Free agency next step as Colts look to upgrade roster

Colts GM Chris Ballard.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There’s work to be done before a season that warranted the third overall pick in the April 26 NFL Draft gives way to a roster capable of challenging for a playoff spot.

But don’t take our word for it.

“I don’t ever try to paint a picture that’s not true,’’ Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “We have work to do.

“At every position we have work to do.’’

The recent focus has been on how the Colts should use their lofty status in each round of the draft to upgrade a deficient roster. The primary discussion has been, barring a trade, how best to invest that third overall pick. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley or N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb?

But building a roster is at least a four-step process: re-sign your own; selective shopping on the veteran free-agent market; the draft; the post-draft signing frenzy.

Ballard steadfastly believes the draft must be the foundation of a championship-caliber roster. Bring in your own, develop your own, re-sign your own.

“You can’t build a sustained winner, one that lasts over time, in free agency,’’ he said.

Even so, Ballard realizes he must supplement the draft with free agents. That was the case last offseason when he plucked nearly a dozen veterans off the market. Most were significant contributors, including Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Johnathan Hankins, Al Woods, Barkevious Mingo, Margus Hunt and Jon Bostic.

And that must be the case again when free-agency opens March 14; teams are allowed to begin negotiations March 12.

There are so many needs.

One thing to keep in mind as free agency nears: the Colts have more than $70 million in cap space and figure to be semi-active, but aren’t likely to pony up lottery-level contracts.

“The one thing we won’t do is pay a mid-level player ‘blue’ money . . . top-of-the-line high dollars for a guy that is not going to give us that type of production,’’ Ballard said.

A look at areas the Colts might address during free agency:

Offensive line

  • Why: How about allowing an NFL-high 56 sacks last season? How about using 46 different starting combinations since 2012, including eight in ’17? How about giving Andrew Luck and Jacoby Brissett a fighting chance?
  • History: The area remains an eyesore in large part because the Colts have whiffed on too many previous draft picks. They’ve drafted 11 offensive linemen since ’12 (Anthony Castonzo was a first-rounder in ’11 pick), and only center Ryan Kelly is a no-doubt keeper. The jury remains out on Joe Haeg, Le’Raven Clark and Denzelle Good. Jack Mewhort will be a free agency and must shed his injury-prone status.

We’re not against using a mid- or late-round pick on a developmental lineman, but we’re lobbying for Ballard to invest in a couple of free agents who can step in and start immediately.

  • Possibilities: G Andrew Norwell (Carolina), T Nate Solder (New England, G Josh Kline (Tennessee), G Zach Fulton (Kansas City).

Wide receiver

  • Why: Only two receivers who caught passes a year ago are under contract for 2018 – T.Y. Hilton and Chester Rogers. The Colts’ offense will be aggressive and oft-times fast-paced under Frank Reich, but it also will spread the football around. That obviously requires a deep set of skill players.

We’re not opposed to using a second- or third-round pick on a receiver, but a couple of veteran additions are a must. We’d at least kick the tires on Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins. Hilton needs a legitimate sidekick.

  • History: All you need to know is the best veteran wideout acquisition has been Donnie Avery in 2012. The others have been a series of duds or, at best, semi-duds: Andre Johnson, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Hakeem Nicks and Kamar Aiken.
  • Possibilities: Robinson (Jacksonville), Watkins (Rams), Paul Richardson (Seattle), Marqise Lee (Jacksonville).

Running back

  • Why: Frank Gore won’t return for a fourth season and there’s no other legitimate feature back on the roster. Interesting situational guys, yes, but no one who has shown the capability of being the three-down answer.
  • History: The Colts got a solid three-year return on their $12 million investment in Gore. Ahmad Bradshaw was another positive acquisition before injuries caught up with him.
  • Possibilities: Dion Lewis (New England), Carlos Hyde (San Francisco), Isaiah Crowell (Cleveland).

Inside linebacker

  • Why: Because second-leading tackler Bostic will be a free agent and upgrades are needed over returnees Antonio Morrison and Anthony Walker. Speed and athleticism are prerequisites in first-time coordinator Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 defense.

Aside from pass rusher, inside linebacker represents the most glaring defensive need.

  • History: Free agency has produced two productive inside ‘backers in Bostic (a career-high 97 tackles in 14 games) and D’Qwell Jackson. It needs to funnel another veteran or two to Eberflus’ defense. A reunion between Eberflus and Anthony Hinchens should be explored.
  • Possibilities: Hinchens (Dallas), Zach Brown (Washington), Avery Williamson (Tennessee), Todd Davis (Denver).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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