INDIANAPOLIS — The opportunities have been few and far between the last couple decades — and that's a good thing.
But when the Indianapolis Colts have missed the playoffs, at least since 1994, they have turned in an impressive list of first-round picks in the following year's NFL Draft.
It was a trend highlighted Wednesday by longtime Colts beat reporter Mike Chappell in his CBS4 article, "Colts have been adept at finding elite talent after missing playoffs; can they again?"
"The franchise obviously has a track record of getting them right in those situations," said Bill Polian, the longtime Colts general manager and current ESPN analyst, via Chappell.
Polian, of course, was a major reason why many of those picks came to fruition. It was under his Hall of Fame eye that three of these seven players were picked: quarterback Peyton Manning (1998), running back Edgerrin James (1999) and edge rusher Dwight Freeney (2002).
Those are three future Hall of Famers.
The first player to start this trend is a Hall of Famer — running back Marshall Faulk, who was selected second overall in 1994 out of San Diego State.
The following year, after an 8-8/non-playoffs season for the Colts, the team selected defensive tackle Ellis Johnson with the 15th overall pick. While his name certainly doesn't stand out like the others on this list, that doesn't mean Johnson didn't have a solid career. He was a consistent starter (84 of 104 games played) and notched 33 sacks, but came along at a time when the Colts weren't quite the perennial Super Bowl contenders they would develop to be.
In 1998, of course, the team took Manning with the first-overall pick, going with the Tennessee kid over the ultra-talented Ryan Leaf. That one worked out in the Colts' favor. Manning is soon Canton-bound.
The next year, James was picked fourth overall, giving the Colts a tremendous, young offensive trio in Manning, James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison. James has since been a Hall of Fame finalist in multiple years, and should be elected soon.
The Colts would turn in a disappointing 6-10 season in 2001, but they struck gold again in the next year's draft, taking defensive end Dwight Freeney 11th overall out of Syracuse. Freeney gave Indy the constant pass-rushing threat it had so desperately needed, and 122.5 sacks later, he's still going in the NFL. One would imagine he's headed for Canton when it's all said and done, too.
The two more recent examples of this trend are still writing their chapters in the Colts' record books. The team selected quarterback Andrew Luck first-overall in 2012 after a 2-14 campaign the season prior, and he has been as advertised — and last offseason was paid like it.
Then, last year, the Colts went 8-8 and narrowly missed out on a playoff berth. So they went out and drafted center Ryan Kelly the following April, who would go on to start all 16 games in a rookie campaign in which he did not allow a single sack.
So does this trend mean the Colts will automatically pick a stud on Thursday night, when they go on the clock at No. 15 overall? Indianapolis, of course, went 8-8 again last season and missed out on a postseason berth.
The short answer is no. As many know, there are no guarantees when it comes to the National Football League.
But first-year Colts general manager Chris Ballard certainly hopes to keep this trend alive. Ballard, at least in his public comments, has been adamant in making sure the team chooses the best player available each time they go on the clock — not necessarily picking based off needs — which is an approach that worked well for Polian.
"I always told our guys that if we're going to be wrong, let's be wrong for the right reason," Polian said, via Chappell. "Let's be wrong because we had a conviction on a guy. Let's be wrong because we thought he would be better than he was. Let's don't be wrong because we tried to put a square peg in a round hole.''
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