Hey there Colts’ fans! Here are my thoughts in April as the Colts’ front office heads into Chris Ballard’s first draft as GM:
Team news: The team announced this week that they will take part in joint practices with the Detroit Lions this year for a couple of days leading into the preseason opener in Indianapolis. The rest of the preseason schedule has games on the road at Dallas and Pittsburgh, followed by the traditional final tuneup against the I-74 rival Cincinnati Bengals at home. This year’s training camp will also be a little different as the Colts will stay at their own complex on the city’s west side for training camp, rather than traveling to Terre Haute or Anderson as they have for every other camp since moving to Indianapolis. A dozen other teams have made this sort of switch in the last few years, with weather being the primary driving factor; these other small college sites rarely have indoor practice facilities available and inclement weather costs the team valuable camp time.
Roster news: The big news was the team’s pursuit of a run-stuffing nose tackle, and the best two free agents on the market each showed significant interest in Indianapolis since last I wrote. Dontari Poe got out of town without a deal in place, and soon thereafter signed a 1-year $8 million deal with the Falcons. After a few weeks of stalemating, the team turned their attention to former Giant DT Jonathan Hankins. He had been on the outside looking in since he was asking for $10 million a year in salary plus a signing bonus, and neither the Colts nor anyone else was wanting to go that high. But they finally got him into the building and they slammed the door shut with him inside, inking him to a 3 year deal worth $27 million, including $14.5 million guaranteed and some performance bonuses that could make it worth $30 million. The Colts had the cap space to afford it, and interestingly they also constructed the deal such that there is little risk involved if they have to release him in the next three seasons. Hankins is a solid 6’2" and 320 pounds, and has rated among the best run stoppers in the NFL in most metrics over the last two seasons. He will slide in immediately as the starter on the nose and lend stability and a disruptive force.
A few weeks earlier, they also signed an even bigger body in 7-year veteran NT Al Woods from the Titans, who likely now becomes Hankins primary backup but could line up at the outside in a 3-4 defense as well. This depth and productivity probably means that the team is expecting to be without the starter at nose tackle for the last two seasons, NT David Parry, who currently is facing some felony charges. While he might be jailed or suspended, there is also the very real possibility that the team will simply move on from him and release him. Woods will also help to fill the leadership void as veteran DL Art Jones was also released as I had predicted last month. Jones simply never was healthy enough to be a factor on the field since signing a big money deal a few years back.
Very quietly there were a few signings on the offensive side of the ball, one of which (I believe) will be much bigger than many people might project. They signed veteran TE Brandon Williams from the Seahawks, who primarily will fill the role of blocking tight end vacated by the trade of Dwayne Allen, and offer some depth at a very thin position. The move I love was the signing of WR Kamar Aiken formerly of the Ravens. Aiken had a very fine year when asked to step up into a starting role in 2015, and fills the need for a dependable receiver with both size and hops, making him a very real red zone threat. Aiken is a far more polished receiver than is former first rounder WR Philip Dorsett, and I believe could ultimately serve as the #3 this year, nosing Dorsett to the sidelines or perhaps even off the roster if the speedster does not step up his game. I feel that Aiken will help the offense in total and will free up double coverages on WR TY Hilton and WR Donte Moncrief in ways they simply have not been able to do with the other bodies in the receiving corps during Luck’s tenure under center.
Injury news: The only important injury news is the status of the surgically repaired right shoulder of QB Andrew Luck. By all accounts, he is on schedule….but that schedule does not have him throwing until nearly the start of training camp, making many fans (and likely a lot of coaches) very nervous. Luck spoke to the media last week for the first time since his surgery in January. He did reveal that this shoulder was injured early in the 2015 season and that he played with it for a few games before the kidney laceration ended that campaign, and then he muddled through intermittent pain all through the 2016 season. They tried to rehab it since he was already off the field in the latter stages of 2015, but it simply never got back to where he wanted it to be. He is out of the sling and allowed to do some light weight room rehab activity, but is mostly an observer rather than a participant in the offseason program that started this month.
