Indianapolis Colts: Examining Comparative Success from 2007-2010 NFL Drafts

Collin McCollough@cmccolloNFL Deputy EditorNovember 9, 2011

Any pundit off the street could recite the same anti-Bill Polian, anti-Indianapolis Colts rhetoric he's heard on airwaves over the course of the Colts' disastrous 2011 season.

The Colts are a trainwreck.

Bill and Chris Polian have run the Colts into the ground.

Without Peyton Manning, the Colts are nothing.

Indianapolis is reaping what it has sowed over the last four years of its draft history, proving Polian has lost his prowess.

And while these sentiments are somewhat understandable, and many aspects of the Colts' franchise are deservedly under fire, many of them are launched on the surface level only.  That is, they don't consider context.  They don't consider numbers.  They don't consider anything outside of the bottomless pit that currently constitutes Indy's sinkhole of a season.

Take the Colts' recent draft history, for example.

Many critics will point to recent first-round draft picks as evidence of draft day failures: Jerry Hughes in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Donald Brown in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft and Anthony Gonzalez in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft—none of which are currently any higher than number three on the depth chart in their respective decisions, and some of whom are lucky to still be on the roster in the first place after teams failed to bite at the trade deadline.

Others will point to disappointing second round selections in Mike Pollak and Fili Moala, both of whom are only starters by default and nowhere near good or above-average players.  Most will point to Tony Ugoh, the famed 2007 second round bust who cost the Colts their 2008 first round pick.

They're not wrong to point the finger.

But they're not entirely right either.

Fact is, we can dive into the numbers, into contextual logic.  And we will.  But a basic eyeball test isn't without its merits.  I'm not sure you can ever truly review the success of a draft, or a draft history, based on a single metric.  I'd like to think you should consider a variety of measurements, one of which is asking the simple question as to whether or not a first or second round pick, generally regarded to be the future impact players of a roster, are indeed making an impact.

And of all Indy first and second round picks from 2007 to 2010, you could only truly argue that 2010 second-rounder Pat Angerer is making an impact.  The rest range from cut to sub-par starter.

From a basic production standpoint, the Colts have not received much return on investment for their first two rounds since 2007.

Still, that argument won't appease some, including Nate Dunlevy of 18to88, who argues that bad drafting is NOT a crime of the Colts' front office, specifically in the first two rounds.

Not enough context.  Not enough consideration of Indy's draft position, and how teams have performed drafting from similar positions.

This, of course, raises what is one of the biggest logical challenges in contextualizing the Colts' draft history.

Their average draft position is simply not comparable to any other NFL team.  Not in the first round.  Not since 2007.

Between the 2007 and 2010 NFL Drafts, the Colts averaged a 30th overall first-round pick.  Yes, averaged.  Most NFL teams have never been good enough to warrant drafting so low.  The next closest average over the same period of reference belongs to the Dallas Cowboys, who averaged—rounding down—a 24th overall first round pick.

A fair study would be to compare the draft histories of teams averaging close to the same draft pick over the same period of time.  We'll call this comparative success.

For instance, the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos both averaged—rounding up—an 18th overall pick between the 2007 and 2010 NFL Drafts.  If you compared these two teams' cumulative draft classes, you should be able to hold one team as more successful than the other despite averaging the same draft position, simply because it has managed to unearth more talent holding the same average starting position as the other team.

This simply isn't possible for purposes of comparing Indy's first round pick to another NFL team's first round pick.  The gap is too large.

So we'll do the next best thing and actually put the Colts at a comparative talent disadvantage—we'll compare them to the next closest average in the second round, which belongs to the Philadelphia Eagles with a 36th overall pick average.

Theoretically, this should put the Colts at a disadvantage.  They should be able to obtain more talented, more skillful players averaging the 30th overall pick than the Eagles should receive with the 36th overall pick.

Does this hold up, though?

Not quite.  It paints a discouraging picture of Indy's first round draft success rate in this window.

In the 2007-2010 NFL Drafts, the Colts' first round picks were, starting from 2007: Gonzalez ('07), Brown ('09) and Hughes ('10).  Indianapolis traded its 2008 first round pick to acquire Ugoh, which of course constituted one of their bigger draft failures in recent memory.

