INDIANAPOLIS — It's not often that a team invests a top-10 NFL Draft pick in an interior offensive lineman; in fact, it's been done just four times in the last 10 years.
The Indianapolis Colts did it this spring, though, when they selected Quenton Nelson with the sixth-overall pick out of Notre Dame. Less than a year later, and you can already chalk the pick up as an early success.
This week at the conclusion of the NFL's 2018 regular season, Pro Football Focus named Nelson to its All-Pro Team as its second-team selection at left guard.
Just a rookie, Nelson is already making a huge impact on his team, as one would hope for a player from an uncommonly high-drafted position. Like Colts general manager Chris Ballard mentioned before the draft, this is what they envisioned.
"Look, I learned early, if you think a guy has got a chance to be a difference maker at any position, it doesn't matter, you take him. You take him," Ballard said.
Nelson was named to the Pro Bowl in just his first year; the first Colts offensive lineman to do so since 2010 and the first Colts rookie offensive lineman to do it since 1983. He was also the first offensive guard ever to be named the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Month when he was recognized for his performance in the month of October.
"What an offensive lineman like Quenton brings you — that you draft with the sixth pick — is it brings you a toughness," Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni told reporters about Nelson's value despite being a guard. "That's going to be a staple for your organization and for your offense starting up front. So yeah, it may not be as flashy. Obviously, Saquon Barkley is a phenomenal player and he's got a lot of yards but there's no doubt in my mind that he impacts it just as much because of what he does for everybody else and what he does to a defensive lineman all game long."
Among PFF's rankings, Nelson earned a grade of 74.3, which was tops among all rookie offensive linemen. He finished as the sixth-overall guard and the second left guard, behind only Joel Bitonio of the Cleveland Browns.
"He has done two things. One, his presence not just on game day but it is every day. The way he approaches practice and meetings, he has been all in in every phase," Colts head coach Frank Reich recently told reporters about Nelson's impact. "In that regard it's obvious what he is doing on game day in setting Marlon (Mack) free, protecting Andrew (Luck) and those kinds of things. But when you are doing it every day and making guys better every day in practice, that cumulative effect of that I think really multiplies as the year goes on when you have a player like that."
Nelson didn't miss a snap all season, his 1,136 snaps ranking second among all guards. In 406 run-blocking snaps, he received a grade of 69.8, which was seventh among all guards and third among left guards.
The Colts had a middle-of-the-road run game for the last several seasons until this year. They ran for at least 100 yards as a team in eight-of-16 games, including 442 combined in Weeks 7 and 8. Nelson and the offensive line helped pave the way for running back Marlon Mack to have a big season, averaging 75.7 rushing yards per game including four 100-yard games and scoring nine rushing touchdowns.
Nelson earned even higher marks in pass blocking with an 81.9 grade, ranking 13th among all guards and fifth among left guards. In the passing game, Nelson allowed 23 total pressures — two sacks, four hits and 17 hurries.
This was easily the best protection quarterback Andrew Luck has had during his career, and probably the best the Colts have seen in at least a decade. The Colts allowed the fewest sacks in the league (18) and had the best sack rate (2.8 percent). The Colts went from the first drive of Week 5 through Week 12 without giving up a sack — Luck's 239 pass attempts in that time ranking as the third-longest in NFL history without a sack.
Nelson pointed to that midseason stretch where the Colts were dominant on the ground as a sort of turning point of sorts for him.
"I would say when we started running the football more. When we made the decision that, 'Hey, we're going to run the football against the Bills and that's how we are going to win this game.' The whole entire offense, wide receivers, tight ends included blocked their butts off and played very physical," Nelson said. "I would say it was then that I started to settle in more."
Leave it to a mauler, of course, to point to an improved run game as his personal turning point.
Nelson also mentioned — with the help of some great leadership — that he feels he's grown and improved every week throughout the season.
"I would say just learning every single week. I made a ton of mistakes that I've just learned from since Week 1," Nelson said. "I still have a lot to learn but it's been a good process. I am lucky to have teammates on the offensive line like Ryan (Kelly), AC (Anthony Castonzo) and every one that I have played next to — Slau (Matt Slauson) and veteran guys to let me know what I am doing right and what I am doing wrong, just to be there and have my back all the time."
The numbers actually support Nelson's feeling that he improved throughout the season.
The 16-game regular season is often broken into quarters — four games each — and you can see Nelson's growth according to PFF's grade. In the first quarter, Nelson's average grade was 60, followed by 71.4 in the second, 68.7 in the third and then 69.8 in the fourth.
The playoffs are potentially a whole other quarter of the season — wild card, divisional, conference championship rounds and then ultimately the Super Bowl. What might we see from Nelson if the Colts are able to make it that far?