The draft: As usual, the Colts’ official mantra is "best player available" at all times with the tiebreaker being positions of need. However, in today’s pre-draft presser, GM Chris Ballard he did specifically mention that the draft is particularly deep and talented in a few areas that appear to be of the best need for the team, so I would expect that those positions would get addressed in the first two days of the draft especially. With all the recent signings, especially on defense, the main needs appear to still be a pass rusher and a corner on the defense, and a tight end, a running back and a lineman on the offense. To a lesser extent, there could be some interest in a safety and a developmental linebacker or defensive end.
I would be fairly surprised if the top two picks were not a corner and a pass rusher under any circumstances. They really need an impact player at both of those positions to come out of the draft, and the projections for each position have some solid players at those positions in both the 1st and second rounds. There is a need for a solid corner across from stud CB Vontae Davis, but Davis’ being in a contract year might make the need for a potential future #1 guy even more critical. With all the guys signed along the front seven in the free agent frenzy this offseason, none are front-end, proven, high-end disruptive edge rushers….so I am sure they are looking for one of those guys that they can at least use situationally as a rookie and see which of the quartet of linebackers they signed this offseason can fill the bill in the short term on the other downs. Three names that sort of standout in the middle of the first round to me are the following… CB Gareon Conley of Ohio State has a lot of experience against top competition and some size, and all the intangibles as well; he could be an instant starter for this team. A couple of guys in the linebacking crew that are projected just ahead of the 15th pick might be too good to pass up if they slide though, and those are LB Reuben Foster of Alabama and LB Derek Barnett of Tennessee. Both have been pegged for the Colts in some mock drafts, and they would make a good fit as well. Foster is more of an inside backer that could be an edge rusher, while Barnett is a pure pass rusher that projects as a 3-4 outside guy. With the greater depth at corner, I can see them taking the pass rusher here if one of these guys is on the board. I would not rule out a trade down either, or a trade up from round two to land a guy like Alabama’s CB Marlon Humphrey in the latter part of round 1 either.
Once they get to day 2 and day 3, I suspect that some interesting "best player available" choices could line up. No matter what they did in the first two rounds, a 1-dimensional guy like pass rusher LB Tim Williams of Bama could be an intriguing addition to the situational defense and to special teams. But I suspect that they will instead be targeting some of the running back depth in round 3 (and perhaps a highly-regarded line prospect from off the beaten path like OL Taylor Moton of Western Michigan). Ballard has already said they they do their own evaluations of character and risk, and have no problem taking a guy that others look at cross-eyed. If RB Joe Mixon falls to the third round, I believe the Colts would take him. Tennessee’s RB Alvin Kamara is a new age NFL back with great pass catching skills and a mid-round grade that might draw interest as a complement to RB Frank Gore. As a potential Gore replacement, I am a huge fan of Oklahoma’s RB Samaje Perine as one of the few every-down sort of backs in this draft – without the durability concern, he might be a first round pick based on production. I also like the team’s chances of targeting another tight end in the middle rounds, perhaps a big name like Michigan’s TE Jake Butt or an unknown with skill like Ashland’s TE Adam Shaheen. I think Shaheen could fall to the start of day 3, while Butt likely will not.
Finally, the team will finish out day three with some help on the O-line – especially a guy that could line up at both right guard and right tackle – and some more depth at safety, and perhaps a second corner and linebacker. Ballard also mentioned at the press conference today that they have no qualms about taking a guy whose draft stock has plummeted due to injury concerns. So first round talents like Washington’s CB Sidney Jones (torn Achilles on pro day) might be a very valid risk at the right place as they look for the future. Some team with extra picks will surely take a chance on Jones before day three is too far gone, but if the Colts address corner/rusher/runner/tight end with the first four picks I can definitely see Ballard taking Jones with the second of the team’s two 4th rounders.
That is all for this month from the Crossroads of America. I will be back after the draft to summarize the Colts’ maneuvers and selections, with a great deal more optimism than I have had in recent offseasons. It should be interesting to see how Ballard fares in his first go round in Indy. But then again, the bar is low to exceed the effectiveness of his predecessor! I really like what he has done so far in free agency by not overspending and addressing need without a lot of long-term commitment or risk or the signing of aged players.
Until next time friends…….GO COLTS!!!!!