Colts acquire great talent in NFL draft

Jonathan Taylor was the best college running back in the country the last two seasons at a time when the NFL has taken offenses in a direction where it seems to be all about the pass.

In an earlier era, Taylor, who averaged 2,000 yards per season between his freshman and junior years for the University of Wisconsin, may have been the No. 1 overall selection.

Instead, he went to the Indianapolis Colts on Thursday on the first day of the annual college draft in the second round. And if he becomes a success, it will partially be reflected by catching more passes as a rookie than he did in his entire college career.

Already an outstanding runner, the 5-foot-11, 226-pound Taylor caught 26 passes last fall, and it was a conscious beefing up of his talents in that realm. He described the do-everything kind of guy he believes Indianapolis picked.

“They’re definitely getting a tough back who’s able to run in-between the tackles but has a track background, so they’re able to hit the edge and take one the distance,” Taylor said after the Colts made him their second pick in the three-day event.

This was a draft like no other, shown by ESPN but made possible by technology from remote locations, from commissioner Roger Goodell’s basement to the homes of 32 teams’ executives and coaches.

Social distancing guidelines were in place due to the pandemic caused by COVID-19. Rather than gathering in a glitzy location — Las Vegas was the planned site — and hugs exchanged on a stage, players remained with families in their living rooms.

The first day of the draft drew a record 15.6 million viewers and saw a ratings rise of 37%t over 2019.

Combining aggressive free agent signings and trades right up until the evening before the draft with its collegiate selections, the Colts added a diverse and deep group of contenders for stardom and starting.

While there had been some concern technology glitches might disrupt the hourslong programming, the draft went off smoothly. Many general managers and coaches brought a bit of informality to the proceedings by allowing their children in the rooms where they made picks.

Colts GM Chris Ballard was one of those executives.

“It was fun,” Ballard said. “I mean, it was different not being with all the guys in the room and the camaraderie of it, but we still kept it pretty loose and fun on our Zoom call. My family being here made it really special.”

Coming off a 7-9 season while missing the playoffs, the Colts acted with the determination that shouted they want to become an instant winner.

Specifically related to the draft, the Colts did about as much wheeling and dealing as a Vegas casino they couldn’t visit. Prior to the draft, they traded their first-round pick to acquire all-star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. They also did not own a seventh-round choice but still obtained nine choices.

After their high-profile signing of quarterback Philip Rivers for $25 million, they used their initial second-round choice at No. 34 overall on Southern Cal wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr.

The son of a longtime NFL player, this Pittman stands 6-4, weighs 223 pounds, caught 101 passes as a senior for the Trojans and was one standout on the list of highly rated wide receivers available this year.

Then came Taylor. In the third round, Indianapolis took defensive back Julian Blackmon from Utah, rebounding from injury. At No. 4, the Colts drafted Washington quarterback Jason Eason, regarded as a project.

In the fifth, they added guard Danny Pinter from Ball State, and in the sixth, Indianapolis added four players: Defensive tackle Robert Windsor of Penn State, defensive back Isaiah Rodgers of Massachusetts, wide receiver Dezmon Patmon of Washington State and linebacker Jordan Glasgow of Michigan.

On Wednesday, the Colts announced the signing of tight end Trey Burton. He was most recently with the Chicago Bears and despite hip surgery thought he would still be with them.

Pittman should be given every opportunity to shine. Opportunity abounds in the Colts’ receiving corps, and he seems to have pointed his life toward this moment. His father, very much a mentor, rushed for 5,627 yards and won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay.

“When I was young, I just always thought that I was going to be an NFL player because that’s what my dad did,” Pittman Jr. said.

He said he has the toughness to fight off coverage and the hops to outjump defenders on balls thrown high and loves the idea of starting his career with veteran Rivers.

Part of Pittman’s work ethic stems from devotion to overcoming a lifelong stutter. In talking to reporters, Pittman made just one nearly indiscernible stumble and casually mentioned he had a speech impairment. Pittman showed the same kind of progress in football.

“Our scouts liked him,” Ballard said. “He was big. He’s so strong to the ball. He competes. He got better every year in college. He’s the type of teammate we want. We had Pittman ranked really high on our board. This kid is going to be a heck of a pro.”

Patmon, another wideout from the Pac-12, has a similar build at 6-4, 225 and played with star quarterbacks at Washington State, grabbing 58 balls in 2019. Before the coronavirus shut it down, Patmon was working out at the same private gym with Pittman.

“I feel like we bring similar skill sets being big, athletic guys who can go up and high point the ball and just be playmakers really,” Patmon said.

The Colts also made picks based on bolstering the defense. Blackmon is the wild card because he is coming off a torn ACL and is four months past surgery. He was a second-team Associated Press All-American and All-Pac-12 before that.

The Colts liked his skills and told him, “Hey, man, we’re not worried about your injury,” Blackmon said. “Just focus on your rehab and keep it going.”

The 6-4, 290-pound Windsor, a defensive lineman, has been waiting his turn to be appreciated.

“Well, it just kept me hungry, to be honest because I know my worth and I acknowledge that,” he said.

The 5-10, 170 Rodgers, cousin of pro corner Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, will get a shot in the defensive backfield but excelled at kickoff returns and could make a splash in that role.

“I think what makes me a great returner is just you’ve got to have good eyes and make a small hole a big hole,” Rodgers said.

Glasgow was the last Colts player picked. The 6-1, 221-pound defender was a four-time Big Ten All-Academic selection. Like him, two older brothers began at Michigan as walk-ons and progressed to the NFL. Glasgow said the Colts seem to like him for special teams.

“I would say in terms of football, I’m always willing to go the extra mile, do whatever I need to do. I’ll have no fear,” he said.

For offense, the Colts also chose Pinter at guard and Eason as a third-strong quarterback — for now — behind Rivers and veteran Jacoby Brissett.

Taylor’s upside may be the most intriguing of all. Twice a first-team All-American and a two-time winner of the Doak Walker Award as the best runner in the country, he rushed for 6,174 yards at Wisconsin. Few NFL teams care as much about the run as the Colts, so that could help Taylor break out.

Speaking to reporters, Taylor used the word “awesome” several times, relating it to this opportunity, his mood, his belief in what he can do in the pros.

Taylor was a workhorse back in college, but given the NFL’s style of game will almost surely be called on to run more pass routes. He said he is ready to be an every-down back and perhaps catch 50 to 60 passes.

“I definitely do,” Taylor said, “especially getting to play with a legendary quarterback like Philip Rivers.”