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Inside the Colts’ draft room: GM Chris Ballard opens up on his first 4 picks

A peek inside the Indianapolis Colts’ draft room, where Friday, fifth-year general manager Chris Ballard took a few of us through the first four selections he made in last month’s draft.

Here’s a lens into the GM’s thinking on wideout Alec Pierce, tight end Jelani Woods, left tackle Bernhard Raimann and safety Nick Cross:

Alec Pierce, WR, No. 53 pick out of Cincinnati

The Colts will initially have Pierce in the X receiver role, on the outside, but have designs on him playing multiple positions. Head coach Frank Reich loves his jump-ball ability on the perimeter; what stood out to Ballard, in the tape he showed Friday, were Pierce’s route running and body control when he goes up for the football. Like area scout Chad Henry noted after the draft, it’s not hard to tell Pierce is a former basketball and volleyball player. He can climb, and make it look easy.

“I kept hearing people saying this kid was stiff,” Ballard said. “Like, I never saw that on tape.”

One area the Colts know Pierce needs to improve is getting off of tight press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Ballard says most receivers struggle in that area early in their pro careers; for starters, they don’t see much press in college. “And they don’t see it with the aggressiveness you’re going to get in our league,” he added.

That’ll be different come training camp when Pierce will square off against the likes of Stephon Gilmore and Kenny More in 1-on-1 drills.

Ballard showed a clip of Pierce’s 19-yard touchdown in an early season win over Indiana. Pressed early in his route by Hoosiers corner Tiawan Mullen, Pierce staggered outside for a second. But instead of getting pushed to the boundary — which Ballard says happens often, all but erasing chances at a completion — he kept pumping his legs, fighting through contact to find some freedom. Then, his vertical ability showed. Pierce went up and won the jump ball in the end zone to give the Bearcats a lead they never relinquished.

It was a massive play in what had been a tight game. Cincinnati ended up winning by 14. Ballard watched from the sidelines that day in Bloomington.

“A lot of times, what will happen is this guy will just get caved in on the sidelines,” Ballard said, rewinding the play repeatedly. “But he has the strength to still be able to give himself space here and make a play on the ball.”

The GM also expects new receivers coach Reggie Wayne to work with Pierce on the start of his routes, particularly his footwork. It needs to be cleaned up a bit.

“It’s about attacking,” Ballard said of fighting off press coverage, one area Pierce must improve in. “You know, you don’t want to work at the line. You want to continue to move up and attack them and get (the cornerback) on their heels.”

One of the biggest selling points for the GM was Pierce’s performance against Notre Dame a week later. By game’s end, he’d hauled in six catches for 144 yards in Cincinnati’s biggest win of the regular season. “I thought he took it over in the fourth quarter,” Ballard said.

He thought Pierce was one of the best wideouts in the draft — though Ballard admitted this year’s class wasn’t as dynamic as the past few. But the Colts loved the idea of lining Pierce up on one side of the field and Michael Pittman Jr. on the other. That’s a lot of vertical talent for which defenses will have to account.

“I didn’t know why he wasn’t getting talked about in that way, and it’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out,” Ballard said. “But could Alec Pierce have played at Ohio State? Absolutely.”

Jelani Woods, TE, No. 73 pick out of Virginia

Woods is going to be fun. For starters, his size is staggering: he’s 6-7 and 259 pounds. And he can run.

As he did with Pierce, Ballard scouted Woods in person this past fall. He drove to Buffalo for the Colts’ Nov. 21 game against the Bills, and on the way, Ballard stopped in Pittsburgh to watch Pitt host Virginia.

He saw Woods up close on the field before the game.

“There was this 6-7 giant running around, catching balls on the field pregame,” Ballard said.

His immediate thoughts: “Holy cow, who is this guy?”

Woods was a high school quarterback who shifted to tight end at Oklahoma State after tearing up the scout team in practice. After making the position switch, he was mostly used as a blocker in his three seasons in Stillwater. Woods shined in the pass game in his final college season, at Virginia.


Jelani Woods goes through drills during the NFL Scouting Combine. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

He worked closely with Colts tight ends coach Klayton Adams in the East-West Shrine Game after the season, and when Adams returned to the Colts’ draft room, he echoed what Ballard saw that night in Pittsburgh.

“This guy is unique,” Adams told them. “Unique.”

What caught the Colts’ eye, beyond just Woods’ physical skills, is how Virginia used him: plenty of snaps from the slot, where Woods moves quickly in and out of breaks, has good downfield speed and can make contested catches in traffic. Reich will dial up plenty of the same calls, hoping to get Woods in space and let him work. His yards-after-the-catch ability shined on tape, and he doesn’t shy away from contact — on one play, Woods trucked the safety and kept running. Think: Mo Alie-Cox.

“I felt like he looked even bigger in person, I really did,” Reich said of Woods on Friday, shortly after the rookies’ first workout at the team facility. “I mean, he’s a big man. I knew he was big on tape, but he’s a big man — really looked good. It’s all going to be, for Jelani, about consistency, about not just making the big flash play, but really developing as a blocker. That’s going to be really important.”

