INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Sometimes, it’s easy.
Think Von Miller, J.J. Watt, Khalil Mack, Aaron Donald, Jadeveon Clowney, Myles Garrett and Joey Bosa. Or Julius Peppers, Dwight Freeney and DeMarcus Ware. For those with a decent memory, think Bruce Smith, Reggie White, Lawrence Taylor, Derrick Thomas and Chris Doleman.
All rank among the NFL’s all-time great pass-rush threats or defensive disruptors. From the edge. From the inside. From wherever.
All were taken with a top-11 pick in the NFL draft.
Sometimes, you’ve got to get lucky and mine that diamond in the rough later in the draft process. Kevin Greene ranks third in NFL history with 160 sacks. Robert Mathis is 19th with 123. Each entered the league as fifth-round picks.
“That was a heckuva pick by Bill and his staff,’’ Chris Ballard said of then-team president Bill Polian locating the Indianapolis Colts’ career sack leader with the 138th overall pick.
The key to uncovering the truly premier pass rushers, he added, is focusing on specific “traits.’’ Ballard and his staff prioritize speed and explosion.
Those players possessing the total package and were productive in college are “highly-coveted,’’ he said. “If they stick out like a sore thumb on tape, usually they’re going really high in the draft like left tackles, like quarterbacks.”
“Those coveted, premium positions in the league, they’re going to go high.’’
And that’s the problem.
The Colts, once again, are in need of pass-rush help, but they’re sitting with the 26th overall pick in the April 25 draft.
Top-end pass rushers can be found near the bottom of the first round, or lower. Pittsburgh’s T.J. Watt was the 30th overall pick last season and posted 13 sacks as a rookie. Dallas’s Demarcus Lawrence was the second pick of the second round (34th overall) in 2014 and has generated 25 sacks in his last 32 games. Kansas City’s Justin Houston ranks ninth among active players with 78.5 sacks. He entered the NFL as a third-round pick in 2011.
Minus a lottery pick means the Colts simply have to hone their evaluations, and stick to Ballard’s positional blueprint.
“We’ve got to continue to fuel the fire with the players at the position and keep trying to hit on the traits,’’ he said. “Look, our coaching staff is really good. They’re really into coaching and developing players.”
“Now we have to get them the right type of guys.’’
That’s been the issue. Too often, the Colts have been unable to find the right type of guy. For too long, they’ve been chasing their own personnel mistakes when it’s come to replacing Robert Mathis.
And let’s be honest, this failure has spanned three front-office administrations.
Remember Jerry Hughes? He was Polian’s 2010 first-round pick (31st overall). Hughes managed 5 sacks in 40 games and three seasons in Indy before Polian’s successor, Ryan Grigson, traded him to Buffalo for Kelvin Sheppard. To his credit, Hughes has developed into a solid rusher with 42 sacks in 90 games with the Bills.
Remember Bjoern Werner? Four days before sending Hughes to Buffalo, Grigson invested the 24th overall pick in the draft on the ACC’s Defensive Player of the Year. Injuries and inconsistent play contributed to Werner managing just 6.5 sacks in 38 games and led to his release after three seasons.
Grigson also missed on Jonathan Newsome, a 2014 fifth-round pick who led the team 6.5 sacks as a rookie, but whose off-field issues led to his release after the ’15 season.
Ballard and his staff have enjoyed two solid drafts, but they missed on Tarell Basham. The 2017 third-round pick (80th overall) had 2 sacks in 15 games as a rookie in the 3-4 scheme, but never seemed to be a fit in Matt Eberflus’ 4-3. He played sparingly in the opener, was inactive twice, dressed but didn’t play once and waived Oct. 4.
Ballard’s most recent prospect is Kemoko Turay, a 2018 second-rounder who showed flashes as a rookie with 4 sacks and 13 quarterback hits.
The Colts were in the middle of the pack with 38 sacks as free-agent acquisition Denico Autry had 9 and rookie linebacker Darius Leonard 7. But they lack a true top-end rusher.
The upcoming draft should offer some level of assistance, whether it’s in the form of an edge rusher or an interior presence.
“In the last 10 years I’d say it is the best defensive line group we’ve seen, both edge rushers and inside guys,’’ said former NFL Network draft analyst and first-time Raiders general manager Mike Mayock. “I think when you start talking about the first round of the draft, I think it’s going to be dominated by defensive linemen.’’
Most draft analysts agree. At least a dozen defensive linemen are projected as first-round talent. Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray might work his way onto the No. 1 slot, but the top end of many mock drafts features defensive linemen/edge rushers: Ohio State’s Nick Bosa, Kentucky’s Josh Allen, Alabama’s Quinnen Williams, Houston’s Ed Oliver, Michigan’s Rashan Gary, Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell and Dexter Lawrence, Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat, and Florida’s Jachai Polite.
There is no lack of confidence among that group.
“Oh yeah, I think I’m the best player in the draft,’’ Allen said, “but I believe that. I think every guy here should believe that and if a team doesn’t believe that, I’ll see them during the season.’’
Being selected No. 1 overall, noted Bosa, would be “a dream come true.
“Arizona is at No. 1 right now. Bill Davis from Ohio State is the linebacker coach over there, who was with me. That would just mean so much to be thought of as the best player in the draft.’’
Clearly, there appears enough to go around at a time when virtually every team is searching for pass-rush help.
“I think if you asked that question to 31 other teams they are going to say that they all need pass-rush help,’’ Ballard said. “That’s what the league is.”
“I mean it always has been . . . guys that can get to the quarterback.’’
Pass rushers, he added, come in different packages.
“Some rush with speed,’’ Ballard said. “Some rush with power. Some rush with instinct. I think it comes in different flavors of what you’re looking for.”
“We would like speed. That’s how our defense is built: explosion and speed. But . . . you can’t just create what’s not there. So you’ve got to look down different avenues for that. I just think you’ve got to look and see how he is going to fit within your system the way he rushes.’’