Draft Grades: Colts GM Ballard aces 2018 draft

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May 23—In his second draft as Indianapolis Colts general manager, Chris Ballard knocked it out of the park. This draft class is heavy with star power at the top, and it still could add a Pro Bowler or two to the mix in coming years. The depth was also outstanding in the later rounds with valuable contributors being uncovered all the way through the final selection.

Here's a look back at the Class of 2018:

Round 1, Pick 6: Quenton Nelson, OG, Notre Dame

Grade: A+

Summary: The pick itself earns the highest grade. Nelson already is a three-time first-team All-Pro and regarded as one of the best offensive linemen in the NFL. But it also comes with extra credit. The Colts held the No. 3 overall pick before trading down with the New York Jets — who selected Southern Cal quarterback Sam Darnold. In addition to Nelson, the resulting haul of draft picks yielded three more regular contributors and a valuable reserve. By any measure, that's tremendous value for a single top-10 pick.

Round 2, Pick 36: Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State

Grade: A+

Summary: Infamously labeled the year's worst draft pick in Bleacher Report's instant grade, Leonard was named the 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and is a two-time first-team All-Pro. He's also proven to be a strong locker-room leader and stat machine. Through three seasons, Leonard's versatility has produced 416 tackles, 15 sacks, seven interceptions and nine forced fumbles.

Round 2, Pick 37: Braden Smith, RT, Auburn

Grade: A-

Summary: Drafted as a guard, injuries caused the Colts to give Smith a shot at right tackle. He wound up starting 13 games in 2018 and being named to the All-Rookie team. Smith played at a Pro Bowl level in 2020 but wasn't properly rewarded. Taken with a pick from the deal with the Jets, he's improved in each of his first three seasons and has become an anchor on one of the league's best offensive lines.

Round 2, Pick 52: Kemoko Turay, DE, Rutgers

Grade: B-

Summary: There have been flashes of Turay's potential — including four sacks as a rookie — but his career thus far has been marked by injuries. He played in just four games in 2019 and seven last year because of a gruesome ankle injury that did not heal correctly. As a result, Turay has produced a total of just 2.5 sacks over the past two years. He's also the fruit of the trade with the Jets — after another trade down with the Philadelphia Eagles — and there are high hopes he'll finally be able to deliver on his vast promise in 2021.

Round 2, Pick 64: Tyquan Lewis, DL, Ohio State

Grade: B-

Summary: Another trade, this time a move up with the Cleveland Browns that cost Indianapolis the 67th and 178th overall picks. Like Turay, this grade could rise in future years. A foot injury cost Lewis half of his rookie year, and he was never able to get on track in Year 2. But 2020 saw a refocused and determined Lewis begin to deliver on his potential. He appeared in all 16 games with four starts and finished with a career-high four sacks. He's in line to start 2021 in the hybrid defensive end-defensive tackle role formerly filled by Denico Autry.

Round 4, Pick 104: Nyheim Hines, RB, North Carolina State

Grade: B

Summary: A perfect fit for the Colts' offense, Hines' versatility has resulted in 893 rushing yards, 1,227 receiving yards and 13 combined touchdowns over his first three seasons. He's also averaged 14.9 yards with a pair of touchdowns as a punt returner and 21.4 yards as a kickoff return man. All while never missing a game.

Round 5, Pick 159: Reece Fountain, WR, Northern Iowa

Grade: C-

Summary: After a trade down with the Raiders, Ballard took a flier on Fountain. Ultimately, it didn't pay off. The wide receiver spent much of his rookie season on the practice squad then suffered a horrific ankle injury during training camp in 2019. He returned last year and appeared in five games with two catches for 23 yards — representing the entirety of his regular season production with Indianapolis. Fountain signed this spring with the Kansas City Chiefs after a tryout.

Round 5, Pick 169: Jordan Wilkins, RB, Ole Miss

Grade: C+

Summary: Also a product of the trade down with Philadelphia that netted Turay, Wilkins has proven to be a valuable rotational running back. In three years, he's rushed for 951 yards and four touchdowns while showing a knack for making big plays off the bench.

Round 6, Pick 185: Deon Cain, WR, Clemson

Grade: D+

Summary: Another pick from the trade down with the Raiders, Cain showed flashes of his potential during his rookie training camp but lost the entire season to an injury. He returned in 2019 but couldn't live up to the hype, catching four passes for 52 yards in seven games before being signed off the practice squad by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Baltimore Ravens will be next to attempt to unlock Cain's vast promise in 2021.

Round 7, Pick 221: Matthew Adams, LB, Houston

Grade: C+

Summary: Adams has carved out a role as a depth linebacker and special teams stalwart. He's made nine starts over three seasons in Indianapolis and played 72% of the special teams snaps in 2019. Injuries limited him to just nine games last year, but he'll be in the mix to make the roster for the fourth straight year.

Round 7, Pick 235: Zaire Frankin, LB, Syracuse

Grade: C+

Summary: A natural leader, Franklin has become a captain on special teams and likely will compete with E.J. Speed to be the starting strong-side linebacker in 2021. He has 54 career tackles and hasn't missed a game over three seasons with the Colts.

OVERALL GRADE: A

The first two picks already have five first-team All-Pro selections between them and are among the best players in the NFL at their position. And the third pick is on track to soon join the group as a Pro Bowl selection. If Turay and Lewis can deliver in increased roles in 2021, the second round could become an historically significant haul. Hines has been a productive player in a number of roles, and Wilkins, Adams and Franklin provide valuable depth with the ability to make plays when called upon. The gambles on the two receivers didn't pan out, but they were well worth the risk in the fifth and sixth rounds. This would be a great draft class on the strength of Nelson and Leonard alone, but it's depth has made it a foundational group.

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