The Indianapolis Colts crushed the 2023 NFL Draft using a unique strategy
During the 2023 NFL Draft, multiple teams added a plethora of talented players to their rosters. One team that stood out was the Indianapolis Colts, who made the most of their draft capital and emerged as one of the biggest winners of the draft.
The Colts utilized a unique strategy, prioritizing elite athletes at premium positions. While most teams acknowledge the importance of athleticism and positional value, the Colts took it to the next level by prioritizing these factors above all else.
Here’s a breakdown of the Colts’ draft class, how the Indianapolis Colts implemented their unique strategy, and why it may change how NFL teams approach the draft moving forward.
The Colts started by drafting their franchise quarterback with their first pick
The Indianapolis Colts’ first selection was the fourth pick in the draft, and they went with Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson. Heading into the draft, it was a foregone conclusion that the Colts would take a quarterback with their top-five pick. The only question was which gunslinger they would pick. Anthony Richardson or Will Levis?
Anthony Richardson has been categorized as a raw passer who needs a year or so to develop before he can be an impactful player in the NFL. That assertion has some truth to it, but overall, it exaggerates the struggles Richardson displays as a passer.
Anthony Richardson is a historically good athlete with great size who possesses elite arm strength and had great rushing production in college. That alone makes him an intriguing prospect, but there’s more to his game. He’s also elite at avoiding sacks, and his pocket presence is off-the-charts good. This is not a skill you would expect from someone who is a “raw” passer and a “project.”
Richardson also shows the ability to throw the ball with differing tempos. He can fit the ball into extremely tight windows outside of the numbers, but he can also throw the ball with touch if necessary. This is another skill you wouldn’t expect from a raw passer.
Of course, Richardson is not perfect by any means. His career completion percentage of 54.7% is extremely poor for a top prospect and is one of the worst marks we’ve seen in recent memory. I’d argue his poor receiving core and extremely aggressive offensive scheme played a big role in this mark being so low. Still, it’s true that his accuracy is inconsistent and needs to get better for him to succeed at the next level.
Here’s the short sales pitch for Anthony Richardson. He’s a 100th-percentile athlete with high-level physical tools who has a lot of traits that high-level passers in the NFL have, like elite pocket presence and the ability to throw with touch. He’s also one of the youngest players in the 2023 NFL Draft, so he’ll likely develop a lot during his rookie contract. He might bust due to his inconsistent accuracy and his struggles under pressure. However, if he works out, he may just be one of the best quarterbacks in the league, and I do not think this is an unrealistic outcome.
Anthony Richardson is special. He just needs time to grow.
The Colts fixed their depleted cornerback room with their second-round pick
With their second-round pick, the Colts selected Kansas State cornerback Julius Brents. Brents made a lot of noise at the NFL combine in March, putting up historically good numbers across the board.
Brents is a massive corner at 6’3 and 198 lbs. and he is an unbelievable athlete for his size. His forty-yard dash wasn’t very impressive, but he tested out of this world in every other area. If you factor in his height and weight, his forty-yard dash looks more impressive, as he sports an above-average speed score of 102.1.
The issue with Brents is he’s an older prospect who didn’t have a PFF grade of 70+ on at least 500 snaps until his fourth year in college, the year in which he transferred from Iowa to Kansas State. Still, you can’t deny his athletic testing, and he did rank 52nd on the consensus big board.
Right now, Brents is slotted in as a starter on the Colts’ depth chart. He may not be great at the start of his career, but he has the athleticism and experience to become an effective player down the road.
The Colts gave Anthony Richardson some help by drafting a wide receiver in the third round
With their third pick, the Colts went back to the offensive side of the ball and drafted North Carolina wide receiver Josh Downs. Downs is an analytical darling who was extremely productive in college, recording 1,000 receiving yards and a PFF grade of 80+ in his last two seasons. Take a look at any analytical model and there’s a good chance they loved Downs heading into the draft.
The reason Downs fell to the third round is because he is an undersized slot receiver who doesn’t project to be a great deep threat in the NFL. That’s a tough receiver archetype to bet on early in the draft, but Downs has a lot of other skills and traits that make him an intriguing prospect.
