Indianapolis Colts GM Bill Polian's strategy for the NFL Draft is, "First of all, you should take the best player."
The way things have been going in Indianapolis recently, it might be time for Polian to rethink this strategy. With a string of poor drafts, it is a miracle that the Colts have stayed good for as long as they have. Peyton Manning has covered up years of mistakes the Colts front office has committed in the draft, but now even he cannot save the day.
While there are seven round in the NFL Draft and diamonds in the rough can be found in the later rounds, the best talent is usually found in the 1st round. They are picked first, after all, for a reason. For example, 18 of the 32 starting NFL quarterbacks as of right now (Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Mark Sanchez, Joe Flacco, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer, Vince Young, Jason Campbell, Donovan McNabb, Eli Manning, Michael Vick, Jay Cutler, Matthew Stafford, Josh Freeman, Alex Smith, Sam Bradford, and of course, Peyton Manning) were 1st round picks. Drafting in the 1st round is where the Indianapolis Colts have struggled in recent years, and it is finally starting to show.
Since Peyton Manning was drafted in 1998, the Colts have spent six 1st round picks on offense and only four on defense (in 2004 and 2008 the Colts had no 1st round pick). Of those four defense 1st round picks, one has become a bona-fide star (DE Dwight Freeney, 2002), two became useful pieces (LB Rob Moore, 2000 and S Marlin Jackson, 2005), and one has not played enough to make a determination on (DE Jerry Hughes, 2010). While these picks have not necessarily been busts, only drafting one elite defensive player in 12 years is not a good percentage for a team.
More problematic for the Indianapolis Colts is the quality of the offensive 1st round picks. While RB Edgerrin James (1999), WR Reggie Wayne (2001), and TE Dallas Clark (2003) have worked out well, more recent 1st round picks have not. WR Anthony Gonzalez (2007) has been an absolute bust for the Colts. Since Peyton Manning can make a perfectly suitable receiving corps with Reggie Wayne, Dallas Clark, WRs Pierre Garcon (6th round, 2008), Austin Collie (4th round, 2009), Blair White (undrafted, 2010), and TE Jacob Tamme (4th round, 2008), the Anthony Gonzalez pick seems really wasteful.
The biggest issue with the Colts' drafting is their 2009 pick. RB Joseph Addai (2006) has served as a suitable replacement to Edgerrin James, racking up 2697 rushing yards, 895 receiving yards, 30 TDs, and 4.2 yards per carry from 2006 to 2008. Considering the fact that the Colts with Peyton Manning are a pass-first team, Addai was very productive. This makes the drafting of RB Donald Brown (2009), just three years after drafting Addai, extremely wasteful. There are barely enough carries for one running back in the Colts offense, and there are nowhere near enough for two. This needless waste of 1st round picks has left Indianapolis in the mess they are in now.
Since hindsight is 20/20, it is unfair to say that the Colts should have drafted LB LaMarr Woodley (picked 14 spots after Anthony Gonzalez) and LB James Laurinaitis (picked 8 spots after Donald Brown). However, it is fair to say that by neglecting the defense and wasting 1st round picks, the Colts have fallen into a state of decline. This decline is threatening to waste the final years of Peyton Manning's prime. The Colts have enough offense by now. They need to grind out what they can the rest of this year, then devote next year's draft to shoring up the defense and salvaging the time that Peyton Manning has left.
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