INDIANAPOLIS — When Chris Ballard said he was going to utilize an “inside-out” approach heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, he meant it.
His first pick? Quenton Nelson, a guard, at No. 6 overall.
His third pick? Braden Smith, another offensive lineman, at 37th overall — one of four Colts second-round choices.
Teams with tough, physical offensive fronts typically are in playoff contention down the stretch, Ballard said, and by setting the tone by picking guys like Nelson and Smith, the Colts believed they were setting themselves up very well for the future.
Well, due to some circumstances, the future, we’ve learned, is now.
Heading into Week 14, Nelson and Smith are both key pieces to a Colts offensive line that has surprised many as one of the best units in the entire National Football League. And, just like Ballard predicted, the improvements made up front have directly led to more success on the scoreboard, and Indy, at 6-6, finds itself in the AFC postseason picture entering the second week of December.
So perhaps it comes as no surprise that the Colts’ two young, talented youngsters up front are getting a little recognition down the stretch.
In fact, Around the NFL writer Chris Wesseling has named both Nelson and Smith to his 2018 NFL All-Rookie Team on offense.
» Nelson, who has played every single offensive snap for the Colts at left guard so far this season, has been as advertised coming out of Notre Dame. His nasty streak in one-on-one opportunities has presented weekly highlights, and his elite ability to pull out of the guard position and get into space and lead block has caused nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators. Here’s what Wesseling had to write about why he picked Nelson — the first guard ever to be named AFC Offensive Rookie of the Month — for his 2018 NFL All-Rookie Team:
“Nelson has improved throughout the season, becoming the first guard in NFL history to capture Offensive Rookie of the Month honors back in October. Coaches and teammates credit the draft's No. 6 overall pick for instilling an infectiously punishing playing style that has turned the perennially overmatched Colts offensive line into a fortress for Andrew Luck.”
» It took a little while longer for Smith to get the opportunity to make his impact, meanwhile, Primarily a guard at Auburn, the Colts initially placed Smith as the second-string right guard behind veteran Matt Slauson, who would be able to teach the rookie the ropes until he was ready to take over. But injuries and other issues actually pushed Smith to right tackle by Week 5, and he’s been a mainstay at that spot ever since. In fact, since the Colts inserted Smith at right tackle, the team has allowed just five combined sacks over the course of nine games. Here’s what Wesseling wrote about Smith:
“The dramatic transformation from blocking dummies to bodyguards across Indianapolis' offensive line coincided with Smith's promotion to the starting lineup in October. This has been one of the league's most reliable units ever since.”
For what it’s worth, the Colts were the only AFC South Division team represented on Wesseling’s 2018 NFL All-Rookie Team on offense.
We’re yet to see Wesseling’s 2018 NFL All-Rookie Team on defense, but one would imagine at least one Colts player will make an appearance on that, too. Stay tuned.