Colts’ offseason concerns: Edge rusher

Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – The need is there because of yet-to-be realized potential and the timing of contractual issues.

One way or the other, the Indianapolis Colts must address their edge pass-rush situation in the coming weeks and months. And they’re not pretending otherwise.

“We’re always going to be looking for rush,’’ general manager Chris Ballard said.

Owner Jim Irsay agreed last month as he offered a State of the Colts.

“You always need corners and you need pass rushers,’’ he said.

We’ll get to the issues at cornerback on another day.

Today, it’s about pass rushers. It’s about how Ballard strengthens that area of the defense with veteran free agency and the April draft looming.

Anyone with even a modicum of football IQ grasps the value of exerting as much pressure on the opposing quarterback as possible. Last season, six of the top eight sack-per-pass-attempt teams reached the postseason. The Colts ranked 11th, and finished in the middle of the pack with 40 sacks. Conversely, just one of the bottom 10 – the Tennessee Titans, who were 32nd but featured a withering run game behind Derrick Henry – earned a playoff berth.

And you probably noticed Tampa Bay’s 31-9 domination of Kansas City in Super Bowl LV earlier this month. Yes, Tom Brady was selected MVP after throwing for 201 yards and three touchdowns, but the game-long catalyst was the Buccaneers’ relentless pass rush.

Facing an injury-depleted Chiefs’ offensive line, Tampa Bay’s rush harassed quarterback Patrick Mahomes from the outset. It sacked him three times and pressured him a Super Bowl-record 29 times on 52 pass attempts. Mahomes finished 26-of-49 for 270 yards with no touchdowns, two interceptions and a 52.3 passer rating. The Chiefs failed to score a TD for the first time with Mahomes under center.

Some things in the NFL are overrated. Pressuring the quarterback isn’t one of them.

Here are the Colts’ options:

INTERNAL SOLUTION

  • Going?: Justin Houston (expiring contract), Denico Autry (expiring contract), Al-Quadin Muhammad (expiring contract).
  • Here: Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu.
  • Comment: Ballard consistently has rewarded his own, and that likely means re-signing at least one of his pending free agents. A case can be made for each, and the resources exist – roughly $43 million in salary cap space – to retain proven talent.

But it will be interesting to see how Ballard and his personnel staff prioritize within the position while also addressing needs at left tackle, wideout, cornerback and tight end. Irsay has deep and accessible pockets, but there’s only so much money available under a depressed cap.

Houston is the most accomplished edge rusher. Ballard signed him to a two-year, $23 million free agent contract in 2019 and more than got his money’s worth. Houston started all 33 games, including the playoffs, and led the defense with 19.5 sacks, 31 quarterback hits and 21 tackles for loss. How much does he have left, and at what value? He turns 32 in March.

Autry has been one of Ballard’s better free-agent acquisitions. After signing a three-year, $17.8 million deal in 2018, he started 41 of 43 games and offered all-around impact with 106 tackles, 22.5 sacks, 35 quarterback hits and 36 tackles for loss. Re-signing Autry, who turns 31 in July, would keep the d-line strong but not address the primary pass-rusher need.

Muhammad probably is the most logical – and cheapest – to retain. He’s primarily been a rotational player since being claimed off waivers from New Orleans in 2018, but been a pass-rush presence with 6 sacks 19 quarterback hits and 16 tackles for loss. He’s appeared in 50 of a possible 51 games, six as a starter.

It’s hard to project Turay or Banogu as being part of the solution. The Colts certainly hope they are, but there’s no evidence to back that up.

Turay, a 2018 second-round draft pick, has shown flashes with 6 sacks and 21 quarterback hits in 28 games. But a badly dislocated right ankle cost him the final 12 games of 2019 and the first nine of ’20. Banogu, a second-round pick in ’19, had 2.5 sacks and five quarterback hits as a rookie, but was a non-factor in year 2. His snap counts dropped from 26.1% to 9.7% and he was inactive for eight of the final 10 games.

“Kemoko Turay came back midseason, wasn’t always right with the ankle,’’ Ballard said. “We need him to get completely healthy. We need Ben Banogu to come on.’’

VETERAN SOLUTION

  • Free agents-to-be: J.J. Watt; Von Miller, Denver; Matt Judon, Baltimore; Leonard Williams, N.Y. Giants; Melvin Ingram, L.A. Chargers; Bud Dupree, Pittsburgh; Shaquil Barrett, Tampa Bay; Jadeveon Clowney, Tennessee; Yannick Ngakoue, Baltimore; Carl Lawson, Cincinnati; Ryan Kerrigan, Washington; Tyrone Crawford, Dallas; Alex Okafor, Kansas City; Romeo Okwara, Detroit.
  • Comment: As we’ve mentioned, Ballard and his staff have a solid track record using free agency to reinforce their edge rush and d-line concerns. Along with Houston and Autry, they hit on Jabaal Sheard in 2017.

There figures to be no lack of high-profile talent on the open market beginning March 17, although teams undoubtedly will lessen the top-end prospects by signing them to extensions.

It’s possible Ballard breaks from his routine and doles out high-end dollars for a proven pass rusher, but it’s more likely he’ll look for that second-tier guy. Two intriguing names include Carl Lawson and Romeo Okwara. Lawson, 25, had 20 sacks in four seasons with the Bengals. Okwara, 25 and a Notre Dame product, led the Lions with a career-high 10 sacks last season.

DRAFT SOLUTION

  • Top prospects: Kwity Paye, Michigan; Jaelan Phillips, Miami; Gregory Rousseau, Miami; Jayson Oweh, Penn State; Azeez Ojulari, Georgia; Payton Turner, Houston; Joseph Ossai, Texas; Carlos Basham Jr., Wake Forest; Ade Ogundeji, Notre Dame; Jordan Smith, UAB; Daelin Hayes, Notre Dame; Joe Tryon, Washington.
  • Ammunition: 21st overall pick in round 1; 22nd pick in round 2, 54th overall.
  • Comment: The draft hasn’t been kind to the Colts. They’re still looking for a young pass-rush presence because they’ve come up empty – at least to this point – in three of the past four drafts. While the jury remains out on Turay and Banogu, Tarell Basham is simply out. The 2017 third-round pick lasted less than two seasons in Indy. He was waived less than two months into his second season. Basham’s Colts’ resume consisted of 16 games and 2 sacks. He’s starting to get his act together with the New York Jets with 5.5 sacks and 17 quarterback hits the last two seasons.

It’s doubtful the lackluster track record will deter Ballard from grabbing a pass rusher early if someone catches his eye. That would fall into the Best Player Available category. As many as five edge rushers could be selected in the first round of the April draft, and several likely will be available when the Colts are on the clock. In fact, Pro Football Focus projects Ballard snatching up Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari at No. 21, while ESPN’s tag team of Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay agree he’ll go with Michigan’s Kwity Paye.

The last two times the Colts invested a first-round pick in a pass rusher failed to produce the desired results: Bjoern Werner in 2013 (24th overall) and Jerry Hughes in ’10 (31st overall). Of course, taking Dwight Freeney 11th overall in ’02 worked out rather nicely.

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You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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