INDIANAPOLIS — "I like them picks."
That was Chris Ballard at the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine, asked by a reporter if he would consider moving up higher into the first round in that year's NFL Draft.
The phrase might seem simple at first glance, but it offers a true glimpse into Ballard's basic NFL Draft philosophy.
"I've always been under the premise in how I was taught in this league (that) the more picks you have — the more darts you have at the dart board — the better chance you have to hit on players," Ballard would later add.
Since the 2018 NFL Draft, particularly, Ballard's actions have certainly backed up those core beliefs. In 2018, 2019 and 2020, the team has been willing to trade down from, out completely out of, its first-round pick all three years in order to accumulate more valuable selections — or, in the case this year, an All-Pro defensive tackle.
Then, with a little more wheeling and dealing, Ballard and the Colts have oftentimes been able to double their return.
Moving further down into the first round, or out of it completely, the last three years has directly resulted in the addition of nine players, all of whom stand to remain key parts of the Colts' roster for the next couple of years at minimum: guard Quenton Nelson, tackle Braden Smith, defensive end Kemoko Turay, running back Jordan Wilkins, cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, defensive end Ben Banogu, cornerback Marvell Tell III, defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.
Here's how all those moves came to fruition:
March 17, 2018:
» Colts trade the No. 3-overall pick to the New York Jets in exchange for the Jets' first-round (sixth-overall) and two second-round (37th- and 49th-overall) picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, as well their second-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
2018 NFL Draft:
» Colts select guard Quenton Nelson at No. 6 overall. They then select tackle Braden Smith at No. 37 overall.
» The Colts then trade the No. 49-overall pick to the Philadelphia Eagles in exchange for the Eagles' second-round (52nd-overall) and fifth-round (169th-overall) selections in that year's draft. Indy then uses those picks on defensive end Kemoko Turay and running back Jordan Wilkins.
2019 NFL Draft:
» Colts trade the No. 26-overall pick to the Washington Redskins in exchange for the Redskins' second-round (46th-overall) pick, as well as their second-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.
» The Colts use their 2019 second-round pick acquired from the Jets to select cornerback Rock Ya-Sin at No. 34 overall.
» Indy then trades the 46th-overall pick it received from Washington to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for the Browns' second-round (49th-overall) and fifth-round (144th-overall) picks. The Colts then use those picks on defensive end Ben Banogu and cornerback Marvell Tell III.
March 18, 2020:
» Colts trade the 13th-overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
2020 NFL Draft:
» Colts use their 2020 second-round pick acquired from the Redskins to select wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. at No. 34 overall.
With the exception of Buckner and Pittman Jr., who will make their Colts debuts later this year, most of the players listed above have been key contributors, if not outright starters, since being selected by Indy:
» Nelson has quickly developed into one of the best, if not the best, interior offensive linemen in the NFL. The Colts' left guard has earned First-Team All-Pro honors his first two seasons, becoming just the seventh player since the 1970 NFL/AFL merger to accomplish that feat, and the first since the Chicago Bears' Devin Hester in 2006-07. Nelson, who was also named to the Pro Bowl his first two seasons, is also just the fourth NFL offensive lineman to earn First-Team All-Pro honors in his first two seasons, and is the first since Dick Huffman of the Los Angeles Rams in 1947-48.
» Smith was originally selected to eventually take over at right guard, but injuries and other circumstances pushed him outside to right tackle by the fifth week of his rookie season — and he hasn't budged since. Smith in 2018 was Pro Football Focus' third-highest rookie offensive lineman, and in 2019 was a key part to PFF's third-best offensive line in the NFL His 79.8 grade ranked seventh among all tackles and 12th among all offensive linemen. His run-blocking grade of 86.4 was third among tackles and fifth among all linemen.
» Turay certainly showed flashes of being a terror off the edge his rookie season in 2018, and was really starting to put it together to start the 2019 season before an ankle injury suffered Week 5 against the Kansas City Chiefs ended his year. At the time, Turay's 91.0 PFF pass-rushing grade and his 22.9 percent pressure rate ranked second among all qualifying edge defenders in the NFL. With a full recovery, Turay and the Colts are hoping he can get back to that level of domination in 2020 and beyond.
» Wilkins has racked up yards in big chunks his first two seasons as a key piece of depth at the running back position for the Colts. He's had 111 combined carries for 643 yards and three touchdowns in 2018 and 2019; over that span, his 5.79 yards-per-carry average ranks second in the NFL among all running backs with at least 111 carries. Wilkins' 6.02 yards-per-carry average in 2019 ranked first among all NFL running backs with at least 50 carries.
» Ya-Sin became an instant starter at cornerback for the Colts as a rookie last year, and seemed to get better and better with each passing week. In 15 games played with 13 starts, Ya-Sin finished with 62 total tackles (two for a loss) with one interception, five passes defensed and one fumble recovery, and was named to PFF's All-Rookie Team. He played the third-most snaps in the NFL among rookie cornerbacks, earning the sixth-best grade, and totaled the second-most tackles and the ninth-best catch rate and opponent passer rating.
» Banogu, like Turay, certainly showed flashes of what he can bring off the edge for the Colts' defense as a rookie in 2019. He played in all 16 games and finished with 11 tackles (three for a loss), 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, one forced fumble and one pass defensed. His late sack-forced fumble on quarterback Joe Flacco helped seal the Colts' Week 8 victory over the Denver Broncos.
» Tell III played sparingly the first few weeks of his rookie season in 2019, but would be counted on more and more as the season wore on, both at cornerback and on special teams. He played in 13 games with one start, and finished with 26 total tackles, five passes defensed and one forced fumble, while he also added four special teams stops. He'll compete for a cornerback job once again in 2020.
» Buckner, 26, has started all 63 games in which he's competed since being selected by the 49ers with the seventh-overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft. Over than span, Buckner, a team captain for the 49ers, collected 262 career tackles (38 for a loss) with 28.5 sacks, 11 passes defensed, seven fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles. He also has one fumble recovery for a touchdown and six career multiple-sack games. He was voted to the Pro Bowl in 2018, and named Second-Team All-Pro in 2019.
» Pittman Jr., is a 6-foot-4, 223-pound Southern California product, where he was one of the nation's top pass catchers in 2019, finishing with 101 receptions for 1,275 yards (12.6 yards per reception) and 11 touchdowns in 13 starts. Along the way, Pittman Jr. was named a Fred Biletnikoff Award finalist — presented annually to the top receiver in college football — and was also a Second-Team Associated Press All-American, as well as a First-Team All-Pac-12 selection. He stands to make an immediate impact on the Colts' offense.