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2023 NFL Draft: Indianapolis Colts assembled the freakiest class; five picks that took me by surprise

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. Today's installment covers:

But first, a look the most athletically gifted class in the 2023 NFL Draft ...

Perhaps it is fitting that the NFL draft is held in the middle of the NBA playoffs. With interest in professional basketball peaking during this time of year, NFL executives and scouts might watch more hardwood action as they put the finishing touches on their scouting reports and draft-room presentations. Obviously, the games are vastly different and require distinct skill sets, but the NFL scouting community seems to be taking some cues from their NBA brethren when it comes to utilizing a "draft and develop" approach that emphasizes superior physical dimensions and athletic traits while challenging evaluators to understand the difference between natural talent and learned developmental skills.

A prospect's natural talent is his combination of size, length, strength and overall athleticism. Those traits can't really be developed or improved upon on the basketball court. Whereas a player can become a better dribbler, passer and shooter -- the learned developmental skills -- through diligent work under the watchful eye of a coach. With the NBA churning out success stories on traits-based prospects like Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook and Jimmy Butler, among many others, maybe NFL evaluators are placing more value on drafting for upside, with a greater emphasis on player development.

Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard, in particular, is clearly targeting traits. In fact, the GM stressed exactly this to his scouting staff last year, as featured in the team's draft series, "With The Next Pick."

"I want to make sure we're getting the best guys with traits," Ballard told his charges. "Let's bet on the traits -- bet on high-end, high-end traits."

And true to form, Ballard and Co. have done exactly that, amassing a collection of athletic freaks in back-to-back drafts. In 2022, the Colts' first four picks were traitsy prospects who turned heads at the NFL Scouting Combine (which, by the way, appropriately takes place in Indianapolis): WR Alec Pierce, TE Jelani Woods, OT Bernhard Raimann and S Nick Cross. This year, though, Ballard seemed to take the athleticism binge to another level, starting with the No. 4 overall pick in the draft.

Quarterback Anthony Richardson is the poster child of the Colts' draft strategy as a spectacular athlete with a cannon arm and explosive running ability. After checking in at the combine at 6-4 1/4 and 244 pounds, the supersized playmaker out of Florida put on an unprecedented athletic display, blazing a 4.43 40-yard dash (best among all quarterbacks in this class) and nearly jumping out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a 40 1/2-inch vertical leap (a modern combine record for QBs). For good measure, he added a 10-foot-9 broad jump, tying the modern QB record originally set by Arkansas' Matt Jones. It was a legitimate freak show. Richardson received the highest possible Athleticism Score (99) in the Next Gen Stats Draft Model. But the first-round quarterback was just the beginning of Indy's traits bonanza on draft weekend.

The Colts went on to draft the top NGS athlete at offensive tackle (BYU's Blake Freeland), as well as the No. 2-rated athlete on the defensive line (Northwestern's Adetomiwa Adebawore) and at safety (Cal's Daniel Scott). I haven't even mentioned Julius Brents, Indy's second-round cornerback who posted absurd figures in the jumps (41.5-inch vertical, 11-foot-6 broad) and agility drills (6.63-second three-cone, 4.05-second short shuttle). Then there's third-round wide receiver Josh Downs, who recorded explosive jumps of his own (38.5-inch vertical, 10-foot-11 broad), and fifth-round cornerback Darius Rush, who ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds. Oh, and fifth-rounder Will Mallory ran the fastest 40 (4.54) among tight ends at this year's combine.

Are you sensing a trend here? For the second straight year, the Colts' draft haul rated off the charts in RAS (Relative Athletic Score), an algorithm created by Kent Lee Platte that measures athleticism in relation to a prospect's size and position. Bottom line: The Colts love rare athletes.

By encouraging his staff to target athletic traits, Ballard also expresses confidence in the Colts' ability to develop young players through consumable schemes. To properly execute this kind of team-building blueprint, an organization must have a coaching staff committed to teaching and developing its personnel. Instead of out-scheming their opponents in every possible way, the Colts can look to build a team that out-executes foes with superior athletes maximizing manageable strategies. Thus, in addition to evaluating the abilities of players, Ballad must adroitly assess his coaches' skills as teachers.

