Analyzing the Colts Draft Strategy

Reader Matt Shedd provides us with this lengthy look at the strategy behind the Colts drafts. This piece asks whether ‘best player available’ is the right strategy.

Nate has already proved, quite carefully, that the Colts drafts have not gotten worse, only later.  We are still getting players that are within the talent range and production range that should be expected from their draft position.

The next question we should consider is whether the Colts draft strategy has gotten worse.  In other words, are the Colts taking players that, while producing at a reasonable rate, may not have been the wisest choice for the Colts during that particular offseason?

To find the answer to this question, I am employing this basic strategy.

  1. Study the teams AV by position for each year from 2003-2010.  This will give us an indication of the positions that were the strongest, weakest, and in between from year to year.  If you are unaware of AV (approximate value) please read about it at Football Outsiders or Pro Football Reference.
  2. Once we see the needs from year to year, we will examine the actual Colts draft.  We will focus primarily on the first 3 rounds.  The reasoning is simple, any further down in the draft and the only expectation/hope is depth, and any meaningful production is a bonus.
  3. Knowing the Colts strategy, we will then explore alternative strategies.  To do this, we will look at other available players (when the Colts drafted) at another position of Colts need.  For the purposes of this study, we will examine only their AV; with slight regard to schematic issues (I will not draft a 350 pound DT for our Tampa 2 scheme).  I will then use this new pick to “reimagine the next few years of the team.  How would this different pick have helped and hurt the team?

This study is not perfect, because there are too many variables to do ANY retrospective study with complete accuracy.  Some seasons, the biggest problems are injuries, causing terrible AV numbers that would not typically exist.

Part 1.  Establishing the Teams Needs

This table shows the AV of the Colts starters each year since 2003.  For each year, I will take the 3 biggest needs.  A special note is that it is important to multiply the QB, RB, C, and ILB spot by 2 because there is one starter for each position.  So, we see the Colts biggest needs are as follows:

2003:  Safety, DT, ILB

2004: Safety, CB, ILB

2005:  DT, CB, TE

2006:  Safety, ILB, DT

2007: DE, OLB, CB

2008:  Center, CB, DT

2009:  CB, OG, DT/OLB

2010:  CB, RB, ILB

I find this part of the study fascinating.  A few notes of interest:

  • The Safety number bounces everywhere.  Bob Sanders’ injuries hurt this team.
  • One year is not enough information.  Should we really have been out to improve our DE’s after the 2007 season?  Really?
  • There are three needs that show up a bunch.  Two were expected, one was not.  The DT’s and CB’s have not been good in Indy, but surprisingly ILB has been inconsistent at best.

Part 2:  The Colts actual draft strategy

2003 (draft 04): The Colts needed a Safety, DT, or ILB.  In the first three rounds, they drafted (without a first round pick):

2nd:  Bob Sanders-S

3rd: Ben Hartsock-TE

3rd: Gilbert Gardner-LB

Clearly the primary goal of the Colts FO was to improve the Safety position.  The TE pick seems strange, considering they drafted Dallas Clark 1 year prior, and the TE’s AV was rather solid.  Gilbert Gardner (and later Kendyll Pope) were both LB’s, but Gardner was really an OLB.  I will be interested to see what DT’s were available by pick 44, and if there were any ILB’s or Safety’s available at picks 68-69.

2004 (draft 2005): Teams needs are Safety, ILB and CB

The teams picks:

1st:  Marlin Jackson-CB

2nd:  Kelvin Hayden-CB

3rd: Vincent Burns-DE

Clearly, this team was convinced that the Safety problems were already fixed in the prior draft, but they set out with abandon to fix the Corners.  I find it interesting in the 2 drafts leading into the 2 best seasons for the Colts (2005-2006), the Colts loaded up on defensive backs in the early rounds.  I notice, again, that there is no attempt to fix the ILB position, and that Vincent Burns seems like a pretty dumb moving considering the AV of the DE’s were an impressive 18.  I will be looking for ILB’s in this draft.

2005 (draft 2006):  The biggest needs:  DT, CB, TE

The Colts’ picks:

1st:  Joseph Addai-RB

2nd: Tim Jennings-CB

3rd: Freddie Keiaho-LB

We must note that Addai was brought in to replace the awesome AV numbers of Edge, so we can’t say that that was not drafting according to need.  Tim Jennings fits a need.  Keiaho doesn’t really.  I will look at TE’s in this draft, but I am already skeptical of finding a better strategy for this draft.

