Colts believe Laiatu Latu is ‘elite’ pass rusher who can help Indy hunt down AFC’s premier QBs

Colts GM Chris Ballard couldn’t foresee this.

An NFL-record 14 offensive players were selected in the first 14 picks of the NFL Draft on Thursday night, allowing the Colts to have their pick of the litter among the defensive players in this year’s class. Ballard ultimately chose UCLA defensive end Laiatu Latu, who never saw it coming.

“I didn’t talk to them at all in the pre-draft (process), and then that phone call came up from Indianapolis, and I’m just like, ‘Damn, my agent just told me don’t worry about the next couple picks,’” Latu said via a Zoom news conference. “And then I get the call, and I’m a Colt.”

This pick was about the future as much as it is about the recent past.

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A few months ago, Houston QB C.J. Stroud came to Indianapolis, lit up Lucas Oil Stadium and ended the Colts’ season. He was sacked twice and hit three times but rarely was Stroud under duress. In fact, for most of the night, he played in a pressure-free paradise and picked Indianapolis apart en route to a playoff berth.

That can’t happen again, not if the Colts want to end their three-year playoff drought and not if they hope to win their first AFC South title since 2014. Whether Ballard admits it or not, the addition of Latu, whom he called “the best defensive player in the draft” was made with the conviction that Latu can be a difference-maker in an AFC loaded with premier passers.

Last season, Indianapolis ranked last in the NFL with a 15.7 percent blitz rate per QB dropback, and its 4.5 percent QB hurry rate was the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL. Assuming the Colts won’t completely revamp their defensive scheme under coordinator Gus Bradley, the only other way to improve in those areas is to upgrade their personnel.

Ballard admitted the Colts pursued and missed out on four-time Pro Bowl edge rusher Danielle Hunter in free agency. Hunter, of course, ended up in Houston. On Thursday, Ballard took another swing on Latu, which Ballard believes is a home run.

“He’s a natural rusher,” Ballard said. “ … He’s got a great long arm down the middle; he’s got a great feel of when to counter inside, and he can win on the edge. So, he’s kind of got all of it. He’s a really talented guy. I think our defensive front is the best since we’ve been here. It’s excellent.”

Unlike Kwity Paye, who was the last defensive end the Colts selected in the first round in 2021, Latu was highly productive in college. He racked up a combined 34 tackles for loss and 23.5 sacks over his last two college seasons at UCLA. Ballard said Latu’s play was so impressive and his reputation was so clean that Indianapolis didn’t need to spend any extra time formally meeting with him throughout the pre-draft process. The Colts’ scouts had done their homework, and Latu was graded as one of their “four or five really elite players” in this year’s class.

The only thing about Latu that could’ve pushed them in a different direction was his health. The 23-year-old began his college career at Washington before he sustained a neck injury in November in 2020 that required cervical fusion surgery and forced him to medically retire in spring 2021. He spent more than two years away from football before finally making his return, transferring to UCLA and morphing into a first-round pick.

He hasn’t missed a game since.

Ballard said he asked “a ton of questions” about Latu’s neck injury, and each answer from the Colts’ medical staff made him comfortable with potentially selecting him. So, when the board fell the way it did, Latu became a no-brainer.

Ballard’s next move, however, may not be.



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The Colts still need a starting-caliber cornerback, and, perhaps more importantly, they need to help second-year QB Anthony Richardson. Ballard said before the draft that he must protect Richardson and surround him with more playmakers. After passing on those opportunities in free agency and the first round of the draft, that raises the stakes to do both on Day 2.

Ballard said the Colts had “serious, serious discussions” with big offers to trade up, presumably for a talented offensive player, but they were unable to strike a deal.

“You’ve got to get two to tango,” Ballard said. “Nobody was moving.”

Latu, a unanimous All-American, certainly wasn’t a bad consolation prize. He’s the kind of player who could help ensure no opposing QB ever feels comfortable playing against the Colts.

If that’s the type of player he becomes, it’s a big win for Ballard.

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(Photo of Latu: Ric Tapia / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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