Combine offers more info as Colts must address areas of concern

Sports

General manager Chris Ballard of the Indianapolis Colts addresses the media following a press conference introducing head coach Frank Reich at Lucas Oil Stadium on Feb. 13, 2018, in Indianapolis, Ind. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Imagine a buffet table. And imagine you’re hungry, downright famished.

And imagine the dinner bell ringing.

We give you the NFL Scouting Combine, which returns to town Sunday when 337 draft-eligible players whet the appetite of general managers, coaches and scouts.

There might be a few teams that simply require a tweak here, a minor adjustment there as they prepare for 2020. A few.

Most, including the Indianapolis Colts, face an offseason that involves varying degrees of rebuilding/reinforcing/renovation.

“Anytime we have a chance to acquire a player that makes us better, at any position, we’re going to do it,’’ Chris Ballard said last month. “Any position.’’

His answer was in response to the need to add competition – OK, an upgrade – for Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. But from his first day on the job, Ballard has steadfastly preached the absolute necessity for top-to-bottom competition.

“Whether it’s wideout, quarterback, running back, linebacker . . . it doesn’t matter,’’ he said. “Any chance we have to get better, we’re going to do it.’’

When it comes to roster building, Ballard remains bullish on the draft. He isn’t averse to selective shopping on the veteran free-agent market – that phase begins March 18 – but younger talent is preferable. And less expensive.

“You all know my philosophy on free agency,’’ Ballard reiterated for the umpteenth time. “You cannot buy a championship. You cannot buy a locker room.’’

Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard signs an autograph before the game against the Oakland Raiders at Lucas Oil Stadium on Sept. 29, 2019, in Indianapolis, Ind. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

The foundation of roster building is and always will be the draft.

Or the buffet table.

Ballard holds nine picks in the April 23-25 NFL Draft, including the 13th overall, three of the top 44 and four of the top 75.

In other words, he has the resources to replenish a roster that needs it, and that includes at least $86 million in salary-cap space. We’re not one of the critics who believe the Colts roster is bereft of talent. Had they gotten even moderately-efficient play at quarterback over the final two months of last season, we’re convinced they would have reached the playoffs. Injuries and all.

That being said, here’s a look at five areas the Colts could address through the draft. Ballard and his staff will get a long, hard look at their options next week. One thing to keep in mind: signing a free agent or two – a QB (Philip Rivers), a defensive lineman (Chris Jones or Shelby Harris) – could alter the Colts’ draft priorities.

QUARTERBACK

  • Quotes to note: The jury is still out (on Brissett). — Ballard
    Our passing game has to improve. – Ballard
    We are used to around here in this area of the country of knowing how to throw the football. So we are going to throw the football, OK? We will figure it out. We didn’t do a good enough job this year. – Frank Reich
  • What’s up?: We’ve rehashed (bashed) Brissett’s rise-and-fall season ad nauseam. The 14 TD/3 INT ratio and 64.8 percent accuracy during the 5-2 start which gave way to 4 TDs, 3 interceptions, 56.4 completion percentage and 2-5 record in his final seven starts. The fast fade came after Brissett sprained the MCL in his left knee at Pittsburgh.

This shapes up as a franchise-defining offseason, and it’s absolutely imperative Ballard and his staff get the QB situation right.

Is a healthy Brissett good enough? He’s only 27 and has started just two seasons. Is there serious growth potential, or have we already seen his ceiling?

The draft offers options, although sitting at 13th in the pecking order is problematic. Most draft analysts anticipate three QBs going in the top 10, perhaps in the top 5: Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Justin Herbert. After that, there’s Jordan Love, Jake Fromm, Jacob Eason and Jalen Hurts.

Even if Ballard opts to move on from Brissett and go with a short-term fix with someone like Rivers, he must find his QB of the future.

Might he move up to get Tagovailoa or Herbert? Anything’s possible, but considering what it would take, that would be contrary to everything he’s done in the past.

LEFT TACKLE

  • Quotes to note: I think he had an unbelievable year and I think he’s the best left tackle in the league, I really do. I think the guy’s a stud player. – Reich
    If he decides to retire, then it’s our job to find an answer. – Ballard
  • What’s up?: They were talking about Anthony Castonzo and they’re still waiting for his decision. Retire after nine seasons and 140 starts at left tackle? Or return for a 10th season with a contract that likely pays him roughly $15 million per year?

