Colts reaped rewards of NFL's best overall draft class in 2018

Linebacker Darius Leonard anchored a young defense that was the NFL's stingiest from Week 7 forward. Photo by Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire

Quarterback Andrew Luck's return to form was obviously a big part in why the Indianapolis Colts got back to the playoffs for the first time since 2014. The play of the Colts' rookie class was also important, as general manager Chris Ballard had the franchise's best draft since Luck and receiver T.Y. Hilton were part of the 2012 class. Nine of the 11 draft picks saw playing time, with seven starting at different points in the season.

Grade: Near perfection

Best rookie: This is a tie between guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard, the first two players the Colts selected. Nelson, the sixth pick in the draft, quickly silenced the notion that taking a guard in the top 10 is not a smart move. He was the nastiest member of what became arguably the best offensive line in the NFL this season. Nelson teamed with tackle Anthony Castonzo to anchor the left side of an offensive line that gave up an NFL-low 18 sacks this season. Leonard, out of South Carolina State University, a Football Championship Subdivision school, had just as big of an impact on defense as Nelson had on offense. Leonard led the NFL in tackles with 163. He and Nelson are the first pair of rookie teammates to be named to the All-Pro team since Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers with the Chicago Bears in 1965.

Most improved rookie: Offensive lineman Braden Smith, who was also a second-round pick, played guard at Auburn. But injuries caused him to transition to the outside to right tackle in Week 4 at New England. The move paid off because he locked down that position. "I mean, Braden is like the best-kept secret in the NFL as far as I am concerned," coach Frank Reich said. "This guy -- rightly so Quenton has gotten a lot of attention -- (but) Braden has played lights out. We knew when we moved him (to right tackle), we knew we had a great run blocker. When he got here you knew the pass blocking needed some work, but he worked hard at that. So that was going to be the big question moving him out to right tackle, how would he handle it? He's just continued to get better and better."

Jury is still out on: Receiver Deon Cain showed off his size, athleticism and ability to go up in traffic to get the ball throughout training camp. But the fifth rounder out of Clemson had his rookie season end when he tore his ACL in the preseason opener at Seattle in August. The Colts could be in the market for a No. 2 receiver to pair with Hilton on an already-talented offense next season. Cain, if he's healthy, should be in the mix for that job.

Undrafted rookie evaluation: Safety George Odom turned out to be a valuable undrafted signing. The Colts dealt with injuries to safeties Clayton Geathers, Malik Hooker, Mike Mitchell and Mathias Farley, who ended up being placed on injured reserve, during the season. Odom, who played at Central Arkansas, stepped in each time and finished with 36 tackles and an interception.