Colts GM Chris Ballard says he obsesses about offensive, defensive lines

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Chris Ballard

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It amounts to a perfect storm.

But we offer a caveat: Don’t allow yourself to be swept away.

The Indianapolis Colts need to inject a playmaking wide receiver – or two – into what was an unacceptable passing game last season, and the April 23-25 NFL Draft is ridiculously deep with playmaking wide receivers.

Depending upon your draft analyst of choice, more than two dozen could be selected in the first three rounds. Five, possibly six, might be pulled off the board in round 1.

Listen to NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah: “I’ve got 27 wide receivers with top-3-round grades. This is really a phenomenal group of wideouts.’’

Jeremiah’s latest mock draft has six wideouts slotted in the first round: Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Clemson’s Tee Higgins, LSU’s Justin Jefferson and Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr.

ESPN’s Todd McShay agrees with Jeremiah. Mel Kiper Jr. projects five first-round wideouts.

And listen to Chris Ballard, who realizes he must give his QB – Jacoby Brissett, Philip Rivers, Jordan Love or anyone else – more big-play options: “Do I think it is a special receivers draft? Yeah. I mean I think there is a lot of depth in the wide receiver position.’’

So there you have it.

Perfect storm. When it comes to the Colts, supply meets demand. The Colts will give T.Y. Hilton an explosive complement when they’re on the clock with the 13th overall pick.

Or not.

During his chat with the local media Tuesday, Ballard fielded questions regarding Brissett, the return of Anthony Castonzo, some of his evaluation beliefs and the enticing nature of the receivers class.

But at one point, he cut through the hype and reiterated his roster-building philosophy.

“Y’all obsess about wideouts,’’ he said with a smile. “I obsess about o-line and d-line.’’

The offensive line has never been better. The importance of Castonzo’s decision to put off retirement for at least another year can’t be overstated, but Ballard also took measures in 2018 to dramatically upgrade that position. He used the 6th overall pick on Quenton Nelson and one of his four second-rounders on Braden Smith.

Nelson already has established himself as one of the NFL’s premier guards as a two-time first-team All-Pro. Smith has started the last 29 games at right tackle.

Despite the o-line returning intact, don’t be surprised if Ballard targets a mid-round selection for a tackle to groom as Castonzo’s eventual replacement.

“That’s a position I think you always need to look at,’’ he said. “It’s better to anticipate that a year or two earlier and start to get some guys in the pipeline.’’

The defensive line? Help is required, and that 13th overall pick could deliver that help. We’re talking about either a disruptive interior presence or an edge pass-rush threat.

Free-agent acquisition Justin Houston proved worthy of his two-year, $23 million contract. He led the team with 11 sacks, 18 quarterback hits and 13 tackles for loss. But he turns 31 March 29 and will be a free agent at the end of 2020. Also, Jabaal Sheard, a three-year mainstay, is a free-agent-to-be. Pass rusher Kemoko Turay is on the mend from a devastating ankle injury. Tyquan Lewis, a 2018 second-round pick, has yet to emerge and is heading into a make-it-or-break-it third season. Denico Autry and Margus Hunt slumped after strong 2018 seasons.

Ballard insisted the defensive line “played good’’ last season.

“It wasn’t bad,’’ he said, “but I am always going to be obsessed with the front. I mean I just believe that is how you win and have sustained success over time.

“I believe in building from the inside-out. I’ve said that from the day I walked in this door and that philosophy won’t change.’’

Again, an upgrade lurks in the draft.

The premier tackle, Auburn’s Derrick Brown, is considered a top-10 talent and undoubtedly will be gone when Ballard is on the clock. South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw might still be available.

Kinlaw is one of the more inspiring rags-to-possible-riches stories at the on-going NFL Scouting Combine. He endured being homeless and hungry growing up in Washington D.C.

“Seeing a lot of things kids shouldn’t see,’’ he said. “Doing a lot of things kids shouldn’t do.’’

Before emerging as an all-SEC talent at South Carolina, Kinlaw went to Jones County Junior College (Mississippi) in 2016. Football wasn’t his first priority.

“I didn’t go to junior college for football, really,’’ he said. “I just went because I had somewhere to sleep. I had some free food to eat. That’s really why I went.’’

Enduring the hard times helped deliver Kinlaw to the doorstep of something much bigger. At 6-5 and 324 pounds, he’s likely to anchor some team’s defensive front.

Other defensive front possibilities include Iowa end A.J. Epenesa and Penn State end Yetur Gross-Matos.

The pre-draft noise regarding the Colts finding a top-end wideout won’t fade.

But neither will Ballard’s obsession with upgrading the o-line and d-line.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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