Chris Ballard was the only NFL general manager to attend Notre Dame’s Pro Day in late March. It turns out he was there to scout his eventual draft pick, Irish offensive guard Quenton Nelson.
Ballard and head coach Frank Reich met the media after the Colts made their first pick — sixth overall — to take the Holmdel, N.J. product:
Ballard’s opening statement:
“So excited about Quenton Nelson. Frank and I have talked a long time about fixing – you win games up front. I mentioned that last week to you all and Quenton Nelson we thought was the best offensive lineman in the draft. He’s got everything we want in terms of character, work ethic, toughness, passion for the game and he is going to be great for this team and great for the city of Indianapolis. So we’re extremely excited to get him. Time’s yours.”
What was it about him that you saw on film that you thought he would be a good fit here in Indy?
“I saw him a year ago, actually. I’m close friends with Harry Hiestand, the o-line coach who is now in Chicago. We were together at one point in time in Chicago and he spoke glowingly about him even a year ago. He thought this kid had real pro potential. He’s good both as a run blocker and pass-pro. He’s nasty. He’s tough. He’s everything we want to stand for as a team. His football character is off the charts, and that’s something that we want to keep adding. He is demanding. He’ll be demanding of his teammates to perform, and he’ll be demanding on himself to perform. He will come in and earn it like every rookie has to, but he’s a unique guy. Got unique size, bend, strength, power – everything you look for in an interior lineman.”
Did you go to a lot of workouts, pro days and stuff? I know you went to Nelson’s. Did you go to a lot of them?
“I went to one. I went to Nelson’s.”
Can you explain your reasoning why?
“Because it was an easy drive (laughs). We had so much going on and had so much tape to continue to grind on, so it was an easy trip for me to get up to Notre Dame. Look, usually I would get out to more. This was just an unusual year with a new staff, a new head coach, us getting to know each other. That kept me in house, and look, I get every workout on tape. I mean, the dub center, the NFL and the college video crews do an unbelievable job. So, as soon as they work out, within the next two days we have it on tape. Sometimes there is just something about seeing a guy live though that you just – and I got a chance to see Quenton live, watch him play and also watch him work out. He’s a guy you can feel. You can feel him.”
Did you consider moving back or did you have any calls?
“We had a call. Yeah, we had a call. I just didn’t feel like where we had to go – I talked about premium players and Quenton was in that group. I thought where we had to go that we were going to lose what I consider a premium player and look, we still have more picks. It would’ve been nice to pick up more picks, but the drop off was too much for us at that point.”
Coach, how excited are you to get this kid?
Reich: “Right from the very start when Chris (Ballard) and I started talking about how this team was going to take shape and form – like you said – it was up front on both sides of the ball and this was the premier player in the draft that was an easy consensus in this building for all the qualities that Chris already mentioned. It gives you the kind of foundation – when you’re good up front both offensively and defensively it creates a dynamic. It creates an attitude that I think carries through the whole team, confidence to know that you can win up front.”
Chris, were you worried he would be there at six?
“There was a little concern, but I felt good last night when I starting hearing all of the quarterbacks that were going to come off the board. Then the Denzel Ward pick, I had been getting some feedback that there was a chance that Denzel Ward was going to go. So I had a feeling that one of the three – (Saquon) Barkley, (Bradley) Chubb, or Nelson – would be there at six.”
Historically interior offensive linemen don’t usually go this high. Why did you decide this guy was worth the investment?
“Good point. I think we see now, the importance of the entire O-Line, not just tackles. You can see it in the way they’re being paid. The last few years they’re making upwards of tackle money. We saw a couple guards here this year – one in the $13 million range and the other in an $11.5 million range. So I think people are realizing, and look, offensive linemen in general are hard to find. Big men are hard to find so I think you are seeing more of a premium put on them. Protecting the quarterback is important.”
You don’t share your intentions with Andrew Luck or Jacoby Brissett, but do you think maybe they like this pick?
“I’m sure he will, but if you know Andrew (Luck) well enough, he doesn’t ask any questions about who we’re drafting.”
You mentioned Saquon Barkley and Bradley Chubb. Of the top guys in the draft, was that your group all along (Barkley, Chubb and Nelson)?
“Yeah, and there was a couple other guys in that group that we were perfectly content (with). We think (they) are going to be really good players, but we had it narrowed down to about four guys that we thought would be instant starters for us, impact players and be Pro Bowl players eventually in time.”
When you made the trade back from No. 3, had you already identified that pack of guys? In others words, did that inform your decision?
“Yes. When we made the decision to make the trade, before I walked into the draft room and made sure. I said, ‘OK, let’s take the worst case scenario that a quarterback goes at 1 and quarterback goes at 3. So – 2, 4 and 5, we better be content with whoever’s at 6, and we were comfortable as a group with who was going to be there at 6.”
Was it clear when it came to No. 6 tonight that it was Nelson?
“It was Nelson. It was Nelson.”
You said you watched him live last year. Do you remember which game?
“Miami. I watched him against Miami his sophomore season, and this year I watched him against North Carolina State.”
You always talk about how you keep a folder of guys. At what point did you think Nelson would be a great fit for your team?
“When you go to a school and you see a good player, you always get a vision for how he would fit on your team. But I would say more it was really, to be honest with you, after I got done with the workout, I’m watching him work out, I was like, ‘Wow, man. This guy would be a great Colt.’”
What was it during the workout?
“Oh, you could feel him. Like I’ve been around – so, I could feel when I watched Adrian Peterson come out. I’ll never forget standing on the sideline and him running by me. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that with a player, but I could feel Adrian. Same thing with Dez Bryant. When Dez Bryant was at Oklahoma State, I’ll never forget a kid running by me, and I could feel it. You can feel Quenton Nelson the same way.”
“I don’t know. When he gets out there, I’m going to have you stand next to me and see if you can feel the same thing I feel (laughs).”
Frank, with what you want to do offensively and up front, your schemes and so forth, how does Quenton fit in that? Is he a good fit for what you want to do?
Reich: “Yeah, he really is. He was just productive in every kind of run scheme there is – in zone-run scheme, in gap-run scheme. We charted him as a puller. I mean his productivity when pulling was just so far greater than anything we’ve ever seen. Instinctive. I mean not only big and tough and strong and has all the football character, but when we started talking, we want guys who are instinctive football players that process it quickly and find ways to be playmakers. So, we talk about it all the time. We think playmakers on the edge. We talk about playmakers up front as well, and this guy’s in that category.”
When you see him excel as a puller, that has to be telling and indicative of a lot.
Reich: “It really is. For that big of a guy and he can move in space and just have the knack. Have the knack for the right entry, the right kind of block. It was very impressive.”
What was your first impression when you saw him on film?
Reich: “My first impression was that this is the best offensive lineman I’ve seen coming out in the draft in a while and just thinking about the first time talking to Chris (Ballard) about this. Our mutual consensus was that this is where we’ve got to go. We want to build the fronts, and that’s what wins. We want to be dynamic in our skill positions in the pass game and in coverage, but in the long run, you’ve got to be good up front to sustain and to get to where you want to get to.”