Colts take first defensive player of NFL draft, UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu at No. 15

Updated Apr. 26, 2024 12:39 a.m. ET

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Laiatu Latu kept believing he would play in the NFL one day, even after team doctors at Washington told him a neck injury had ended his football career.

On Thursday, nearly two years after being cleared to play again by doctors at UCLA, the star edge rusher got his dream call — from a team he didn't even know was interested in him.

The Indianapolis Colts took Latu with the No. 15 overall pick in Thursday's NFL draft, making him the first defensive player off the board after a record 14 consecutive players were chosen, and giving the college star a chance to prove himself all over again.

“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 like ‘Damn, he just told me don’t worry about the next couple of picks,'” Latu said, recalling the conversation he had with his agent. “And then I get a call.”


The 2023 Lombardi Award winner and Pac-12 defensive player of the year wanted to be the first player drafted at his position. Instead, he became the first and perhaps most surprising defensive player selected in the entire draft.

Latu suffered a neck injury during Washington's preseason camp in 2020, his second college season. He wound up having fusion surgery and, after the season, Huskies doctors determined the injury had not healed sufficiently for him to return to the field. Then-coach Jimmy Lake even announced Latu had retired.

Latu stayed on campus for the 2021 season before entering the transfer portal.

“At the time, it was COVID and it was just a funky time and I mean it just wasn't handled he right way,” Latu said. “I didn't have any physical examinations with any doctor at the time, so it really was an opinion of somebody's that without even looking at me, without giving me tests and stuff. I feel like they were doing what they thought was best, but at the same time I feel it wasn't really handled in the best way.”

At UCLA, doctors took a more hands-on approach.

They cleared Latu to return near the end of spring practice in 2022. Though he did not start a game that season, Latu's talent and productivity were obvious. He had 10 1/2 sacks, 12 1/2 tackles for loss, forced three fumbles and recovered one.

In 2023, Latu won the starting job and proved even better. He had 21 1/2 tackles for loss, leading the nation with 1.8 per game, and finished fourth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 13 sacks.

Latu received unanimous All-America honors and the Ted Hendricks Award, and his tape convinced the Colts he could help beef up a pass rush that recorded 51 sacks last season, the most since the franchise moved to Indianapolis in 1984.

Neither the injury nor Latu's age, 23, scared off the Colts.

“I know the medical is going to be a question but like our doctors said, he just played two years with it," general manager Chris Ballard said. “I mean I asked a ton of questions, like you know any time you have a neck injury, what's the chance of it happening again?”

Latu should help complement an interior defensive line led by two-time Pro Bowler DeForest Buckner and Grover Stewart. He'll also team up with a friend, defensive end Kwity Paye, Indy's first-round pick in 2021.

Ballard was thrilled Latu slid down the draft board.

“We think we got the best defensive player in the draft,” he said. “We thought there were really four or five really elite players and he was one of them. So we felt fortunate to get him.”

And Latu was grateful the Colts took a chance to let him prove his comeback is only beginning.

“I mean being told you'll never play football again and that whole time you just really try to grind and prove to all those people who told me I wouldn't be able to play football again ...” he said. “To know I trusted in myself, I trusted in the Lord, it feels good.”

The Colts are seeking to snap a three-year playoff drought. They haven't won a postseason game since 2018.

Indy has six picks remaining — one in each of the final six rounds.