For starters, he is a solid route runner who can create separation in the intermediate parts of the field. He also plays way bigger than his listed measurable, and he is one of the more effective receivers in the draft on contested targets, which is crazy because he is 5’9 and weighs just 171 lbs. He should not be good at bringing down contested targets, but he is anyways.
Downs also had a fantastic combine, testing like a great athlete in all areas outside of his size. This includes a 4.48 forty-yard dash, which ranks in the 80th percentile and was better than people expected.
It is very smart for the Colts to draft someone like Josh Downs because Anthony Richardson is a young player with limited experience who struggles with accuracy. Downs will be an awesome target for Richardson because Downs gets open and catches everything. Having someone with this skillset in the slot will help Richardson develop, so this is an incredible pick that improves the Colts’ offense and makes it more likely that Anthony Richardson will develop into an effective quarterback.
The Colts continued to find value in the fourth round by looking to improve in the trenches
In the fourth round, the Colts made two solid picks, selecting BYU offensive tackle Blake Freeland and Northwestern defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore. Freeland and Adebawore both tore up the NFL combine, putting up hyper-elite athletic testing numbers.
Blake Freeland is a fascinating prospect because not only is he really athletic, but he also seems to be a pretty good player. He played four seasons in college and had a PFF grade of 80+ in three of them, including his senior season which he had a PFF grade of 90.9. Freeland’s PFF grade of 90.9 in 2022 ranked second among offensive tackles in the country.
Adebawore wasn’t quite as productive in college as Freeland, peaking with a PFF grade of 75.2 in 2022. However, he still had a lot of fans, ranking 43rd on the consensus big board. Both of these players have a chance to be impactful players in the NFL, though it may require a position change since the Colts already have good players at offensive tackle and defensive tackle.
The Colts ended the draft by picking up a slew of undervalued players with strong athletic profiles
The Colts had many day-three picks, including four in the fifth round. They used those picks on South Carolina cornerback Darius Rush, California safety Daniel Scott, Miami tight end Will Mallory, and Northwestern running back Evan Hull.
The Colts waited until the end of the draft to take players at non-premium positions, which is smart because if any of these players work out, the Colts will have gotten them at a great value. Even if they don’t work out, it won’t be a big deal because the Colts didn’t invest much draft capital in them.
Some of these players were actually good prospects with interesting profiles, like Darius Rush, a top 100 player on the consensus big board, and Evan Hull, a big athletic running back with strong production as a receiver. These players specifically have a legitimate shot at being productive despite being late draft picks.
The Colts’ draft strategy has a chance to change how NFL teams approach the draft in the future
The Colts went into the 2023 NFL Draft with a clear goal in mind: get athletic players at premium positions. Of course, they drafted players at non-premium positions late in the draft, but they made sure to use their first four picks on players who play positions that are highly valuable.
They didn’t just target combine warriors, though. They also picked really good players with solid production, like Anthony Richardson, Josh Downs, Blake Freeland, and Adetomiwa Adeboware. This strategy is extremely smart because it maximizes the value the Colts can get while minimizing the risk they take on.
The NFL Draft is basically a lottery, and each pick is a gamble. Of course, each pick has different odds of succeeding, with the earliest picks having the highest odds of resulting in a good player. Still, each pick is a gamble, and teams can maximize the value and minimize the risks of these gambles if they implement the right strategies.
The Colts have found a good strategy. By targeting good players who are elite athletes and play premium positions, they are more likely to generate great value with each pick they make during the draft. In other words, this strategy makes each draft pick less of a gamble and turns the odds in favor of the team implementing the strategy. Here’s why.
Imagine you are a general manager whose team is on the clock, and you have an offensive tackle and a linebacker available who both have similar grades on your big board. In this situation, you might as well take the offensive tackle because if both players work out, you will likely get more value from the offensive tackle because the position they play is much more valuable.
It will be extremely interesting to see how the Colts’ draft class works out and whether or not they will continue using this strategy in future drafts. If they find great success using this strategy and are able to replicate it consistently, we may see other teams use this strategy and begin targeting elite athletes who play premium positions early in the draft.