.
"But we didn't think it was even. We thought we thought we acquired a player that has got some unique talent and the character to match."
*4. Drafting Paye made more sense than trading down. *
One last thing here.
"We had a trade offer," Ballard said. "It wasn't enough to pass the player we were going to take. It just wasn't enough value for us to say let's move and pass a player that we think very highly of that fits our culture and fits what we want to do."
So for the first time since Ballard's first draft with the Colts, he kept his first round pick where it was. That meant landing Paye.
And, again, getting a player he and the team so thoroughly believe in was an easy call.
"When you get (a player) that's got a unique skillset with character," Ballard said, "man, that's a beautiful thing."