 Over the same period of time, the Eagles' second round picks were, starting from 2007: Kevin Kolb ('07), Victor Abiamiri ('07), Trevor Laws ('08), DeSean Jackson ('08), LeSean McCoy ('09) and Nate Allen ('10).  

I suppose I could go into detail weighing the production of the Colts' first-rounders versus the Eagles' second-rounders, but I'm assuming common knowledge would inform you that Philadelphia's multiple Pro Bowlers and impact players trump Indianapolis' fourth-string WR, fifth-string DE and third-string RB (who, to be fair, may now be a starter due to an injury to Joseph Addai and inconsistency by Addai's backup Delone Carter, though that would hardly serve as a glowing endorsement of Brown's abilities).

Now, there are still a few caveats to make.  For one, just because you draft a talented player doesn't mean the coaching staff will necessarily know what to do with him.  Take Brown for example.  Perfectly capable RB, particularly dangerous if he can get to the edge.  Averaging 4.6 yards per carry on his career.

Is it necessarily his fault that he is listed as the third-string RB, or that was once benched for seemingly the 50th roster retread of Dominic Rhodes?  No.  That falls on talent and personnel evaluation, which given the musical chairs game along the offensive line in 2010 and in the defensive back ranks in 2011, doesn't seem to be a strong point of Jim Caldwell and his staff.

But facts are facts, and the Eagles averaged considerably more talent with a lower average draft position in the given range.  You might argue that they had a higher volume of picks to choose from—six to the Colts' three in that range—but not only were all of these players available when Indianapolis picked, but almost every one has had a more productive career than the Colts' first rounders.

Jackson's numbers eclipse Gonzalez's.  McCoy's numbers eclipse Brown's.  Laws and Abiamiri, arguably the Eagles' two biggest busts in that range, both have better numbers and more NFL production than Hughes.  And Allen wouldn't look half-bad in a pee wee Indy secondary, either.  

Philadelphia had a larger sample size to draw from, but axe any three of those picks at random to bring them even with Indy, and the Eagles still win out on overall talent and production.  From a lower average drafting position, mind you.

The only possible concession you could allow against comparing these draft averages is that Indy would have been seen to be reaching on any of Philadelphia's second-rounders.  There is some merit, of course, to that claim, but this isn't about who the Colts could have taken so much as it is about comparing a team's ability to collect roster talent at a similar average draft position.

If this was just about collecting talent regardless of context, we could look at the next 10 players of the draft board—which represents a realistic window of who was available at a given pick without being seen as a reach—and declare a few retrospective substitutions for the Colts.

Paul Posluzsny, Eric Weddle and Justin Blalock would have been better additions than Gonzalez.

Eric Wood, Hakeem Nicks, Kenny Britt and James Lauriniatis are better players than Brown.

T.J. Ward, Arrelious Benn, Rob Gronkowski and the aforementioned Allen—and well, any player at all who can take the field without screwing up horribly—all add more than Hughes.

Again, the "next 10 picks" method may be a bit simplistic and dismissive of comparative averages and teams' draft pick success rates, but it's a fair indicator of who was on the board, and viewed as a realistic target, at the time.

Things get more interesting for Indianapolis if you compare their 55th overall second round pick average to the two teams genuinely close to them in the same range: the Miami Dolphins (also averaging a 55th overall pick, rounded up) and the Carolina Panthers (also averaging a 55th overall pick, rounded down).

Between 2007 and 2010, the Colts took Ugoh ('07), Pollak ('08), Moala ('09) and Angerer ('10) in the second round.  Of those picks, only Angerer appears to be any sort of impact or above-average player.  

Ugoh was an absolute disaster, and cut from the squad prior to the 2010 NFL season.  Pollak and Moala are starters the Colts actively endeavor to replace, and are consistently viewed as the least talented, most problematic members of the Colts' starting offensive and defensive lineups, respectively.  It could even be argued that both have been benched, to some extent.

If we look at Miami's second round picks over the same range, the Dolphins managed to grab John Beck ('07), Samson Satele ('07), Phillip Merling ('08), Chad Henne ('08), Pat White ('09), Sean Smith ('09) and Koa Misi ('10) over the same range.

