ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB) — You remember the 2018 NFL draft. It featured one of the most celebrated quarterback classes in league history — including Josh Allen — and drew parallels to the 1983 group that featured Jim Kelly and Dan Marino, future Hall of Famers.
A lot of teams were looking for their next franchise quarterback that year. That included the Bills, who had traded out of the 10th spot a year earlier to collect draft assets and pin their hopes on the promising ’18 class.
While other teams were looking to find a franchise quarterback, the Colts were looking to protect one. Their offensive line was bad, and it had taken a heavy toll on their star quarterback, Andrew Luck, who had sat out the entire 2017 season with a shoulder injury.
The Colts wanted to build an offensive line that would keep Luck upright and lead them back to contention. In 2016, they had drafted a top center, Ryan Kelly from Alabama. Now they had their sights set on Quenton Nelson, one of the best guards to come along in years.
Indianapolis held the third overall pick, having finished 4-12 with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback for the injured Luck. Teams were angling to move up. The Colts shipped the No. 3 pick to the Jets, who were sitting at No. 6 and desperate to move up for QB Sam Darnold.
For the privilege of jumping up three spots in the draft, the Jets gave the Colts the sixth overall pick, along with two second-round picks (the 37th and 49th) in the 2018 draft, and a second-round selection in 2019.
All drafts have major consequences. The ’18 draft, which was held from April 26-28 in Arlington, Texas, had a profound impact on the Bills-Colts wild-card game that will be contested on Saturday at Bills Stadium.
The Colts drafted Nelson sixth overall. The Bills, of course, took Josh Allen with the seventh pick. With apologies to Lamar Jackson and Baker Mayfield, you could argue that Nelson and Allen were the two best picks of the entire 2018 draft.
Nelson has been everything the Colts expected. They took heat for taking a guard in a draft rich with skill players, but general manager Chris Ballard and head coach Frank Reich believed that Nelson would be a Pro Bowl guard for years to come, an anchor for a top offensive line.
That’s just what happened. Nelson has made the Pro Bowl all three of his years in the NFL, and was all-Pro his first two. Kelly, their fifth-year center, has made two Pro Bowls. The line is regarded by some as the best in the league.
Braden Smith, the player the Colts drafted with the 37th overall pick they got from the Jets in the ’18 draft, is now their starting right tackle and regarded as a rising star.
“Ballard said from Day One, ‘We’re not going to be just an Andrew Luck team’,” recalled Bob Kravitz, the long-time Indy columnist now writing for The Athletic. “We’re going to be a really good, balanced team, especially on both the offensive and defensive lines. We’re going to build a team that just happens to have Andrew Luck at quarterback.”
One year later, after leading Indy back to the playoffs in 2018, Luck abruptly retired due to lingering injuries on the eve of the ’19 season. Now they just happened to be a team with a great O line, a rising young defense, and a marginal quarterback in Jacoby Brissett.
The Colts slipped back to 7-9 a season ago, with Brissett putting up numbers that would make Tyrod Taylor proud. They needed a better passer to get back to the playoffs and signed Philip Rivers to a one-year, $25 million deal.
Rivers, who turned 39 last month, was perceived as washed-up last season with the Chargers. But he had history with Reich, who coached Rivers in San Diego and believed he would be an upgrade for a playoff contender.
The move has worked out well enough. Rivers doesn’t have the arm of his younger days, but he completed 68 percent of his passes for 4,169 yards, with 24 touchdowns and 11 interceptions — down from 20 picks a year ago.
“Sixteen months ago, the franchise walked out the door,” Kravitz said. “I remember Chris Ballard sitting in that (Luck retirement) press conference, looking like he just got punched in the solar plexus. You wondered how this team would get itself back off the canvas.
“And here we are a year and a half later with a 39-year-old reclamation project — to some degree — and they’re 11-5 and heading to Buffalo.”
Whether the Colts will get any farther is the question. Rivers couldn’t win the big game in his prime with the Chargers, and the Bills will no doubt try to take away the run and force Rivers to beat them with a fading right arm.
At any rate, Indy will soon be like those other franchises at the ’18 draft — looking for its next franchise quarterback. There’s been much speculation that they might go back to the man who was the focus of their trade-down for Nelson:
“It’s crazy,” Kravitz said with a laugh. “They traded that spot to the Jets and got Quenton Nelson and a bunch of other players. Now, if Darnold comes here, the Colts will have a hell of a draft haul from that particular draft.”
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning digital reporter who joined the News 4 team in 2020. See more of his work here.