In the summer of 1999, the Colts' top draft pick staged a short-lived holdout. It appeared to many that a bad move by Bill Polian had gotten worse. After trading away future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk for some magic beans, Polian shocked the world by passing on the much-vaunted Ricky Williams. Now, before you say how you knew Ricky was damaged goods, keep in mind it was just you and Polian who knew it. The rest of the world was in love with Ricky then. He'd set all kinds of records at Texas, looked like Walter Payton and Earl Campbell rolled together and was impressive enough that no less than Mike Ditka offered to trade the Saints' entire draft for him. But Polian didn't want Ricky and didn't want the trade. He wanted another back — some junior, a kid named Edgerrin James from Miami who'd had a couple of big games, but had never been a consistent performer. After he chose James, the football world scoffed, Colts fans called Polian every name in the book. And when James held out, they cursed Polian and promised to dance (amongst other things) on his grave, which they would be more than pleased to dig and fill.
Then James finally showed up in camp. In an effort to show Polian's prized rook what the NFL was all about, the coaches put him in with the first-team offense in the first intrasquad scrimmage. James got the ball five times. He ran for three long touchdowns and first downs on the other two. Six years later, he was the team's all-time leading rusher with 9226 yards and 64 touchdowns despite missing more than a year with an ACL injury and having to share the leader board with Faulk, Eric Dickerson, Lydell Mitchell and other greats. Ricky, on the other hand, has enjoyed some nice moments, but also been traded, suspended, fined, retired, reviled and generally made himself a laughingstock.
Yeah, James over Ricky is an oft-told story (almost as well-known as Peyton Manning over Ryan Leaf), but just one of many that reflect Polian's unorthodox style and his ability to generally see things others don't. To get an idea of how who the Colts will select, you have to have an idea of how Polian's brain works.
• It doesn't matter what the media or the fans think. Pretty well all of Polian's first-round picks were chosen well before the media thought they would be and, consequently, when the fans would like. But when you look at players like James and Dwight Freeney, you can understand that Polianknows more than Mel Kiper and his ilk. In fact, the only first-round pick I can remember who Polian selected when the experts claimed he would be (other than Manning, of course) was Rob Morris and his career has been, to be kind, a disappointment. And Polian gets even more contrary in later rounds, spending early picks on guys like Marcus Washington, Jerome Pathon, Gilbert Gardner, Jason David and Kelvin Hayden — many of whom were expected to be picked very late, if at all.
And what you and ESPN may think the Colts need may not jibe with what Polian thinks. When Colts fans were crying and begging for any defensive tackle, Polian grabbed tight end Dallas Clark (2003) and wide receiver Reggie Wayne (2001) in the first round. Later on, he said that he chose them because he it would be a shame to have a Manning at quarterback and not give him weapons, but the message was clear — Polian will draft who he wants.
• Size doesn't matter, but speed sure does. Fans often berate Polian for drafting small players. Safety Bob Sanders is just 5'8, Jake Scott plays guard and tackle at (a generously listed) 274 pounds. But Sanders ran his combine 40 in less than 4.4 seconds and Scott in less than 5.0. Look at Jonathan Welsh and you'd think he was a wide receiver. But Polian recognized that a guy that fast and that quick could be a force as a pass-rusher, so he traded up to get him. Although he didn't draft him, Polian pursued and signed Bowling Green nose tackle Brandon Hicks. While Hicks was smart, strong, fast, quick and determined, he didn't work out in the NFL because he maxed out at about 258 pounds — maybe 100 pounds lighter than the game's best at the position.
• Keep your eye on workouts.Steve McKinney was a pretty good, very mobile guard at Texas A&M but there were questions about his upper-body strength. When he recorded 36 bench-press reps to lead all offensive line prospects, Polian traded up to get him. And when James ran a 4.36 forty, Polian remembered it. In the past, Polian and the Colts have shown a great fondness for players who run the shuttle and cone drills well.
• Small schools are not a problem. While Polian generally grabs a big-program talent in the first round, he's not afraid to go to the smallest of schools if he sees talent there. Look at Hall of Famer Andre Reed (Kutztown State), 1995 first-rounder Ty Poole (Fort Valley State), Phil Hansen (North Dakota State), Joseph Jefferson (Western Kentucky), Shawn King (NE Louisiana) and Don Beebe (Chadron State) — all first-day picks from colleges almost small enough to teach their classes in one room. A good case study can be found in defensive end Robert Mathis. Although he went to a college, Alabama A&M, little bigger than many urban high schools, he looked like Superman while he was there and tested well. Polian traded up to get him and has never looked back as Mathis has become a genuine pass-rushing star.
• Some positions get drafted before others. Take a look at the Colts' offensive line. Tarik Glenn doesn't count because he was the last first-round pick of the previous regime. But the others — center Jeff Saturday (undrafted, cut by the Ravens), guards Jake Scott (fifth rounder) and Ryan Lilja (undrafted, cut by the Chiefs) and tackle Ryan Diem (fourth rounder) — didn't hear their names called on Day 1. And Polian has only ever drafted one safety in the first round (Henry Jones in 1991 with the 26th pick when the first round was just 28 picks long) two linebackers (both inside men, Morris in 2000 and Shane Conlan in 1987) and not a single defensive tackle in the opening go-round of the 18 drafts he's overseen. On the other hand, he can never have enough defensive ends, wide receivers or cornerbacks on opening day.
• Take character into account. While a few Colts have had some off-the-field problems, it has generally been after they've turned pro. While the occasional youthful indiscretion has gotten by, the bulk of Colts draft picks are standup guys who are smart, hard-working, charitable and upstanding citizens. Perhaps more than any team outside of the swamps of East Rutherford, N.J., the Colts pay attention to intelligence and personality testing and nobody puts more stock in interviews and from-the-gut character assessments.
• One big year. Many teams overlook players with one outstanding season if the rest of his college career was less impressive — Polian doesn't. Sometimes, the theory works, as when he selected outside linebacker David Thornton in the fourth round in 2002. Thorny had been a backup with negligible stats in his first three seasons, but burst on the scene with big plays and big numbers as a senior. The Colts grabbed him much earlier than most expected and he turned out to be a huge bargain. But, other times it doesn't work. Two years earlier, the Colts surprised everyone by choosing Michigan defensive tackle Josh Williams in the fourth round. A small-ish penetrator type, many teams shied away from him because he had only one sack as a senior. Polian, however, remembered that Williams had seven sacks the year earlier when the Wolverines ran a different type of defensive scheme. Williams had his moments, but a series of injuries and an overall lack of strength relegated him to a spare-part role at best.
While it's a well-established fact that Polian's drafts can't be reliably predicted, if you take into account some traits and consistencies, at least they can be understood.
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