Reviewing the Colts' coaching staff over the past two seasons, the team has added some superb teachers to the lineup. Whether it is Gus Bradley guiding a young, energetic defense or Reggie Wayne sharing tricks of the trade with a group of emerging pass catchers, Indianapolis emphasizes skill development between the lines. Now, obviously the Jeff Saturday experiment as interim head coach didn't work out as planned. But in February, Indy hired Shane Steichen as its new head man. The highly respected quarterback developer has a knack for bringing out the best in young passers -- SEE: Justin Herbert in Los Angeles and Jalen Hurts in Philadelphia -- and now he has another gifted signal-caller on his hands in Indy.

Taking Richardson's massive size and mind-boggling testing into account, there's an argument to be made that this is the freakiest quarterback prospect ever to hit the NFL. Now it's on the Colts to refine his footwork and mechanics, to develop this extraordinary athlete into a true gamechanger.

If Steichen can help Richardson fully realize his potential, the 20-year-old could become a football version of Giannis: a raw prospect who comes into his own -- in astounding fashion -- at the professional level.

The single-school scouting phenomenon

Some of you might be wondering why the Philadelphia Eagles and Los Angeles Chargers loaded up on prospects from Georgia and TCU, respectively, during the 2023 NFL Draft. But as I see it, the explanation is quite simple: These teams are likely buying into the same "winners win" philosophy that has been championed in the NFL for years.

As a young scout working for the Carolina Panthers in the mid-2000s, I heard then-coach John Fox urge scouts to focus on acquiring players from winning programs who consistently competed at a championship level. Fox believed players from college football's top teams were accustomed to the discipline, detail and work required to win games in the NFL. Moreover, Fox believed those who came up competing for championships would not wilt under the pressure that accompanies high-stakes games in the pros.

Hall of Fame executive Ron Wolf routinely acquired teammates from winning college programs. (In the mid-1990s, he brought in myself, William Henderson and Bernardo Harris to the Super Bowl-contending Packers after we'd all played together and helped turn things around under Mack Brown at North Carolina.) Wolf believed players from successful schools could help implement a strong culture in the pros, and he wanted his locker rooms to be full of players who were used to winning at every level.

It might seem like the Eagles are obsessed with the Georgia program, having added five former Bulldogs over the last two drafts (DT Jordan Davis and LB Nakobe Dean in 2022; DT Jalen Carter, LB Nolan Smith and CB Kelee Ringo in 2023), in addition to acquiring former UGA RB D'Andre Swift from the Lions via trade. But it is sensible for a title-contending organization to pluck (mostly defensive) prospects from a back-to-back national championship squad that has dominated the college football landscape with a stingy D loaded with five-star talent. These blue-chip players should enjoy a seamless transition to the next level after developing in a program that operates like an NFL team.

In their efforts to upgrade a near-championship-level roster, the Chargers seem to be following a similar blueprint. Los Angeles added a pair of wideouts (Quentin Johnston and Derius Davis) and a quarterback (Max Duggan) who played together at TCU to an offense that lives and dies with the pass. The trio should bring a ready-made chemistry and sense of competitiveness to the locker room, having served as talented members of TCU's aerial circus. Friendly competition between the pass catchers should raise the intensity on the field; they will also give Duggan a pair of known commodities to target in practice. Though Justin Herbert is fully entrenched as QB1, Duggan's performance in practice and preseason games could determine whether the Chargers view him as a legitimate developmental prospect. And with the TCU star presumably knowing each pass catcher intimately, Duggan should be able to help the coaches unlock Johnston's and Davis' potential as playmakers.

Players can also help coaches and scouts better understand their former college teammates before they are drafted, sharing stories or vouching for their character. It's not hard to imagine the Eagles consulting the ex-Bulldogs already on their roster before they decided to select Carter, who faced off-field questions during the pre-draft process. As the alpha leader of the Bulldogs in the 2021 season, Dean surely poked and prodded Carter and others to elevate their play in key moments. He presumably knows what makes all of his teammates tick, and Philadelphia likely trusts in Dean's ability to help lead his former Georgia compatriots.

