Colts GM gives rare peek at draft process, Quenton Nelson pick

Colts general manager Chris Ballard is steadfast in his philosophy of building through the draft. AP Photo/Darron Cummings

INDIANAPOLIS -- The room is situated in the back part of the facility. There are no windows, just several large desks lined up together and a gigantic dry erase board behind a film projector where Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard and his staff spent months watching countless hours of video of their 216 draft prospects. The days and hours strung together, like when they worked for 12 hours a day for 17 straight days in February.

But Ballard strolled into the room on Monday with a select few media members wearing jeans, a Colts sweatshirt and a pair of flip-flops. He was at ease on this evening because he came away feeling good about the franchise-record 11 players selected in the most pivotal draft of his young GM career.

Ballard spent more than two hours giving the group inside knowledge on how the Colts arrived at their draft decisions, from video breakdowns to prospect workouts, to the characteristics they expect from the players they draft, to what it was like leading up to the selection of Notre Dame guard Quenton Nelson with the No. 6 pick.

This process is uncommon for a lot of front-office executives around the NFL.

"The value to the player is for us, not anybody else," Ballard said. "What's the value to our team. I could care less to what public perception is. If there's any indecision, it's hard for me to pull the trigger on draft day. That's the heart of this, getting the right type of guy. Right type of people in the building. Are we always right? No, absolutely not. Everybody is going to have their misses."

There was no bigger decision for Ballard than the first-round pick at No. 6. The Colts hadn't drafted that high since taking Andrew Luck No. 1 overall in 2012. They would have selected No. 3 in 2018, but Ballard, who is steadfast in building the roster through the draft, traded back three spots with the New York Jets to collect two second-round picks in this year's draft and another second-round pick in next year's draft.

He believed there were eight premium players who weren't quarterbacks and knew the Colts would land one. Ballard's eyes were on one particular person. That's part of the reason he attended only one pro day this offseason: Nelson's.

Selecting a guard that high in the draft is uncommon -- there has been only one guard selected in the top 10 of the draft since 2007. But at the same time, the Colts were tired of getting punked at the line of scrimmage by opposing teams. Luck has been sacked 156 times and he didn't play a snap in 2017 when the Colts gave up an NFL-high 56 sacks. The Colts have started 17 different guards since Luck entered the league.

"[Experts] complain when our quarterback gets hit," Ballard said. "[We've] been hit more than any other quarterback in the league over the last five years, but people forget that on draft day. It's not sexy to draft on the O-line."

Ballard referred to Nelson's performance against Georgia, which played in the College Football Playoff National Championship last season, as the guard's "signature" game. It was easy to see why he liked the 6-foot-5, 325-pound Nelson so much when he put the film of his pro day at Notre Dame on the screen Monday.

"He'll get on his toes a little bit," Ballard said as the film played. "Quenton is so freaky that he can get himself in a bad position and get back into good position because of his flexibility and lower body and his core strength. He has really rare core strength."

There were the traditional agility drills, like the three-cone drill, sliding drills and attacking the pad shown over and over from every imaginable angle. But what stood out the most was Nelson's flexibility in stretching.

Yes, stretching.

Nelson, with just spandex shorts on, did free-standing squats where his rear end went below his knee level while maintaining a steady balance. Nelson warmed up by spreading his legs and having a full extension touching his toes on his left foot, his toes on his right foot and even straight ahead where he was basically flat on the ground.

We're not talking about a receiver, cornerback or running back. We're talking about an offensive lineman. That's nearly impossible for most offensive or defensive linemen.

"God just made him a little differently than he made the rest of us," Ballard said with a smile.

Ballard left the South Bend, Indiana, campus in March knowing he wanted Nelson. Part of the cat-and-mouse game when it comes to scouting is to not tip your hand by letting everybody know what you're thinking. That's why the Colts didn't bring Nelson in for a visit.

"When you're not there [at workouts], teams track it, they track where you're at and where you're sending people to work out people at, out to see if you’re interested," Ballard said. "There's some teams, I'm not going to name them, if they have a coach at their workout, there's no doubt that guy is on their draft board and they're interested."

Ballard didn't tell his wife who he planned to select. One of his sons had an idea it would be Nelson and his other children wanted them to take Penn State running back Saquon Barkley. Ballard told them that Barkley would be long gone by the time they picked. The New York Giants selected him at No. 2, afterall.

So much of Nelson's availability at No. 6 hinged on what happened with the four teams picking in the five spots in front of the Colts. The surprise -- the kind the Colts needed -- came when the Cleveland Browns took Ohio State cornerback Denzel Ward at No. 4. The Ward selection caused a lot of clapping inside the Colts draft room on that April 26 night because that meant Nelson or NC State pass-rusher Bradley Chubb would fall to them at No. 6. The Broncos took Chubb at No. 5 and Ballard couldn't wait to get the "easiest pick I've ever been a part of" turned into the NFL.

"I turned the pick in quick," he said. "The league had told us to wait until after five minutes. And after I did it, I was like, 'oh s---,' I turned it in too quick."

But what would the Colts have done if the Broncos took a different player and left Nelson and Chubb on the board?

"There would have been a discussion," Ballard said. "But [Nelson] has more upside. Chubb is a great player, an absolute tremendous player. This kid [Nelson] is really unique and his makeup is unique."

Nelson's nastiness and ability to dominate at the line of scrimmage was well documented over his career at Notre Dame. An intangible that won't show up in the eyes of the casual fan is Nelson's work ethic.

"You take a guy like this, this tells your locker room what you stand for," Ballard said. "When he walks [in] and they watch him work and watch him play, watch him practice, this is the standard. He stands for all the right things. Stands for team. Stands for pushing his teammates."