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Assessing Colts’ needs in NFL draft: Inside linebacker

TAMPA, FL - JANUARY 09: Linebacker Reuben Foster #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide attempts to tackle running back Wayne Gallman #9 of the Clemson Tigers during the second half of the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium on January 9, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – No one should question what’s driving Chris Ballard these days.

It’s this week’s NFL draft.

“We want to be a great drafting team,’’ the Indianapolis Colts’ first-year general manager said. “We want to have a sound structure and foundation in place where we’re producing players every year for the Colts.’’

The Colts hold seven selections in the seven-round draft, all in the first five rounds. We continue to look at some of the team’s more pressing areas of need.

Today: Inside linebacker.

Projected starters: Sean Spence, Antonio Morrison.

Backups: Edwin Jackson, Jon Bostic, Luke Rhodes, Deon King, Alex Bazzie.

Key stats: 5. That’s the number of different starting inside ‘backers defensive coordinator Ted Monachino turned to last season. To refresh your memory: D’Qwell Jackson, Sio Moore, Josh McNary, Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison. It’s still hard to believe the list didn’t include Nate Irving, a 2015 free-agent acquisition (signed to a three-year, $7.25 million deal). He was deemed expendable because of the presence of Moore, Edwin Jackson and Morrison and failed to survive the cut to 53. The revolving door-appearance aside, the position simply lacked acceptable performance. Not only were there too few impact plays, there was insufficient run support. That must change.

Level of concern: High.

What about: Reuben Foster, Alabama; Zach Cunningham, Vanderbilt; Raekwon McMillian, Ohio State; Jarrad Davis, Florida; Alex Anzalone, Florida; Devonte Fields, Louisville.

More about Foster: He’s one of this year’s more complicated prospects. Many talent evaluators insist the 6-1, 228-pounder is a top-10 talent. Foster was recipient of the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, was a unanimous first-team All-American and led Alabama’s elite defense with 115 tackles, including 60 solos and 13 for lost yardage.

But red flags follow Foster into this week’s draft. He was sent home early from the NFL Scouting Combine after a dispute with an employee at the hospital during his medical examination. Last week it was revealed his urine sample obtained at the Combine was diluted, which is treated as a positive test. The latter means he’ll be in the NFL’s drug program from the outset. Also, Foster underwent surgery in February to repair a torn rotator cuff.

Michael Lombardi, a former NFL GM and current Fox Sports contributor, expects Foster to slide into the second round.

NFL Network’s Mike Mayock argued to the contrary.

“I don’t see him sliding all that far,’’ he said. “I think he’s a top-20 pick all day long in any draft. Could he have been a top-10 pick? He still might be a top-10 pick.’’

More from Foster: He blamed the diluted urine sample on an illness he was dealing with prior to the Combine. That required extreme hydration.

“I drank and ate as much as I could without throwing up,’’ Foster told NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. “Then I went in there, drinking and drinking water, trying to flush it out of my system from whatever was making me sick and trying to keep my weight up and took the test.’’

Foster remains confident his pre-draft issues haven’t diminished his value to whomever selects him.

“If it’s first round, second round, whoever takes me will get a good football player and an All-Pro,’’ he said. “I hope I go on Thursday (round 1), but I can’t control that.’’

Final word: We always wished we could have been in the room when Ballard reviewed the Colts’ ’16 season and focused on the defensive talent. Was it as deficient as so many of us believed? From his actions, Ballard wasn’t the least bit impressed with the linebacker room. Of his first 12 veteran free-agent acquisitions, eight were defensive players, including five linebackers. And remember, that’s with the two inside starters at the end of the season – Morrison and Edwin Jackson – returning.

The offseason has been about adding speed and athleticism to the defense, particularly at linebacker. Spence started 19 games the last three seasons with the Steelers and Titans, and we’re projecting him as one of the inside starters. Bostic started 17 games with the Bears in 2013-14, but missed ’16 with a foot injury. He’s an unknown.

If Foster drops to the Colts at 15, will they pull the trigger? Temple’s Haason Reddick offers inside/outside versatility and is a legitimate round 1 prospect. Or might the Colts look for a viable prospect later in the process, perhaps Vandy’s Cunningham? We’re not convinced Ballard is finished restocking the position.

Stay tuned.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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