The Eagles have already had significant success with another pairing of ex-college teammates: Alabama products Jalen Hurts and DeVonta Smith provided a serious spark to an offense that needed some juice, connecting for 968 yards and five scores last season. If the strategy works similar magic for Philly's defense and the Chargers' offense, it should only fuel other teams' hunger for proven winners come draft time.

Five draft picks that took me by surprise

Earlier this week, I listed my 10 perfect player-team fits from the 2023 NFL Draft. Now, given a few more days to study the three-day event, I'd like to spotlight the draft picks that caught me off guard.

Some of the prospects below were taken higher or lower than I anticipated. For others, it was the team fit that surprised me. But this is the delicious drama of the NFL draft.

Without further ado, here are five selections that I did not see coming.

Will McDonald IV
Iowa State · Edge

DRAFTED: Round 1, No. 15 overall

I wasn't the only person caught off guard by New York taking McDonald at No. 15 overall. Throughout the mock madness of the pre-draft process, the Iowa State product was hit or miss to be selected in the first round at all. In my final projection, I had him coming off the board with the last pick of Day 1. Consequently, when his name was called relatively early on Thursday night -- by a team that didn't have a screaming need on the edge -- is was surprising. That said, it wasn't irrational. The freakish pass rusher joins a Jets defensive front that excels at hunting the quarterback. With Aaron Rodgers upgrading the offense, McDonald gives New York another closer to throw into the rotation and finish games against opponents chasing points. Although his lightweight stature could prevent him from playing as an every-down defender early in his career, the 239-pound McDonald's skills as a dynamic sack artist in the mold of Randy Gregory and Brian Burns could pay dividends if the Rodgers-led offense lights up the scoreboard to create pass-rush opportunities. 

DRAFTED: Round 1, No. 18 overall

Despite off-ball linebackers being devalued on many draft boards, the Lions elected to take an old-school thumper in the first round. In a vacuum, I personally believe Campbell's athleticism, instincts and production definitely merited Day 1 consideration. But Detroit's recent recommitment to Alex Anzalone -- re-signing the veteran 'backer to a three-year, $18.75 million deal in March -- made the selection a bit of a head-scratcher when pondering how the Lions will feature a pair of green-dot Mike linebackers on the field at the same time. Not to mention, Detroit uncovered a sixth-round gem at linebacker in last year's draft. What is Malcolm Rodriguez's role going forward?

DRAFTED: Round 1, No. 30 overall

After shining at the NFL Scouting Combine, Smith was pretty widely expected to come off the board in the top 20, possibly even in the top 10. But on draft night, the Georgia standout fell to the penultimate pick of Round 1, possibly due to uncertainty about his ability to play as a three-down defender in a traditional scheme. With questions about his size, sack production and overall pass-rush potential, Smith landed right in the Eagles' lap. Boasting a loaded roster and sufficient draft currency, GM Howie Roseman was in perfect position to take a swing on a rare athlete with outstanding football character. It's a luxury pick that could pay off in a major way.

DRAFTED: Round 2, No. 32 overall

Nobody's surprised Porter ended up in Pittsburgh, where his dad once earned first-team All-Pro honors, but the pairing was supposed to happen in Round 1. Instead, four other cornerbacks (Devon Witherspoon, Emmanuel Forbes, Christian Gonzalez and Deonte Banks) came off the board on Thursday night, and the pedigreed Penn Stater surprisingly slid into Friday, with the Steelers holding the opening pick of Day 2. Match: MADE. Although Porter's game has some limitations -- he's definitely at his best as a press-man/Cover 2 corner -- his size-length combination and tenacious play style should serve him well as a CB2 opposite veteran Patrick Peterson in Pittsburgh. 

Jalin Hyatt
Tennessee · WR

DRAFTED: Round 3, No. 73 overall

There is always a place in the league for speedsters with a knack for putting the ball in the paint. That's why Hyatt's drop down the charts ranks as one of the biggest draft-weekend surprises, given his athleticism, explosiveness and production last season at Tennessee. (Remember the five-touchdown game against Alabama?) The vertical route-running specialist is a big-play machine on the perimeter with elite speed and acceleration. While some observers question his toughness and willingness to go over the middle, as well as his route tree, Hyatt has the skill set to become a home run hitter in the Giants' revamped passing game.

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