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State of free agent market highlights reality that Colts need to focus on pass rush early in draft

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NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Denver Broncos Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Free agency is still over a week away, but Colts fans are already being reminded of a tough lesson: good pass rushers rarely hit the open market.

Let’s recap what’s happened with some of those key defenders recently:

  • Mario Addison received a new contract from the Panthers. Addison recorded 9.5 sacks and two forced fumbles last year and has recorded 22 sacks and three forced fumbles over the last three seasons.
  • Kawaan Short received the franchise tag from the Panthers. Short recorded six sacks and a forced fumble last year and has recorded 20.5 sacks and five forced fumbles over the last three seasons.
  • Chandler Jones received the franchise tag from the Cardinals. Jones recorded eleven sacks and four forced fumbles last year and has recorded 29.5 sacks and ten forced fumbles over the last three seasons.
  • Jason Pierre Paul received the franchise tag from the Giants. JPP recorded seven sacks and three forced fumbles last year and has recorded 20.5 sacks and six forced fumbles over the last three seasons.
  • Additionally, it has been reported that Melvin Ingram is expected to get the franchise tag from the Chargers. Ingram recorded eight sacks and four forced fumbles last year and has recorded 22.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles over the last three seasons.

Do you sense a trend? You should: it’s that the good pass rushers are being kept by their current teams. This is often out of necessity as much as anything else. For example, NFL Media’s Mike Garafolo reported that the Giants franchised JPP because they knew other teams were “lurking,” even though they didn’t want to pay him $17 million per year. In other words, they knew they’d lose him, and they didn’t want to.

It’s hard to blame them, too, when you see how protective teams get about their pass rushers. That’s why last week I wrote that the Colts needed to go after Melvin Ingram if he hit free agency even though it would cost a lot. Good pass rushers don’t just hit the open market every day.

What’s left for the Colts in free agency at the area? Well assuming Ingram is indeed tagged, there would be a number of second-tier options - with Erik Walden being as productive as any of them. Erik Walden and Nick Perry both recorded eleven sacks last year, but Walden has more sacks (20 to Perry’s 17.5) and forced fumbles (five to Perry’s two) over the last three seasons. Cardinals defensive end Calais Campbell also has recorded 20 sacks and three forced fumbles over the last three seasons, but overall the market isn’t great.

That’s why it’s so important for the Colts to draft pass rushers this year. The free agent market is not a place to rely on when it comes to finding a top-tier pass rusher, but luckily for the Colts this draft has a number of top-tier pass rush prospects. NFL Media’s Mike Mayock said today that he has a first-round grade on eight pass rushers in this year’s draft. That’s great news for the Colts, who will be picking 14th or 15th in the draft. They desperately need pass rush help, and odds are the best they’re going to do in free agency is find a complementary piece or two.

This isn’t to suggest that the Colts have to force a pick they’re not comfortable with, as there are plenty of other needs on the roster to address (like inside linebacker, cornerback, running back, etc.). But the state of the free agent market, plus the fact that good pass rushers rarely hit free agency, should be a reminder to Colts fans of something Chris Ballard has already talked about: the need to grow your own players. The Colts can’t just rely on free agency to fill this ever-crucial need. Instead, they’re going to have to draft well - and early - to get some pass rush help. That much, at least, is clear.