That’ll be his biggest challenge come training camp, outside of learning Reich’s sizable playbook: earn his keep as a blocker, enough so the coaches can keep him on the field.

Because the upside is how he can help the passing game.

Ballard said was sweating on the second night of the draft, worried that Woods wouldn’t last until pick 73. After he finally turned in the pick, he could exhale.

“Holy shit,” he said, his reaction caught on camera by the team’s “With the Next Pick” crew.

“This (pick) was the one I did not understand there wasn’t more juice and buzz for,” Ballard said on Friday. “Because the tape is good. I mean, he’s got good tape and he’s unique.”

Yes, there are similarities to Alie-Cox, who’ll ascend into the top tight end role after Jack Doyle’s retirement.

“This guy is more skilled than Mo (was early on),” Ballard said of Woods. “He’s faster and more skilled.”

Drops are a concern, but not a huge one. The Colts — Ballard and Reich especially — have long been willing to live with a few here or there if the overall production was strong. They drafted another tight end in 2021, Kylen Granson, despite a few drop-heavy games in college.

“Even the year (Eric) Ebron was here, I’ll take the 8-9 drops if all the catches and good plays are there,” Ballard said. (Ebron had 66 catches and 13 receiving touchdowns in 2018.) “Brandon Marshall in Chicago caught 80 balls and dropped 12 (one season). You can live with some of those.”

The last time Ballard went offense with his first two picks in a draft, he hit big: the Colts grabbed Michael Pittman Jr. and Jonathan Taylor early in the second round in 2020, and in just two seasons, both have established themselves as the team’s offensive backbones of the future.

The ceiling might not be as high with Pierce and Woods, but Ballard is buying their potential for a few reasons.

“I felt the same way when we took Pittman and Taylor,” he said. “Where you just knew: whatever their floor is, there’s no doubt they’re going to hit it. And whatever their ceiling is, they’re gonna do everything they can to reach it.

“Guys who are smart? Who work hard? They ascend.”

Bernhard Raimann, LT, No. 77 pick out of Central Michigan

The first clip Ballard showed Friday wasn’t from a game — it was from Raimann’s pro day at Central Michigan. The 303-pounder leaped three times and covered over 10 yards.

“There might be a few (offensive linemen) every few years who can do that,” Ballard said.

“When I got done with this workout,” he added, “I thought of Braden (Smith).”

It spoke to Raimann’s athleticism, the GM said, athleticism the Colts believe will help him on the edge against twitchy pass rushers. The plan is to start him at left tackle because that’s where the Colts believe his future is.

He’ll begin camp behind incumbent Matt Pryor, but it’ll be an open competition — look for newly signed veteran Dennis Kelly to get looks there, as well. If Raimann doesn’t win the left tackle job, Ballard said the team could try him at right guard.


Bernhard Raimann will have an opportunity to start as a rookie for the Colts. (Courtesy of Central Michigan)

Why’d he drop in the draft? Some prognosticators had Raimann going as early as the first and possibly the second; the Colts got him midway through the third.

“I don’t know,” Ballard said. “Arm length could have been part of it. Only played the position two years.”

Raimann’s arms measured 32 7/8 inches, which aren’t ideal for an NFL tackle. The Colts didn’t feel like it was a deal-breaker. At 25, he’s much older than most rookies; he first landed in the United States at 17 after growing up in Austria. He started out as a tight end at Central Michigan before switching to left tackle his last two seasons, starting 18 games.

He’ll have an uphill climb come camp, but the Colts believe he can compete for starter’s reps this season.

Nick Cross, S, No. 96 pick out of Maryland

Cross is the type of safety who can cover ground and cover it quickly. Internally, the Colts believed Cross — who’s just 20 — would’ve been a second-round pick in 2023 if he’d stayed at Maryland another year. So on draft night, without another third-rounder, they decided to move up and grab him. Ballard’s only done this a handful of times in his five drafts with the Colts. That tells you they really wanted this kid.

“He’s got some real stuff to him,” Ballard said. “He can run. He’ll hit. He’s got good ball skills. He’s young … young.”

It’ll take some time, and the mistakes will come, but the Colts are amped about what Cross will bring to the defense in the coming years. He won’t be asked to start right away — Indianapolis has Julian Blackmon and Khari Willis returning, plus veteran Rodney McLeod, whom they signed in free agency.


Nick Cross tied for the team lead in interceptions with three in his final season at Maryland. (Julio Cortez / Associated Press)

Cross can watch, learn and develop. They believe he can play either the strong or free safety spot, and he should be a perfect addition to new coordinator Gus Bradley’s three-deep scheme.

“Once we get this guy cleaned up, he’s going to be really good,” Ballard said. “Really good.”

Asked, then, if he was surprised Cross lasted until pick 96, Ballard nodded.

“Yes.”

(Top photo of Alec Pierce: Michael Conroy / Associated Press)

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