We’re about two weeks away from the NFL free agency period, and the Last Word On Sports NFL department will be looking at the top three needs for each team. This piece will focus on the Indianapolis Colts’ top 3 needs and how they can improve on their pedestrian 8-8 record from last season. The Colts have either the 14th or 15th pick (based on a coin flip at the NFL Combine next week) in the 2017 NFL Draft and expect to make very few, but significant, splashes into free agency.
Indianapolis Colts 2017 Off-Season: Top 3 Needs
The Colts’ pass rush has been nothing short of anemic for the past few seasons. Pro Bowler and Colts all-time sack leader Robert Mathis has retired, and outside linebackers Trent Cole and Erik Walden are most likely leaving the team during free agency. The only remaining experienced outside linebacker on the roster, Akeem Ayers, is also a free agent. The Colts must improve their pass rush unit; a unit that has consistently ranked near the bottom of the league during head coach Chuck Pagano’s tenure in Indianapolis.
The pass rushing unit must be addressed – either in free agency or the draft (or both) – and it must be a priority for new general manager Chris Ballard if he expects to see improvement in 2017. Ballard has said previously that he plans on building the team organically through the draft and not through high-impact, high-cost free agency acquisitions. That being said, the Colts have over $60 million in available cap space and would be remiss to not attempt at least one or two acquisitions during the free agency period.
The only outside linebacker who really makes sense for the Colts would be the Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram, who has posted 18.5 sacks over the past two seasons, whose current team is shifting from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense, and whose team has a historical penchant for not paying to retain their high profile free agents. Spotrac is projecting Ingram’s next contract to be in the five-year, $86 million range, and worth around $17.2 million per year. While this is significant, it’s well within the confines of what the Colts can afford considering their available salary cap space.
The Colts will also need to look at the pass rush position in the upcoming draft. This draft class is rife with talented pass rushers, and it stands to reason that the Cleveland Browns will take one with the number one overall pick (defensive end Myles Garrett out of Texas A&M). Outside of Garrett, there are a multitude of available pass rushing specialists available, as this is one of the deepest classes of first round talent pass rushers in recent memory. In our 2017 NFL Mock Draft, the LWOS staff pegged nine different pass rushers going in the first round. Expect the Colts to bolster their pass rush with one of these pass rushers in the draft this April.
If the Colts pass rush situation looks dire, then the inside linebacker situation is not very far behind it. After losing former CFL standout Jerrell Freeman to the Chicago Bears in free agency in 2016, the Colts also released their only other experienced inside linebacker, D’Qwell Jackson, a few weeks ago. Jackson, 33, was suspended the final four games of the regular season after testing positive for performance-enhancing substances. Jackson’s first two years with the Colts were nothing short of fantastic, as he led the team in tackles in 2015 and led the entire AFC during the 2014 campaign. The loss of Jackson for 2017 only furthers the importance of rebuilding the defense and how difficult it’s going to be.
The Colts started the 2016 season with Nate Irving and Sio Moore on the roster to compete for the second starting inside linebacker spot opposite of D’Qwell Jackson, but both were off the team by September. This left two vastly unproven players, first year man Edwin Jackson and 2016’s 4th round selection Antonio Morrison, to shore up the interior position. Jackson and Morrison both showed flashes during the season, with Jackson finishing third on the team with 61 total tackles, two sacks, one tackle for a loss, and two quarterback hits.
Neither Jackson nor Morrison are long-term answers at the inside linebacker position, however. Expect the Colts to use their second or third round draft picks (or possibly both) to address this situation going forward. While
Offensive Line (Right Side)
The Colts attempted to help keep their star quarterback upright in 2016, using four of their eight draft picks to select offensive linemen in the 2016 NFL Draft. While using their first round pick on Alabama product Ryan Kelly has cemented the center position for the foreseeable future, there is still significant work to be done along the right side of the line, with no starters entrenched at either the right guard or right tackle positions.
The Colts had nine total offensive linemen make at least one start throughout the 2016 season, as injuries continued to hamper the team and keep the unit from achieving any kind of consistency. Starting right tackle Joe Reitz was hampered by injuries throughout the season, playing in 14 games total but only starting in six of them. Right guard Denzelle Good won the starting spot out of training camp, but also had his season marred by injury, with rookie Joe Haeg (5th round of 2016 draft) filling in along the way. Haeg was a rare bright spot on the right side, even logging time at left guard and right tackle when needed.
Expect the Colts to make a stab at TJ Lang of the Green Bay Packers out of free agency when the window opens on March 9th. Lang, entering his ninth year in the league, was selected to his first Pro Bowl in 2016, and would provide a solid presence along the inside of the line to keep Andrew Luck upright. Outside of Lang, we should see the Colts address the offensive line further in the later stages of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Even though this piece is about the Indianapolis Colts top 3 needs this offseason, it was very difficult to choose the third need. While offensive line help is paramount, the secondary also requires a significant retooling. The starting safety from last season, Mike Adams, turns 36 before the 2017 season, and it is unclear at this point if he is going to be re-signed. The team’s best corner is Vontae Davis, and even though he had a down year in 2016, no one comes close to his level of play on the roster. The Colts hope to re-sign cornerback Darius Butler for the slot position, but that still leaves a significant hole at the number two cornerback spot. Between safety and cornerback, the Colts also need significant improvement in the secondary. Expect a late round swing at either position in the draft and for the Colts to attempt to grab a playmaker, such as Eric Berry, in free agency.