INDIANAPOLIS — Smart teams in the NFL invest in, and have the ability to find, young talent that they can build their roster around.
The Indianapolis Colts definitely fit that description after making several significant draft picks and free agent/waiver pickups over the last few years.
Marc Sessler from NFL.com recognized those young building blocks for the Colts when compiling his 2020 All-Under-25 Team, adding Colts right tackle Braden Smith, left guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Bobby Okereke to the squad.
While Smith and Nelson have been established starters for two years now, Okereke shined in spurts as a rookie last year and looks to add more playing time in 2020. Here's Sessler's evaluation of all three players, with additional supporting evidence of their selections:
OT Braden Smith
Indianapolis Colts · Age: 24
No questions linger over Smith, either, with the second-year Colts tackle scoring PFF's fourth-highest run-blocking mark at the position as an integral part of one of the AFC's top lines.
While fellow 2018 draftee Nelson has certainly earned every accolade that has come his way, Smith — who has started 28 consecutive games for the Colts and has only missed one snap in that time— has also quietly established himself as one of the top young offensive linemen in the league.
As a rookie — he was drafted to play right guard, but switched to tackle in Week 5 — Smith was the third-highest-graded first-year offensive lineman (71.4), according to Pro Football Focus, trailing only Nelson (76.7) and fellow right tackle Mike McGlinchey (73.2) of the San Francisco 49ers.
In 2019, Smith really took a step forward. He showed his chops as a dominant run blocker for the Colts' No. 7 rushing attack, ranking as the fifth-best offensive lineman in the NFL in run blocking with a grade of 86.4, according to PFF. Specifically, the Colts ran the ball 88 times behind Smith or to his outside for 483 yards (5.5 avg.), four touchdowns and 12 runs of 10-plus yards.
His big-time road-grading as a run blocker helped clear a path for Smith to be PFF's seventh-best offensive tackle overall with a grade of 79.8, and he was one of only 12 tackles to be flagged for five or fewer penalties.
In pass protection, Smith was the No. 12-ranked tackle with a 68.1 grade. It's an area in which he continues to improve, and once he does, Smith should start earning some serious recognition.
See some of the best photos of Indianapolis Colts offensive lineman Braden Smith.
OG Quenton Nelson
Indianapolis Colts · Age: 24
Forget the age restrictions: Nelson is already the finest guard in all of football. One of the most complete interior linemen of the 21st century, the third-year blocker cuts the figure of a mauler who could thrive in any era. It's a shame Andrew Luck didn't get his services sooner, but Philip Rivers isn't complaining.
Not surprised by this one, are you?
After starting his career with two consecutive Pro Bowls nods and two First-Team All-Pro selections, Nelson is already a household name.
His second season in 2019 was even better than his breakout rookie campaign in 2018 as he earned PFF's No. 2 grade among all offensive linemen (91.2).
Nelson is one of, if not the, best run blockers in the NFL after recording a grade of 90.1, which ranked third overall. In pass protection, he's nearly as overwhelming after earning a grade of 82.8, which ranked 14th overall in the NFL in 2019. Nelson was one of just 25 NFL linemen to allow 20 or fewer total pressures on the quarterback, and one of nine to allow zero sacks. He was also one of 21 interior offensive linemen to be docked for three or fewer penalties despite his aggressive and physical — yet clean — style of play.
The Colts' front has been one of the NFL's best run-blocking and pass-protecting units in the NFL since Nelson's arrival in 2018, and that's no coincidence.
LB Bobby Okereke
Indianapolis Colts · Age: 23
Many to pick from with Devin Bush, Devin White and Dre Greenlaw showing plenty as rookies. Okereke produced the most complete campaign of the bunch, though, finishing as PFF's ninth-rated linebacker with an ability to line up all over the field. He's dynamic in coverage, too, more of a need than ever in today's NFL. Colts general manager Chris Ballard has an eye for stacking talent in the middle of his defense, pairing Okereke with alpha dog Darius Leonard to cause a special blend of havoc in Indy.
Like Sessler mentioned, other rookie linebackers received fanfare in 2019, but none were technically better than Okereke, whose 77.3 grade from PFF was tops among rookie linebackers — almost 11 points higher than the next player — and No. 8 overall among all NFL linebackers.
PFF put Okereke on its 2019 All-Rookie Team as a result.
"Bobby Okereke, he's got somethin' real special in his body," Colts general manager Chris Ballard said at his end-of-season press conference. "I think you saw the flashes."
The Stanford product started 8-of-16 games as a rookie, primarily as the SAM linebacker. He totaled 58 tackles (two for loss), 1.0 sack, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovered, two pass breakups, one quarterback hit, and he intercepted and returned a two-point conversion attempt for points. He was credited with only five missed tackles throughout the season, which were the fourth fewest among qualifying linebackers.
Okereke was especially effective in pass coverage, which is critical for a 4-3 linebacker in today's spread-'em-out NFL.
He allowed the second-fewest yards per reception among rookie linebackers (7.4), the third-fewest yards after catch (120) and the fourth-best opponent passer rating (102.0). Overall, he ranked 10th among NFL off-ball linebackers in coverage with a grade of 79.2.
WHERE'S THE REST?
You might be saying to yourself, "Smith, Nelson and Okereke deserve to be on the list, but what about some of the Colts' other young players?"
It's important to note — per Sessler — "to be eligible, players must be younger than 25 years old on Sept. 10, the day the season kicks off."
Yes, guys like linebacker Darius Leonard and cornerback Kenny Moore are among the best at their position in the NFL, but both will be 25 years old by the time the 2020 NFL season is scheduled to begin, thus disqualifying them from contention on this list.
The Colts have done quite well on NFL.com's All-Under-25 Team in recent memory, however.
In 2019, Leonard, Nelson and Smith made the list, preceded by punter Rigoberto Sanchez in 2018 and center Ryan Kelly in 2017 — all of whom continue to be important cogs in the machine that is the Colts' roster.