INDIANAPOLIS – There are shoes to fill, big ones. And we’re not talking shoe sizes.
We’re talking about the enormous voids created on the Indianapolis Colts’ roster by the retirement of left tackle Anthony Castonzo, the free-agent relocation of defensive end Denico Autry to Tennessee and the unsigned status of pass-rush catalyst Justin Houston.
Outside of quarterback, those are the two most influential positions with virtually every team.
Left tackle. Castonzo retired following 10 rock-solid seasons.
“I don’t think he’s ever gotten enough credit for how really special he was as a player,’’ general manager Chris Ballard said Friday during a pre-draft Zoom conference call. “I always thought he was a top-5 left tackle in the league.
“That’s not going to be an easy replacement.’’
Edge rusher. Houston and Autry combined for 30 of the Colts’ 81 sacks the last two seasons.
“Both positions are important,’’ Ballard acknowledged.
However, the obvious need at both flash spots won’t compel Ballard and his personnel staff to deviate from their approach in the April 29-May 1 NFL draft.
In short, they’ll take what the draft gives them.
“It’s kind of like what I told y’all about the quarterback position,’’ Ballard said. “Just taking one to take one doesn’t mean you’ve actually filled the need. You’ve got to take one and fill it with a good player.
“The one thing we won’t do, we won’t just force the issue, especially early in the draft. That’s when you make your biggest mistakes. If it so happens (someone) falls and there’s a player we like at either one of those positions, sure, I think y’all know our philosophy on the fronts. You need eight to 10 offensive linemen and we feel you need eight to 10 defensive linemen.
“We’ll continue to add fuel to the fire, but we’re not just going to force the issue.’’
That commitment faces its latest test when commissioner Roger Goodell calls the first round of the NFL Draft to order next Thursday. Ballard holds the 21st overall selection, and five after that.
At some point, he’s likely to secure Castonzo’s successor, along with pass-rush reinforcements. Might it be at No. 21? Might he find a trade partner, slide back a few spots, recoup the third-rounder he included in the package that delivered Carson Wentz from Philadelphia to Indy and still get a quality product? Maybe the Colts’ second-rounder – 54th overall – enables them to address both needs.
The COVID-19 restrictions – no NFL Combine, no watching practices on campus, no face-to-face interaction with prospects, no hands-on work by a team’s medical staff – made player evaluation more difficult. So has opt-out decisions by more than a few individuals.
“We’ve had to go back and dig,’’ Ballard said. “We’re going back and watching 2018, 2019, 2020 tape on guys, trying to get them right.
“There’s a little more uncertainty.’’
Yet there’s talent to be acquired.
“This narrative out there that there’s not players (in the draft), that’s an excuse that there’s not enough players in the draft,’’ Ballard said. “There’s plenty of players in the draft. You’ve just got to look for them and get a little luck and try to get them on your team.’’
Although Ballard and his staff still are putting in long hours – “If y’all would have caught me yesterday it wouldn’t have been good because I had hit a point where I was exhausted’’ – they’ve settled on five or six “difference makers’’ and more than enough top-end prospects to satisfy their round 1 desires.
“We’ve got plenty of names that when somebody gets to 21, we’ll feel good about picking them,’’ he said.
A few areas Ballard touched on Friday:
Offensive linemen in the draft
“It’s a good offensive line draft, really good,’’ he said. “Maybe as good as I’ve seen in a while just in terms of the depth of it.’’
The Colts return four of their five starters: All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson, Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski and right tackle Braden Smith. They also signed three veteran free agents to one-year contracts: guard Chris Reed and tackles Sam Tevi and Julién Davenport.
“We’ll create competition at left tackle, and we’ll get the best five players on the field,’’ Ballard said.
Pass-rush prospects on the roster
While it’s very possible Ballard invests an early pick on an edge rusher, he’s bullish on his returning talent. That would be Kemoko Turay, Tyquan Lewis, Ben Banogu and Al-Quadin Muhammad.
Lewis and Turay are 2018 second-round picks while Banogu is a ’19 second-rounder. Muhammad was re-signed to a one-year, $3.4 million contract. The issue: that foursome has combined for 21.5 sacks in 134 games.
Ballard said Lewis “really came on last year and played good football’’ and conceded “this is a big year for Ben Banogu. He knows it.’’
Turay, meanwhile, is on the mend following another procedure to address the severe injury to his right ankle sustained in week 5 of 2019 at Kansas City. The injury forced him to miss the first nine games last season and impacted his effectiveness when he returned.
Ballard mentioned Turay’s latest rehab should be completed in June and admitted he would like a mulligan on how the team handled him last season.
“Look, he’s had some bad luck,’’ he said. “Last year we didn’t get to see Turay fully (healthy). He had another surgery after the season. At the end of the day, I blame myself for not just pausing and saying, ‘OK, let’s make sure we get him healthy.’
“He fought through. He played hurt. He was never quite right all year. We think we’ve got the problem fixed. He’s very talented. Let’s see him come to fruition.’’
Only six picks
That’s the fewest Ballard has taken into a draft in his four years as GM. He wouldn’t mind acquiring additional picks, but only if it makes sense.
“The more picks you have the better chances you get (on) shots at the board,’’ he said. “Look, this is not an exact science, and you need a little luck. Let’s be real here. I think we’re pretty good at what we do, but there needs to be a little luck involved.
“The more picks you have, the more chances of luck are going to show up.’’
From Rivers to Wentz
The Colts moved quickly to replace Philip Rivers, whose one-year relationship with the team ended in mid-January with his retirement. A month later, Ballard acquired Carson Wentz in a trade with the Eagles.
“Let me say this about Philip Rivers: It will go down as one of the highlights of my career to be a part for one year with him,’’ he said. “What a special, special man and player. Just unique. The guy’s a Hall of Famer.
“When it comes to Carson, it’s been good. He’s comfortable in his own skin. They’re different. Their personalities are different . . . I’d probably compare him a little to Andrew (Luck) than I would Philip. But he’s been great to be around. I haven’t been around him a lot because I’ve been locked in that draft room the whole time.
“He’s going to be a good player for us.’’
The Philly to Indy transition should be smooth considering Wentz’s close relationship to coach Frank Reich, senior offensive assistant Press Taylor and receivers coach Mike Groh. Reich was Wentz’s offensive coordinator in 2016-17 while Groh held that position in ’18-’19. Taylor handled a variety of quarterback-related positions with the Eagles during Wentz’s five years in Philly.
“It’s no different than with Philip,’’ Ballard said of Rivers’ relationship with Reich. “When you have a familiarity with the offense and the coaches coaching you every day, there’s going to be a comfort level there. He understands what Frank wants; he understands the offense.
“They have a very close relationship and that’s a good thing for us.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.