INDIANAPOLIS -- It was about this time last year that the Indianapolis Colts' front office converged on Mobile, Alabama, and watched as linebacker Darius Leonard from little-known South Carolina State University was one of the standouts during the Senior Bowl. Then, during the spring, general manager Chris Ballard traveled almost three hours north of Indianapolis to South Bend, Indiana, and watched Quenton Nelson put on one of the best pro day workouts he's ever seen.
Nelson and Leonard ended up being the first two players Ballard chose, and they didn't disappoint, becoming the first rookie teammates to be named to the All-Pro team since Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus did it with the Chicago Bears in 1965. Nelson also made the Pro Bowl team while Leonard was arguably the NFL's biggest snub.
Beyond the individual accolades, Leonard and Nelson were and will continue to be the anchors of what was the NFL's best draft class in 2018. Nine of the Colts' 11 picks were starters or rotational players at different points during the season. Receiver Deon Cain, who was selected in the sixth round, didn't play a snap this season after tearing his ACL in the preseason opener at Seattle in early August.
"So after the draft, we were excited," Ballard said. "I think you could tell the day we all got together that we were pretty excited about this entire class and that we thought we had done something pretty special. But I wish you would have seen the draft room after the draft. We all hung out, had a few pops, called Uber to get home, but we thought we had done something pretty cool."
Ballard and his staff should have celebrated throughout the year, because the general manager couldn't have drawn things up any better -- especially when it comes to Nelson and Leonard.
There was a lot of buzz surrounding Georgia linebacker Roquan Smith as a possible pick at No. 6 for the Colts. But Ballard dropped breadcrumb hints on which direction they were leaning when he spoke often about needing to control both sides of the line of scrimmage.
He snagged Nelson with the Colts' first pick and then Leonard with their first pick in the second round. The Colts were criticized for taking Leonard, who played at a Football Championship Subdivision school, so high in the draft.
Leonard, like he has throughout his life, proved doubters wrong as he led the NFL in tackles (163), with 16.5 for a loss, to go with seven sacks. He showed the maturity to lead the defense and is considered one of the front-runners to win NFL Rookie Defensive Player of the Year.
Leonard, who is listed at 234 pounds, said he wants to play next season at 225 and also avoid being "banged up," as he was for much of this season.
"There's no such thing as too small," Leonard said. "I'm just a competitor. I want to beat the guy in front of me."
Nelson, a starter from Day 1, played all 1,136 offensive snaps on an offensive line that gave up an NFL-low 18 sacks and helped the unit finish seventh in total offense.
This group of rookies can't be looked at as one-hit wonders. They have to take another step next season, as keeping homegrown talent and having a group to build around will continue to be a priority for Ballard.
"I think as time goes on, they got to continue to prove it," Ballard said. "I mean, that was kind of my message to them: 'All right, we did it once, but now we got to do it again, and then you got to do it again and that takes a high level of commitment.' ... I am proud of the character and what they stand for and what they will continue to stand for, for this organization."