It seems Castonzo’s decision is imminent, but that’s just a guess.

Regardless, no one should be surprised if acquiring a top left tackle isn’t high on Ballard’s “To Do’’ list. Given Castonzo’s retirement talk, it would be foolish not to consider him a year-to-year starter if he returns. And if he walks, there’s no heir apparent on the roster.

Hello, draft.

This appears to be one of the deepest drafts for tackles, and it might be time for the Colts to grab one. So many pieces are in place for them to maintain an upper-echelon offensive line. The weak link cannot be left tackle.

Top-end prospects include Georgia’s Andrew Thomas, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr., Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Houston’s Josh Jones and Louisville’s Mekhi Becton.

WIDE RECEIVER

  • Quotes to note: Just want somebody who can catch the ball and go score. – Ballard
    Do we need to add more explosive elements to our offense? Yeah, we do. Guys who can make plays on the ball or with the ball in their hands. – Ballard
  • What’s up?: While it’s impossible to ignore Brissett’s safety-first approach to running Reich’s offense and the debilitating impact of injuries at the position, it also was obvious the passing game lacked pop last season. Even before T.Y. Hilton’s season was sabotaged by a lingering calf injury, he seldom was a deep threat.  He averaged 11.1 yards on 45 catches with a long of 35, both career lows.

After generating 53 completions of at least 20 yards with Andrew Luck under center in 2018, the Colts sagged to 38 with Brissett. More alarming, the passing game produced just eight plays that gained at least 30 yards and three that chewed up at least 40. In 2018, there were 16 completions of at least 30 yards, including seven 40-plus yarders.

Again, the draft is deep with playmaking wideouts: Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr. and Clemson’s Tee Higgins.

DEFENSIVE LINE

  • Quote to note: It always starts up front. I thought we were solid up front . . . I think the interior, we’ve got to be able to get some more interior pressure. The three-technique drives (the defense). – Ballard
  • What’s up?: Offensive line. Defensive line. Those are two cornerstone positions for Ballard. Now and forever.

As last season unfolded, it became clear coordinator Matt Eberflus wasn’t getting enough from his interior personnel. Denico Autry and Margus Hunt were unable to approach the success they enjoyed in 2018. Tyquan Lewis, the 64th overall pick in 2018, remains a complete unknown and faces a make-it-or-break-it 2020.

Ballard might address this through free agency, as he did in 2018 with Autry. Look for speculation to grow regarding a Chris Jones relocation from Kansas City to Indy.  But the draft might offer a younger and less expensive option. If the draft unfolds as expected with a run on quarterbacks, offensive tackles and possibly wideouts, a quality defensive tackle could fall to them at 13. At the top of most lists are South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw and Auburn’s Derrick Brown.

PASS RUSHER

  • Quote to note: Whenever you can speed the quarterback up on the edge . . . – Eberflus
  • What’s up?: Eberflus was talking about what his defense missed after Kemoko Turay suffered a season-ending ankle injury in the week 5 win at Kansas City. In short, the Colts missed a viable pass-rush complement to free-agent pickup Justin Houston. Turay seemed to be emerging in his second season – 1.5 sacks and 5 QB hits – then he was gone.

Houston lived up to his free-agent contract – two years, $23 million with $18.5 million guaranteed. He led the defense with 11 sacks, 18 quarterback hits and 11 tackles for loss. He was the focus of every offense’s protection scheme.

Even if Turay makes a complete recovery and develops into a viable pass-rush threat, help is needed. Houston is 31 and will be a free agent at the end of 2020. Ben Banogu, a 2019 second-round pick, showed flashes as a rookie with 2.5 sacks and 5 QB hits, but he’s hardly a given.

The pass defense was a mess last season. Quarterbacks completed a ridiculous 70.1 percent of their passes and posted a 97.9 passer rating on the strength of 29 TDs against 15 interceptions. Too often, QBs had all the time they needed.

It won’t be easy finding a no-doubt pass rusher in the draft, particularly with the other concerns we’ve mentioned. Maybe Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa still is on the board at 13. Other possibilities: LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson and Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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