INDIANAPOLIS – Occasionally, the normal analytics, measurables and psychological cues aren’t sufficient and don’t offer a true evaluation of an on-the-radar draft prospect.
Sometimes, it’s a more simplistic reaction to what the eyes are seeing.
Let’s call it a “Holy crap!” moment.
Chris Ballard experienced a few of those as he and his personnel staff sifted through the hundreds of collegians hoping to take that major step to the NFL. So many possessed the requisite athletic skills to play football at the highest level.
Some caused Ballard to stop and take special notice.
Saturday afternoon, the Indianapolis Colts’ general manager spent more than a hour discussing the team’s top four picks in the recent NFL Draft: second-round wide receiver Alec Pierce and tight end Jelani Woods, offensive tackle Bernhard Raimann and safety Nick Cross, all third-rounders.
It’s gotten to be one of Ballard’s post-draft routines where he invites a segment of the local media into his Draft Room and offers a detailed look at how his staff settled on this player or that player.
He sits in the middle of the room with a laptop and a mouse to navigate video on a large screen. He’s adept at the play/reserve/play/reverse/play function, and often uses a red laser to pinpoint the prospect.
At one point, the laser dotted Woods, No. 0 for Virginia, lined up tight at the right end of the Cavaliers’ offensive line against Pitt before releasing and catching a pass down the middle of the field.
Ballard and Frank Reich already had talked with the media regarding the Colts’ eight-player draft class. So had members of the scouting staff.
Saturday, though, offered a deeper dive.
Here are some takeaways from that invaluable session.
The key to getting the right type of player:
It starts with Ballard’s charge to his scouts.
“It’s easy to look at what they can’t do,’’ he said. “Tell me what they can do and how does that fit into our equation. I’ve always thought the really good coaches play guys to the role, where their strengths are.
“I thought Andy Reid was really special at that. I think Frank is really good at it. He’ll get the most out of what they do well.’’
The holy crap! moments:
Pierce was on the Colts’ radar, and made an impression even when his stats argued otherwise. In Cincinnati’s 27-6 loss to No. 1-ranked Alabama, he had just two catches for 17 yards.
Ballard wasn’t dissuaded.
“He didn’t have the production, but he was open,’’ he said. “There’s a point in the game where, ‘Holy crap, he’s wearing these dudes out and they’re just not getting him the ball.
“He fits what we do really well. All those over routes we run off play-action. All those shallows, the dovers, the sails, all those kinds of things, we think he’s going to be really good at.’’
There was a similar reaction after Ballard watched Raimann’s Pro Day workout at Central Michigan. The line coaches had the players display athleticism, flexibility and strength with a yoga Warrior 3 pose. Raimann balances on one foot with his other leg stretched out behind him and his arms above his head. A few minutes later, he drops into a low crouch.
Then, Raimann broad jumps three times in quick succession and covers 10 yards. It accentuated his explosiveness and strength.
“You might get one or two guys every few years who can do this, hit the 10-yard mark,’’ Ballard said. “This is how powerful and strong this dude is.
“Right when I saw this, I was like, ‘Holy crap!’’’
As Ballard watched Raimann, his mind flashed back to Braden Smith, the Colts’ 2018 second-round pick.
“Braden had a similar freakiness,’’ he said. “Their bodies look very similar.’’
The plan is to allow Raimann to develop at left tackle and compete with veteran Matt Pryor for the starting spot.
“It’ll be interesting to see how he adjusts to the speed and the things he’s got to deal with,’’ Ballard said. “But he’s got the strength.’’
If Pryor secures left tackle, don’t be surprised if Raimann is given a spot at right guard.
“That’ll play out as it goes,’’ Ballard said.
A holy cow! moment:
We’ll consider this a slight deviation of the previous reaction.
The day before the Colts’ Nov. 20 game in Buffalo, Ballard drove to the Virginia at Pittsburgh game. He was getting his bearings and walking on the field prior to the game – he prefers being close to the action whenever possible – when someone caught his eye.
Hello, Jelani Woods.
“This guy’s a unique talent,’’ Ballard said. “I walk out on the field at the Pitt game and there’s this 6-7 giant running around catching balls in pregame.
“I was like ‘Holy cow, who is this guy?’’’
Director of college scouting Morocco Brown and area scout Mike Derice noticed Woods’ skills, especially after watching him at the East-West Shrine Bowl.
“They came back and they’re like, ‘Man, this guy is unique,’’’ Ballard said.
There is an undeniable comparison with Woods and Mo Alie-Cox. Woods is 6-7, 253 pounds. Alie-Cox is 6-5, 267.
Ballard said Woods is a more skilled player at this point than Alie-Cox was when the Colts signed him as an undrafted rookie in 2017 after Alie-Cox’s career as a power forward at VCU.
“He’s faster and he’s more skilled,’’ he said.
How they fit:
At least initially, the Colts will allow Pierce to get his NFL legs under him outside, although they are convinced he eventually will move around in the formation.
Ballard spent time showcasing Pierce against IU, Notre Dame and Temple. He kept rewinding plays that highlighted Pierce’s ability to adjust to passes, make the difficult catches and run after the catch. On one specific play against IU, Pierce was pressed at the line by the cornerback.
That’s an area, Ballard noted, Pierce – every rookie for that matter – must improve upon. Too often, a receiver allows the corner to push him closer to the sideline, which lessens the likelihood of a reception.
“But he has the strength to still be able to give himself space here and make a play on the ball using his strength,’’ Ballard said. “I’ve learned this from Frank and Reggie (Wayne, receiver coach), being able to move forward. Getting off press coverage is all about attacking. You don’t want to work at the line. You want to continue to move up and attack them and get them on their heels.’’
The total package excites Ballard.
“He’s very smart. He understands space. He understands where to make himself available to the quarterback,’’ he said. “I think he’s going to be a really good route runner when it’s all said and done. It just needs a little work.’’
Ballard also expects Pierce to develop into an effective blocker.
Woods, meanwhile, began as an accomplished blocker at Oklahoma State and emerged as a threat in the passing game after transferring to Virginia. He led all ACC tight ends in receiving yards (598) and TDs (eight), and the TDs ranked 4th in the country among tight ends.
“I don’t understand why there was not juice or buzz (about Woods),’’ Ballard said. “He’s got good tape and he’s unique.’’
A knock on Woods is he dropped six or seven passes last season.
“That’s something he’s got to clean up,’’ Ballard said. “But even in the year (Eric) Ebron was here, I’ll take ‘em. If he drops eight or nine balls but he catches and gets good plays, we’ll live with that.
“I do think his hands are good. The receiving stuff is just now starting to come on.’’
As we mentioned, Raimann might be the Colts’ left tackle of the future – perhaps even the present – and Cross possesses starter’s talent as well.
“Really excited about Cross,’’ Ballard said. “This guy’s got some stuff to him. He’s young – he’s only 20 years old – but he’s big, he can run, he will hit, he’s jot good ball skills. He’s just young.
“Once we get this guy cleaned up, he is going to be really good.’’
The top four:
Ballard and his staff had Pierce, Woods, Raimann and Cross with 2nd-round grades. Time will tell if they were correct in their assessments.
“Either we had ‘em all ranked wrong or we’re right,’’ Ballard said. “We rank them on what we think they’re going to be for us.
“We think they’re all starters.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mch
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.