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An early look at the Colts primary needs on defense as they play the final stretch of 2017

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

The 2017 NFL season has featured a defensive resurgence in Indianapolis. All of the stats at the end of the year will tell an awful story but make no mistake that this group is not only better now than it was in 2016, it is better now than it has been in years. This story will take a look at each position and determine which defensive pieces the Colts need to target through the draft and free agency.


Defensive Line

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Los Angeles Rams Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

This is a unit that features Al Woods, Johnathan Hankins, and Henry Anderson. To say that this group has drastically improved a Colts defense that has always struggled against the run would be an understatement. All three players have had good seasons and shown flashes of dominance in games.

The primary depth behind them is less certain. Hassan Ridgeway has struggled holding up against the run and has a bigger impact generating pressure on the quarterback. Margus Hunt is similar but will have an opportunity to show if he can impose his will on the ground with Anderson out for the season. Rookie Grover Stewart has all of the physical attributes you could want out of an interior defensive lineman but still hasn’t put it all together and is playing against a drastically more difficult level of competition than he did in college.

The upside for the Colts is that the starting group is under contract for 2018, so they don’t necessarily have to bring in an immediate starter. The downside is that the depth is made up of unproven players or specialists. It’s not even outside the realm of possibility Ballard could choose to release Hunt to save $2 million against the cap and find a more well-rounded longer-term replacement. Don’t forget that Woods is already 30 years old as well.

Primary need here depends on Ballard’s long-term plans at nose tackle. If those plans include Johnathan Hankins, he might be looking for a starting caliber defensive end to play opposite Henry Anderson. If he wants to keep Hankins primarily in the 3-tech role, he might be looking for a nose tackle who can take over for Woods after his contract expires.


Inside Linebacker

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Indianapolis has had a big hole at inside linebacker since Ryan Grigson lost his stare down with Jerrell Freeman. Colts fans might feel a little better to know that Freeman was recently busted for failing a drug test for traces of banned substances but he was a better player than Indianapolis has had at the position since.

The primary problem on the current roster is that there are too many players who have the same modus operandi. Antonio Morrison, Jon Bostic, and Jeremiah George are all more comfortable knocking heads on the ground than they are covering receivers. Rookie Anthony Walker hasn’t really had a chance to get anything going with a nagging hamstring injury.

The cupboard is bare. Bostic will be a free agent. Work needs to be done. Do not be surprised if Ballard is active in free agency and the draft to find pieces to help a one-dimensional group.


Outside Linebacker

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While Ballard has done impressive work to improve an outside linebacker position that was filled with aging players a season ago, there is just one thing that is still missing. A marquee pass rusher who strikes fear in opposing quarterbacks.

At first, this will sound like a slight to the current group but it really isn’t. John Simon and Jabaal Sheard have both been impressive as starters in their first year in Indianapolis. Colts fans should feel entirely comfortable with both players having a meaningful role in the defense moving forward. Even primary backup Barkevious Mingo has shown more than would have been legitimately expected of him coming into the season, both generating pressure and serving as perhaps the best coverage linebacker on the team.

Rookie Tarrell Basham will have to make a second-year leap if he hopes to take the next step as an NFL pass rusher. To this point, it looks more like his ceiling is a player like Sheard, who can use his strength to push the pocket and help set the edge. He has a lot of learning to do if he wants to get to that level.

Unless one of these players makes drastic changes in the off-season physically, there is still a spot for a pass rush specialist. These players are hard to find in free agency because they’re so coveted by their own teams so Ballard will likely have to turn back to the draft, early, to get a player with this skill set.


Cornerback

Pittsburgh Steelers v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Perhaps no group on the Colts roster is as deep or as promising for the future than the cornerback position. Heading into the season, Vontae Davis and Rashaan Melvin were the only truly known quantities. Davis started the season hurt and Melvin came in coming off of the best season of his career in 2016.

What has happened from Week 1 to now is astounding. Early, breakdowns in the secondary killed the Colts. It was clear there was a young group on the field and that they were not particularly comfortable with their assignments. The group showed early signs of being a primary reason the Colts defense would give up tons of points in a depressing season.

Coming out of the bye week, Rashaan Melvin has had one of the best seasons in the NFL at his position. If any Colts player deserves a spot in the Pro Bowl, it is him. Journeyman Pierre Desir has put together a three game performance that has been the very best football of his young NFL career. He has excelled in press man coverage and made it really difficult for quarterbacks and receivers to earn anything against him. Fifth round rookie Nate Hairston has not allowed a touchdown in over 200 coverage snaps in his rookie season. He has outplayed his draft position and gives every indication that he can hold down his role for years to come.

While second round rookie Quincy Wilson has not seen the field since Week 2 against the Arizona Cardinals, and has found himself both injured and in a coaching doghouse, he has flashed real potential in his limited opportunities. Vontae Davis is no longer on the roster and somehow, the unit doesn’t really miss him on the field.

Expect Melvin and Desir to be priority free agents. I’d expect that Ballard and the Colts will focus on extensions for both players as the season begins to wind down. As amazing as it is, after one off-season, this group might be the lowest defensive need heading into the off-season — assuming Ballard can re-sign Desir and Melvin.


Safety

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Safety is another position that could represent a key strength for the Colts heading into 2018. There are question-marks surrounding the health of Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers that have to be figured out but if Geathers is able to show that he can return to form, there is a three-headed safety monster forming in Indianapolis.

Both Geathers and Farley can play in the box run stuffing roles in appropriate situations. This would free up Hooker to focus on his role as a ball hawking center fielder in press man cover 1 looks. This sounds like a nice recipe on the back end.

Second-year player T.J. Green has yet to show signs that he is prepared to play a meaningful role in the secondary. This does leave at least one roster spot vacant.

On the downside, if Hooker is unable to start the 2018 season or Geathers is unable to return to form, this position could become a bigger focus. I wouldn’t expect Ballard to simply ignore the position as he prepares for the new year but, health depending, his primary rotation is already in place.


Primary defensive needs: Rush, ILB, DL