Tough Defensive Rebuild Ahead For Chris Ballard, Colts (Part One of Two)

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN - NOVEMBER 29: Mike Evans #13 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gets tackled after a reception by Vontae Davis #21 and Dwight Lowery #33 of the Indianapolis Colts during the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 29, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts defeated the Bucs 25-12. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Now that the Indianapolis Colts (8-8) have hired their new general manager, it’s painfully obvious that there’s a tough defensive rebuild ahead for Chris Ballard and the Colts. Manning the helm of a team that vastly underperformed in 2016, it’s up to Ballard to assemble the pieces to make the Colts defense a serviceable unit for the 2017 season. As a unit, the Colts defense finished 30th in the league, beating only the Cleveland Browns (1-15) and the San Francisco 49ers (2-14) in overall defense.

In order improve on these numbers Ballard will have to rely on a mix of high-impact free agent acquisitions and a fierce dedication to focusing on defensive players in the upcoming NFL Draft. In this piece the focus will be on potential free agent acquisitions who could help the Colts field a top 15 defense in 2017, while the second part (next week) will focus on the draft.

Tough Defensive Rebuild Ahead For Chris Ballard, Colts (Part One of Two)

Creating Room For Growth

It comes as no surprise that Ballard’s first roster transaction would involve the defense. Earlier today, it was indicated that the Colts organization had parted ways with inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson, 33, was entering the final year of a four-year, $22 million contract that he signed in 2014 after being released by the Cleveland Browns.

While posting exceptional numbers the first two years with the Colts, including leading the AFC in tackles in 2014, Jackson experienced a steep drop-off during the 2016 season. Averaging nine tackles per game in 2014 and 2015, Jackson only averaged 6.5 tackles during the twelve games he played in 2016 – he was suspended the final four games of the regular season due to testing positive for PED usage during a random drug test.

Releasing Jackson frees up $5.5 million in cap space for the Colts – money that Colts fans can expect Ballard to use judiciously in replacing Jackson and many of the aging or underperforming veterans currently on the Colts roster. The roster move also comes with $250,000 in dead cap space.

It can be assumed that Jackson won’t be the only casualty of Ballard’s new brand of management. Defensive end Arthur Jones, who signed a five-year, $33 million contract in 2014, could also be heading for the chopping block after only playing 15 games over the past three seasons. Releasing Jones would free up $5.15 million in cap space, but would also come with a $2.2 million hit in dead money. While this may seem significant, it allows more movement than it restricts and is most likely the right move considering Jones’ inability to stay on the field due to injuries.

Releasing Jackson and Jones frees up a combined $10.6 million in cap space, which brings the Colts’ total available cap space for 2017 up to $60.9 million, which would rank seventh in the league according to overthecap.com.

Secondary: A Primary Need For Improvement

Along with revamping the defensive line, Ballard will have much to do concerning improving a Colts’ secondary which tied for 29th in interceptions (8) and which also allowed the sixth most receiving yards (4,411) in the league. Led by cornerback Vontae Davis and safety Mike Adams, the Colts secondary is otherwise devoid of top-tier talent. It has been thrown around that Davis could be another casualty of the Ballard era due to the base salary he’s owed in 2017 ($9 million), but I don’t see that being the case. While it would free up $9 million in cap space, it would also leave the Colts without a single capable starting corner on the roster.

A much more likely candidate for release would be cornerback Patrick Robinson, who only played seven games in the first year of his three-year, $14 million contract signed last March. Releasing Robinson would only free up $2.5 million in available cap space, but at this point his lack of production does not properly reflect his current salary.

Potential Free Agents

Melvin Ingram

I honestly do not expect Chris Ballard to delve too deeply into the free agency waters this season. Ballard has said previously that he plans on building the team through the draft instead of through mercenary acquisitions via free agency; something that seems true when compared to his actions and history in Kansas City. That being said, there are a few key targets that the Colts could acquire that would vastly improve their defense’s stock in 2017.

The first would be Melvin Ingram, outside linebacker for the (newly relocated) Los Angeles Chargers. Following an incredibly pedestrian first three years in the NFL, Ingram has racked up 18.5 sacks in the past two seasons; finally starting to show the talent that caused the Chargers to select him in the first round of the 2012 draft.

Playing for an organization that is historically known for their frugality, it’s hard to see a scenario where the Chargers could afford to keep Ingram. Los Angeles only has $21 million in free cap space for the upcoming season, and it would take two-thirds of that in order to keep Ingram via the franchise tag. Considering their newfound investment in 2016 first round pick Joey Bosa, I can easily see the Chargers letting Ingram walk during free agency – and the Colts would be a perfect landing spot.

Eric Berry

Eric Berry, 28, has already stated that he will not play in 2017 under the franchise tag. After being tagged in 2016 by the Kansas City Chiefs, Berry may be looking for a new landing spot and teaming up with his former Director of Pro Player Personnel would not be out of the cards. If the Chiefs did choose to franchise tag Berry, he’d be due $12.96 million in 2017 – a number that would make him effectively the highest paid safety in the entire NFL.

Berry has been nothing short of fantastic during his NFL career, tallying three First-Team All-Pro and five Pro Bowl nods since being drafted 5th overall in the 2010 NFL Draft. He was rated the seventh best safety in the NFL for 2016 by Pro Football Focus and would give the Colts a true ball-hawking safety (four interceptions in 2016, half of the Colts entire team interceptions) who has a demonstrable impact on each and every game.

The Chiefs have other priorities in free agency as well, as vaunted nose tackle Dontari Poe is also heading to free agency this season. Poe, 26, is a two-time Pro Bowler and leads the interior of the Chiefs defensive line. Considering the Chiefs’ dire cap situation (only $3.4 million available – 29th in the league), it’s more than likely that they will have to pick and choose between these two players.

A Long Road Ahead

Regardless of whether either of those acquisitions pans out, it’s more than apparent that Ballard has a long road ahead of him concerning the Colts defense. I would not be surprised to start seeing the term “rebuilding” thrown around official communications from the team regarding the defense for 2017. But hopefully, between free agency and the draft, the Colts are able to field a vastly-improved unit over what was engineered in the past season. Needless to say, there is a tough defensive rebuild ahead for Chris Ballard in his first year as the Colts new general manager.

NFL Free Agency officially begins on March 7th.

Next week I’ll continue with prospects the Colts should target in the upcoming NFL Draft in April.

(All salary cap information provided by OverTheCap.com)

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