This offseason, Colts general manager Chris Ballard emphasized a directive for his scouting staff:
"We have to be more explosive on offense."
In adding wide receiver Alec Pierce and tight end Jelani Woods – the Colts' first two picks in the 2022 NFL Draft – Ballard felt like that directive was addressed on Friday.
But then, on top of of those two picks, the Colts added two more players with the kind of high-end athletic traits the team covets in Central Michigan tackle Bernhard Raimann and Maryland safety Nick Cross.
"We always ask, what's unique?" Ballard said. "We can just go through all the guys we've drafted – we haven't been 100-percent, but back to Quenton (Nelson), he was a unique size and shape and power. (Michael) Pittman had strength, size. We're always asking ourselves, what's unique and what's going to distinguish him when he gets in the league. What's going to give him the advantage to play? Nyheim (Hines), speed, ability to create with the ball in his hands. You go through each guy, and you hope you're taking guys with those unique traits."
So with that in mind, here's why the Colts on Friday identified Pierce, Woods, Raimann and Woods as guys they want on their team:
Cincinnati WR Alec Pierce (No. 53 overall)
The Colts began the night by trading down with the Minnesota Vikings from No. 42 to No. 53, while adding a third-round pick (No. 77 – used on Raimann) and a sixth-round pick (No. 192) and sending the Vikings a fourth-round pick (No. 122).
And with the No. 53 pick, the Colts selected Pierce, who impressed them during a private workout in Cincinnati and brings size, speed and toughness to Reggie Wayne's wide receiver room.
Pierce had 884 yards on 52 catches with eight touchdowns as a senior with the College Football Playoff-bound Bearcats in 2021. The 6-foot-3, 211 pound wideout, who has 33-inch arms and a 79-inch wingspan, ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine – and all those physical traits match the stats and what he put on tape over his time at Cincinnati.
"He's got really good size, has really good vertical speed," Ballard said. "He's got work to do, but like any rookie receiver that comes into the league. But we think he's got a chance to really ascend. Just put on the Notre Dame game. I mean he played about as well as you could play against a top-five college football team."
(Pierce had six catches for 144 yards in Cincinnati's win over Notre Dame in South Bend last fall.)
The Colts see Pierce as someone with the flexibility to play inside and outside, which fits head coach Frank Reich's expectation for his wide receivers to have positional versatility. And Pierce's toughness as a blocker should fit well in a group of receivers that's played a sneaky role in the success of the Colts' run game over the last few years – especially with the departure of Zach Pascal to the Eagles in free agency.
"He's a big target, we think he's going to be able to do a lot of the stuff that Zach did blocking for us in the run game," Ballard said. "Which is really important. I don't see an issue with him being able to go inside."
Virginia TE Jelani Woods (No. 73 overall)
The first thing you notice with Woods is he's big (6-foot-7, 253) and long (34 1/2-inch arms – which are as long or longer than all five of the offensive tackles drafted in this year's first round).
The second thing: He can run, he can block and he can catch.
"He's got really big upside both as a receiving tight end and as a blocker," Ballard said. "We think he's going to be able to block. He did it at Oklahoma State, but he's a unique athlete and he's a guy that's always open. It's kind of like Mo (Alie-Cox). When you're 6-7, the quarterback can put the ball up and he's athletic enough to be able to make a play on it. This kid can run. This kid can really run so we're excited to get him."
Woods was primarily a blocking tight end during his four years at Oklahoma State – he converted to tight end from quarterback shortly after arriving on campus as a freshman – but exploded for 44 catches, 598 yards and eight touchdowns after transferring to Virginia in 2021. Pairing him with the 6-foot-5, 267-pound Alie-Cox as "Y" (in-line) tight ends in Reich's offense gives the Colts blocking and receiving upside in the wake of Jack Doyle's retirement earlier this year.
Add in the Colts' confidence in second-year "F" (move) tight end Kylen Granson and Ballard sees encouraging playmaking and blocking upside from Klayton Adams' group.
"(Woods) is a big man. I think he's got 230 pounds of lean mass on his body," Ballard said. "He's probably going to play at about 255-260 (pounds). It'll take him some time to learn how to really block, but he did it at Oklahoma State. So, we think he'll be able to do it here."
Central Michigan OT Bernhard Raimann (No. 77 overall)
No player was mocked more frequently by draft analysts to the Colts than Raimann – but every single one of those mocks had him going in the second round, not the third round. In the 6-foot-6, 303 pound Austrian, the Colts believe they landed a player in the third round with the talent to play left tackle and the upside to compete for a starting job on their offensive line, wherever that may be.
"We do think he has that talent (to play left tackle), but what we'll do is we'll get the best five on the field," Ballard said. "If he is one of the best five, he'll be on the field whether it's at tackle, guard – whatever the coaches think are the best five, we'll get them on the field. But we think he has starter talent on the o-line."
Raimann certainly did not take a well-traveled path to the Colts. He played one year of high school football as a foreign exchange student in the Detroit area, then started his college career as a tight end before moving to left tackle in 2020. He navigated that position switch – in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, no less – incredibly well and, according to Pro Football Focus, allowed just one sack in 690 pass blocking snaps in college.
And the Colts see plenty more upside in Raimann as he'll continue his development as an offensive linemen under the watch of Chris Strausser and Kevin Mawae in Indianapolis.
"He blocked people on tape, that's number one," Ballard said. "Even with his traits, he was productive. He's still learning how to play the position but if you just look at his growth from his – so, the COVID year, he was a tight end his first two years, moves to tackle and then the growth from his junior to his senior season, we think he's going to keep taking those incremental jumps.
"This is a smart guy now. I want to say he's got his degree in actuarial science. This guy is brilliant. He's got a great story, I'll let him tell it but he's got a great story."
Maryland S Nick Cross (No. 96 overall)
The Colts traded back into the third round to draft the speedy, hard-hitting Cross, sending the Denver Broncos the No. 179 pick and a 2023 third-round pick to get their guy. The thought process behind trading back into the third round, Ballard said, was simple.
"I remember asking the group like, 'Where would you take this kid if he was in next year's draft?'" Ballard said. "And it was second round, so we don't have any problem giving our third next year to go get him."
Cross had the fastest 40-yard dash time among safeties at the NFL Combine this year (4.34 seconds) and picked off six passes over 29 games (21 starts) in three seasons at Maryland. He was a core special teamer for the Terrapins, too, and he still has plenty of development ahead of him as one of the younger players in this year's draft.
"Just a really good athlete that can run," Ballard said. "He's young. He's not even 21 years old yet."
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