Colts’ draft needs: linebacker

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - OCTOBER 08: Carlos Hyde #28 of the San Francisco 49ers runs past John Simon #51 of the Indianapolis Colts during the first quarter of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Chris Ballard is all about rebuilding the Indianapolis Colts through the draft, so it’s understandable his eagerness is amped these days.

He holds nine selections in the April 26-28 NFL Draft, including the 6th overall. That offers ample ammunition to address a roster that lacks enough top-end talent to make a difference.

“At the end of the day,’’ Ballard said, “you’ve got to draft and develop and stack drafts – one, two, three drafts – on top of each other where these guys are homegrown Colts.

“That’s how you build a winner.’’

Between now and the draft, we’ll examine some of the team’s more pressing areas of needs:

Today: Linebacker.

  • On hand:OLB John Simon, ILB Antonio  Morrison, ILB Anthony Walker, ILB Najee Goode, ILB Jeremiah George, OLB Josh Perry.
  • Key stats: Morrison led the defense with 108 tackles, a career high. Departed Jon Bostic was next in line with 97, also a career best. Quick, remind us of any that stood out and were special. Too often, linebackers were making stops 5 yards down the field. Too often, they offered little in coverage.
  • Level of concern: High
  • What about?:ILB Roquan Smith, Georgia; OLB Tremaine Edmunds, Virginia Tech; OLB Harold Landry, Boston College; ILB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State; ILB Rashaan Evans, Alabama; OLB Darius Leonard, South Carolina State; OLB Lorenzo Carter, Georgia.
  • About Smith: Roquan Smith won’t dazzle you with imposing size when he walks into the room. He’s 6-1, 236 pounds. But he’s considered an elite athlete and a three-down linebacker. That’s imperative in today’s NFL when sub packages are used approximately 60 percent of the time. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay compared Smith to Carolina’s Luke Kuechly. There are much worse comparisons. Kuechly, the 9thoverall pick by Carolina in 2012, is a four-time first-team All-Pro.

Smith not only possesses sideline-to-sideline speed and the aggressiveness to make plays at the line of scrimmage or the backfield, but also is more than adept in coverage.

He’s coming off a decorated final season at Georgia: Butkus Award winner as the national’s premier linebacker; 1st team All-America by the Associated Press, Walter Camp and The Sporting News; SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Last season he started all 15 games and led Georgia with 137 tackles while adding 6.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss and 20 quarterback pressures.

  • From Smith: Smith dabbled on defense while at Macon County High School in Montezuma, Ga., but thrived as a two-way threat on offense.

“I was at a smaller school so I played both ways,’’ he said while at the NFL Scouting Combine. “I played receiver and running back. It was pretty awesome having the ball in my hands, and being able to make plays.’’

At some point, though, a light went off in his head.

“At the end of the day I thought I was a better linebacker,’’ Smith said. “And I didn’t really like getting hit. So I preferred to give it out.’’

That was his calling card at Georgia. He always was around the football, and arrived with bad intentions. Smith takes pride in his relentless approach on the field.

“I believe in that,’’ he said. “I was always taught if you start something, finish. And take advantage of every opportunity. And tomorrow is not promised. If it’s my last play that I ever play, how do I want to go out? So I feel like every play, I treat like it’s my last play.

“And I bust my tail like I don’t have a next play.’’

Smith anticipates contributing immediately.

“I feel like I can make a tremendous impact on the defense,’’ he said. “Just with my playmaking ability, my leadership qualities. And everything that I possess, as a football player on and off the field.

“I feel like that will definitely elevate any defense.’’

  • Final word:The Colts are switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3, and an active, versatile inside linebacker is critical. Flashback to the mid-2000s when Tony Dungy’s 4-3 was effective. Gary Brackett not only was the brains of the defense, but was a three-down presence. His mobility was critical in chasing down running backs and dropping into coverage.

The Colts’ linebacker room is thin on proven talent, and no one should be surprised if Ballard adds a couple through the draft. The franchise hasn’t shied away from replenishing the ‘backer room on draft day. It has selected nine in the first and second rounds since 1984, including six in round 1. The last first rounder? Bjoern Werner, taken 24th overall in 2013. The last linebacker taken with a top-6 pick was Trev Alberts, the fifth overall pick in ’94.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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