2006 (draft 2007):  The biggest needs:  Safety, ILB, DT

The Colts picks:

1st:  Anthony Gonzalez-WR

2nd:  Tony Ugoh-T

3rd:  Dante Hughes-CB

In all fairness, the Safety being a need is a joke, because Sanders was injured until the playoffs, when he showed everyone that he was the most amazing safety in the league (oh the good ole days!).  Anyway, DT is still not being addressed!  Again, I will be looking for DT’s in these rounds, as well as ILB talent.  Bracket turns into a great player later on, but we were really missing out on top end talent for several years there.

2007 (2008 draft):  The biggest needs: DE, OLB, CB

The Colts’ picks (no first round):

2nd:  Mike Pollak-OG (Tackle in college)

3rd: Philip Wheeler-OLB

This is the closest we have been to not drafting a need.  Wheeler filled a known need, meanwhile Pollak was brought in so we could release other OL.  There was no attempt in this draft to shore up the ever present CB problems.  I will look at CB’s for this year.

2008 (2009 draft):  The biggest needs:  C, CB, DT

The Colts picks:

1st:  Donald Brown-RB

2nd: Fili Moala-DT

3rd: Jerraud Powers-CB

The first round completely ignores need, but the other two picks are clearly to shore up weak spots.  Center can’t be considered a real need, this was the year of Saturday’s injury.  I will look in the first round at CB and DT to see what shows up.

2009 (2010 draft):  The biggest needs:  CB, OG, DT/OLB

The Colts picks:

1st:  Jerry Hughes-DE

2nd:  Angerer-ILB

3rd:  Kevin Thomas-CB

Thomas was clearly a need pick, Angerer looked like he could “fill” any LB position, but clearly more of an ILB.  Hughes does not fill a remote need at this point, but only fortifies depth, and provides the potential to send Mathis or Freeney packing if he develops.  I will look at OG and DT in this draft.

2010:  The biggest needs:  CB, RB, ILB

The Colts picks:

1st:  Castonzo-OT

2nd:  Ijalana-OT/OG

3rd:  Nevis-DT

By the AV stats, the Colts were off on this season.  CB and ILB were bigger needs than DT.  Of course, we had Angerer already, but CB will be one to look for.  Also, the RB could be caused by bad OL play (my belief), plus the fact that they picked up Carter in the 4th makes me fine with not seeing a RB on this list.

Part 3:  Trying another strategy

Let’s begin looking at how another draft strategy would have changed the Colts team, for better or worse, over the years.  A special note:  this is assuming that a players AV would be the same across team lines.  Truthfully, we know this is not so.  If you want to know how a great player in the wrong scheme can become a terrible player (look at the Eagles).

2004:

Second Round:  What would happen if the Colts addressed another one of their needs instead of grabbing safety Bob Sanders?  Their other biggest need was DT, so what was available at this point in the draft (pick 44 or later)?

This particular pick is interesting, because there are a few very good DT prospects available at this point in the draft.  The two of interest to me (because they both are the size/style that the Colts would need for Tampa 2) are Tank Johnson and Darnell Dockett.  Randy Starks and Dwan Edwards are both available, but I am going to base my selection with the Tampa 2 in mind.

T. Johnson has a career AV much lower than Dockett, so let’s examine the Colts DT AV and Safety AV for the next three seasons if they would have drafted Dockett instead. (I am assuming they do not draft another Safety if they do this, as there are no available safeties with more than 5-6 career AV).

Adjusted Starter AV

2004

2005

2006

DT

15 (+4)

14 (+2)

12 (+2)

Safety

7 (0)

6 (-12)

8 (0)

 

What does this tell us?  Our DT position would have been better consistently through 3 years if we were to make this change.  In 2 of these three years, our Safety play would be generally untouched (Sanders didn’t start year 1, was injured year 3).  However, year two would have seen a major drop off in Safety play.  Would you trade consistently better DT play for significantly lower safety play?

Stategy winner:  We’ll call this one a draw (although poor Safety play would have hurt 2005 and playoffs of 06).

2005 draft:

This season, the Colts clearly drafted after 1 of 2 felt needs (CB instead of DT).  What could we find at the DT position in either the 1st or 2nd round to replace our current pick?

There is really only one DT that would be worth a pick, and he went to Philly 2 picks after the Colts took Marlin Jackson.  Mike Patterson looks just like a Colts DT at 5-11 and 292.  So assume again that the Colts switched strategy and picked the best AV player available at this other position, what would happen over the next three years?

