Indianapolis Colts draft preview: Pass rusher

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Robert Mathis

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (April 6, 2016) – Here’s an undeniable reality in the NFL: high-profile free-agent signings drive public interest, but the draft is the lifeblood to building a championship-caliber roster.

Listen to Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay.

“The draft is where we’re really going to be better,” he said. “I think we have to over these next two drafts continue to identify guys, particularly defensively, that are going to be key guys as we go forward.”

The Colts hold six picks in the April 28-30 draft – they sent their sixth-rounder to Oakland for linebacker Sio Moore – and it’s not hyperbole to insist their status as perennial playoff contender hinges on general manager Ryan Grigson and his personnel staff adequately addressing several roster deficiencies.

That in mind, over the next few weeks we’ll look at areas of concern.

Today we have the outlook on pass rusher.

Primary rushers: Robert Mathis, Kendall Langford, Erik Walden.

Top backups: Trent Cole, Josh McNary.

Key stat: The Colts finished with 35 sacks last season, tied for 11th fewest in the league. Not one of those 11 teams finished with a winning record.

Listen, Mathis is a true inspiration. He missed 2014 with a ruptured Achilles, worked his tail off to get back on the field and then shared the team lead last season with 7 sacks. But he turned 35 in February. We won’t be surprised if Mathis has a double-digit sack season in ’16 – players often excel in that second year after a serious injury – but at some point even Mathis must yield to Father Time. Whiffing on 2013 first-round pick Bjoern Werner was a major setback. He was supposed to be Mathis’ eventual successor. Cole didn’t provide the steady pressure management anticipated (3 sacks in ’15), and had to accept a pay cut to remain on the roster. Langford shared the team sack lead with Mathis, but his primary responsibility is to reinforce work against the run. His sacks are a bonus.

Degree of concern: High.

What about: Eastern Kentucky DE Noah Spence, Georgia OLB Leonard Floyd, Ohio State OLB Darren Lee, Clemson DE Shaq Lawson.

More about Spence: Perhaps no player in the draft comes with more high-risk, high-reward consideration. Spence was banned from the Big Ten after failing two drug tests at Ohio State. To his credit, he was upfront with teams – and the media – at the NFL Scouting Combine. However, it’s impossible to ignore the red flags. Spence transferred to Eastern Kentucky and flashed his disruptive talents. He was named the Ohio Valley’s co-Defensive Player of the Year on the strength of 11.5 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss.

More from Spence: “With anybody with a substance abuse problem that they’ve had, I feel like (NFL teams are) pretty leery about it. But if you can put it behind, you can convince them it’s behind you. (How have you done that?) Just stayed on top of it. Been drug tested frequently. And just like, put my focus more on football, school and stuff like that. I spend a lot more time by myself now. I have a girlfriend now. I go to movies, chill, stuff like that. I don’t do much partying nowadays. (Strengths?) My biggest strength is pass rush. I’m relentless on the field. I think I can get better with my run-stopping abilities and playing within the framework of the defense.”

Final word: Grigson has insisted he won’t take a player with character issues early in the draft. That would eliminate Spence. The team gambled on linebacker Jonathan Newsome in 2014, and lost when it released him in February following an arrest for marijuana possession. Newsome was a fifth-round pick, which obviously isn’t as risky – or costly – as a first- or second-rounder. But what if Grigson and his staff are convinced the 6-3, 260-pound Spence has learned his lesson? Floyd or Lee probably is the safer option if the Colts use their first-round pick to address their weak pass rush.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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