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

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Last week, I delved into potential free agent acquisitions for the Indianapolis Colts and their new general manager Chris Ballard. It’s still painfully obvious that there’s a tough defensive rebuild ahead for Chris Ballard and the Colts – a rebuild that will mostly occur via the NFL Draft in April. Manning the helm of a team that vastly under-performed 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 to 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 draft picks that could help the Colts field a top 15 defense for the 2017 season.

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

Holes To Be Filled

After releasing veteran inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson last week, the Colts have serious holes to be filled at every level of their defense. Jackson, 33, was entering the final year of his four-year contract with the Colts. Coupled with the recent retirement of potential Hall of Fame defensive end/outside linebacker Robert Mathis and the potential release of outside linebackers Trent Cole and Erik Walden, defensive end Arthur Jones, and cornerback Patrick Robinson, there are a lot of places where the Colts need help on their already porous defense.

With significant issues at every level – defensive line, linebackers, and secondary, we can expect defense-heavy draft selections from Ballard and the Colts this coming April. Potential pickups on every level will be addressed, with specific focus on the Colts should draft (based on who will be available).

Pass Rush/Defensive Line

As mentioned previously, the loss of Mathis coupled with the potential losses of both Walden and Jones means that there’s a dearth of both experience and talent on the current defensive line for the Colts. The only moderately experienced outside linebacker on the unit is seventh year man Akeem Ayers, who the Colts signed after he was released as a part of roster cuts. Ayers is a capable situational backer, but after only tallying two sacks in all of 2016, is obviously not a long term answer (or a starter) for the position. The Colts do have some more promising experience at the defensive end position, with Kendall Langford hopefully returning to his 2015 form (seven sacks, tied for team lead). Langford ended last season on injured reserve and subsequently ended his streak of 135 consecutive games played.

The interior unit shows a bit of promise, with defensive tackles David Parry and Henry Anderson flashing potential in their first two years in the league. Parry has started all 32 games of his young career, and seems like a solid, but not exceptional, nose tackle for the Colts going forward. Anderson’s rookie year was cut short due to a knee injury (torn right ACL) in November of 2015 which sidelined him in what was otherwise looking like a potential defensive rookie of the year season. Anderson played in only five games in 2016 as well, suffering another devastating knee injury (this time to his left knee) in the beginning of last season. While Anderson shows promise when he is healthy, it is yet to be seen if his injury history will significantly impact his ability to disrupt offensive linemen going forward.

The rest of the defensive line worth mentioning consists of third year nose tackle Zach Kerr and Hassan Ridgeway, the Colts’ 2016 fourth round selection in the draft. Parry, Anderson, Kerr, and Ridgeway form a potentially formidable rotation on the interior, but the combination of injuries (in Anderson and Kerr’s cases) and limited experience (for all four) makes a unit that could use significant improvement in 2017.

Potential Draft Additions

It’s obvious at this point where I believe the Colts’ biggest need lies for the upcoming draft. With such a poor pass rushing unit being fielded currently, it’s up to Ballard to find pieces in April that fit and can play right away.

I’m going to purposefully skip over Texas A&M’s defensive end phenom Myles Garrett, because there is absolutely no chance that he falls to the Colts at number 14 or 15 in the draft. I also don’t believe that the Colts will take a flyer on Alabama linebacker Tim Williams due to multiple failed drug tests and an arrest on a misdemeanor gun charge (that included marijuana found in his vehicle). With those two prospects out of the way, there are still a good number of players who I believe the Colts could select with their first round pick this April.

Derek Barnett, Defensive End, Tennessee

In 2016, Barnett came away with 56 tackles (19 for a loss), 13 sacks, five broken-up passes, and two forced fumbles. He has been a dynamo for the Volunteers since becoming the first true freshman to start the season opener in school history, playing all 13 games and starting ten. He joined Myles Garrett in breaking the SEC freshman sack record (previously held by Jadeveon Clowney) recording ten sacks in his freshman campaign. In three seasons with the Vols, Barnett racked up 32 sacks – breaking the former school sack record set by Pro Football Hall of Fame member Reggie White.

Barnett is a strong defender in both the run and the pass game, and he uses his ability to dip under tackles to get leverage and disrupt pass-rushers. He needs to bulk up a bit, relying on his speed a bit too much to get to the quarterback. Barnett looks like a solid player at the next level; he just needs to work on turning his considerable quarterback pressure count into a higher sack total in the NFL.

Taco Charlton, Defensive End, Michigan

Vidauntae “Taco” Charlton is something of a breakout prospect coming into the draft this year. Playing mostly backup roles his first three years at Michigan, Charlton came into his own this past season and became a disruptive force on the offensive line. Recording 38 tackles, including 11 for loss and eight and a half sacks, Charlton was a mainstay on a defense that had national championship aspirations. Charlton is an athletic defensive end with enough size to shift to a true 3-4 outside linebacker position in the NFL. While I do like what Charlton showed in his senior year, it could be a gamble to take him in the first round without knowing if his level of production in 2016 was a signaling of a turning point in his playmaking ability or a fluke.

Charles Harris, Defensive End, Missouri

Harris is another intriguing prospect coming into the 2017 draft. He’s a good edge rusher who utilizes his speed to pressure the quarterback – something he exceled at during the last ten games of the 2016 season. He finished the 2016 season with 61 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, nine sacks, two forced fumbles, and two batted passes. Harris shows preternatural ability when it comes to setting himself up to bypass tackles to get to the quarterback. He needs to develop a stronger repertoire of pass-rushing moves though, as he relies a bit heavily on his speed to be effective.

Takkarist McKinley, Defensive End/Outside Linebacker, UCLA

McKinley is another pass-rushing specialist who really came into his own in the past season (much like Taco Charlton). McKinley isn’t huge, but he’s got enough physicality and athletic prowess to excel at the next level. Playing on an underwhelming UCLA team during his senior year, McKinley finished the season with 61 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, ten sacks, six batted passes, and three forced fumbles. McKinley benefited from a scheme change during his senior year – UCLA shifted from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense in 2016 after mediocre numbers in the 3-4 in 2015.

I believe that McKinley’s draft stock is going to continue to rise as we get closer to draft day. You can expect him to have an explosive pro day and I believe he’s going to look excellent at the combine. The fear, much like Taco Charlton, is that his production is more of a fluke or product of scheme change rather than all of the pieces coming together in his head.

Looking Ahead

Looking ahead to the 2017 NFL Draft, it’s obvious that the Colts have a lot of holes to fill on the roster, specifically on defense. While I do believe that there are other positions of need (safety, cornerback, linebacker, and running back), I think it’s imperative for the Colts to find a pass-rusher for the future in what is undoubtedly the deepest pass-rushing draft class in recent memory. There’s a tough defensive rebuild ahead for Chris Ballard and the Colts – addressing an aging and nearly non-existent pass-rush in the first round will make things just a little bit easier… and maybe even manageable.

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