Adjusted Starter AV

2005

2006

2007

DT

12 (0)

15 (+5)

16 (+3)

CB

14 (0)

12 (0)

9 (-5)

This move seems to make the most sense.  The choice to draft two CB’s in a row did not improve their starters AT ALL for two years.  We would have seen a hit on our secondary only two years later, assuming that they had not done any work to improve the situation.  Meanwhile, the DT position would have been strengthened by year 2 (assuming that with this new strategy, they picked the right available DT).

***Special Note:  Another need this year was ILB.  If we would have taken Lofa Tatupa in the first round, the plus to our ILB over the next 3 years would have been fantastic (Tatupa’s first three years were great).  However, I chose to use DT because that is a position we have regularly complained about).

Strategy winner:  NEW STRATEGY

2006 Draft:

2005 was a fantastic year for Colts football, and the only real need that shows up from AV is DT.  Of course, the Colts took Addai to replace the departing Edge, but what would have happened if we went defense instead?

We find that there was not a SINGLE DT picked from pick 30-60.  In other words, there just wasn’t a prospect to pick at this point.  Plus, without Edge, our RB AV would have been terrible, bottoming out in such a way that there really is no question.

Winner:  Colts Strategy

2007:

Our biggest needs based on AV in 2006 were Safety, then both ILB and OLB.  Since we know that the 2006 season ended with Sanders playing a great playoffs, let’s assume we look to shore up our linebackers.  I am going to see what we find in the second round here, because this is where we made the now infamous Tony Ugoh pick (has there ever been so much outcry over a guy picked 42nd?).  The interesting thing:  there is only one LB drafted after 42 that would be better than Ugoh according to AV.  So let’s see how David Harris changes the Colts.

Adjusted Starter AV

2007

2008

2009

Tackle

13 (-1)

11 (-5)

15 (0)

OLB

12 (+1)

15 (0)

25 (+11)

 

As you can see, Harris makes no difference for two years, and then explodes as a player in year three.  Meanwhile, losing Ugoh would have actually hurt this team greatly in 2008, but caused no pain in 2009.  What does this tell us?  Do we go for immediate payoff or wait till the end of a rookie contract, get 1-2 years out of a guy, then be unable to pay him the big second contract?

Winning Strategy:  Draw

2008 Draft:

The 2007 season ended with two “needs.”  The first was, ready, DE.  Yeah, we are just calling that an oddity.  The other major need was OLB.  We didn’t have a first rounder, so in the second we took Mike Pollack.  Let’s see what we could have found at Linebacker instead.

The closest linebacker to Pollack at AV was a guy taken in round 6.  Needless to say, Linebackers pretty much sucked in the 2008 draft.

Winning Strategy:  Draw

2009 Draft:

I am going to stop at this season, because the next two seasons are too early to really get a good playing sample size from players.  The Colts really needed a Center, ILB, and CB from this draft.  What did we draft?  A RB  (our fourth need), a DT, and a CB.  So let’s see if we can replace the DT pick in the second with an ILB (this was the Saturday injury year) that would have improved this team.

DeAndre Levy is by far the best LB taken after Moala.  There would be nobody available in the first round to take instead of Brown either (Clay Matthews went one pick before Brown!)  Let’s check and see the difference:

Adjusted Starter AV

2009

2010

2011

DT

11 (0)

8 (-4)

NA

OLB

11 (0)

11 (+2)

NA

 

This pick change would have made no impact on the first season, and would have hurt the team more than helped it in 2010.

Strategy Winner:  Colts

A few observations:

  1. The only year that the Colts strategy didn’t really make sense was 2004 going after two CB’s in a row.  Using the second pick to go after a DT would have truly helped our front four.  In my mind, 2004 is now the worst draft strategy of the Polian era.
  2. This study all hinges on an assumption that Polian would draft well regardless of the strategy he employs.  There were several players I could have plugged in and shown how bad things could have gone if we chose differently.
  3. The interesting thing is that I find this study to somewhat (and only somewhat) refute the mantra that the Colts draft the Best Available Player.  It appears to me that in nearly every season, they are drafting based on the team’s biggest needs.
  4. I personally find that the Colts strategy, overall, has improved with time.  The Sanders pick in 2003, followed by 2004, are actually the most questionable picks on the board as far as I can see.  Strategy wise, they seem to be focusing on the right positions at the right time.
  5. Imagine if the Colts had a DT from 03 or 04 through now that was a solid pass rusher.  Imagine how much more havoc Frathis create.  Imagine how much better our secondary would look!
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