Of those picks, Satele, Henne and Misi are impact players, with a promising-but-inconsistent Smith also in the mix.

Only Beck, Merling and White proved to be busts, and at least were able to get some value out of Merling prior to his career being sabotaged by injuries, though we would concede that overall, three of the Colts' four second round draft picks have contributed more in their careers than any of these three picks, even considering that Beck is the starting QB for the Washington Redskins (which is irrelevant in a study of his value as a Dolphins draft pick).

So it must be a numbers issue then, right?  Of course Miami is generating more talent with the same average second round draft position.  It has almost twice as many second round picks.  

Well, percentages still play in Miami's favor.  The Dolphins managed an impact player success rate of either 43 percent or 57 percent, depending on how you view Smith, whereas the Colts are only boasting a 25 percent success rate at best in the same window.  

The Colts would edge out on current starters (75 percent to Miam's 57 percent), but the focus here is not on the accumulation of roster bodies, but actual roster talent.  A Henne or Misi is worth two Pollaks or Moalas, so to speak.

Still, those numbers can be a bit subjective, so the better case study might be the Panthers, who only dropped five draft picks in the same range.  Those were, in order: Dwayne Jarrett ('07), Ryan Kalil ('07), Everette Brown ('09), Sherrod Martin ('09) and Jimmy Clausen ('10).

Comparing these teams, the Colts might actually push or come out ahead.

Kalil is better than anything the Colts were able to produce in the same range, but an obligatory non-impact starter like Martin is a push with players like Pollak and Moala, and players like Brown and Jarrett managed to play their way off the team in the same fashion as Ugoh, though we'll note that Brown is at least still in the league and contributing for the Chargers, so the real push is between Ugoh and Jarrett.

If we call that even, then, we actually have a precedent for these underwhelming second round selections.  It would seem the Colts aren't alone in averaging sub-par second round selections, and likely even come out ahead of the Panthers by comparison, though both are still notably behind the Dolphins.

So what to make of these numbers?

For one, the Colts' draft history is incredibly difficult to compare to any other NFL team's draft history.  Their success over the past decade has resulted in an unprecedented, low average first round starting position.  There aren't any other teams that really come close to the same average, and it would seem unfair to hold them to Dallas' next-closest first round average 24th pick, which should inherently result in more talent acquisition than Indy's spot allows (spoiler: it does, by a lot).

But just because an average is difficult to compare doesn't mean it can't be compared.  Even by comparing it to the next-lowest average starting position, the Colts lose out on total talent harvested.  There is a volume variable present that's hard to account for, but could be logically solved by removing any three of the Eagles' picks to even out the draft classes, and Indianapolis would lose that comparison no matter which three were cut.

As for the second round, it can be reasoned that the Colts are somewhere around or slightly below average in the second round, as compared to the other two teams with the same average drafting position.  They might even come out ahead if we apply the "cut any three" scenario to the Dolphins, but you would have to give Miami the edge by immediate comparison given their ability to produce impact players as contrasted with Indy's ability to simply field players.

Situated against the Panthers, of course, Indianapolis performs much better.

No matter which metric you use, though, you simply cannot argue that the Colts have drafted well, or anything reasonably approaching it, in the 2007-2010 NFL Drafts.  Folks like Dunlevy will argue that they haven't drafted poorly, and to an extent, those folks are correct.  Or more correct than you would originally surmise before diving into the numbers.  

The comparative figures would average the Colts out to be slightly better than their draft classes show on paper.  But I've yet to see an argument that Indianapolis actually drafted well, and that's simply because there is no argument that the Colts have drafted well, and that lack of talent shows—in the worst kind of way—with their current 0-9 record.

Unfortunately, there is no universal metric, no mathematical equation to solve this debate one way or the other, but you would have to think a common sense eyeball test in relation to average draft position comparisons would lead you to believe that the Colts have left a lot of talent on the board and settled for players content to take a roster spot and offer little more than a body in pads.

A closer look might lead you to believe the Colts are "less bad" than you might originally believe given the production and talent level of their first and second round picks from 2007 to 2010.

But as Colts fans are quickly learning, one blowout loss after another, "less bad" just isn't good enough in the NFL.


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