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Analysts show no faith in Ballard’s overhaul of Colts defense

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USA Today columnist Nate Davis and Pro Football Focus team up to show Colts defense no respect in projected defensive rankings

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Indianapolis Colts v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

It’s entirely fair to say that the Colts defense has earned its reputation. Last season was one of the worst statistical seasons from a Colts defense in team history. The unit was unable to generate a pass rush, unable to close out games... it was just UNABLE.

No person was more aware of that than new General Manager Chris Ballard who walked through the door with a plan to recreate the group from the ground up with younger talent. The defense in 2017 is likely to have a total of 6 or 7 new starters and has seen its depth completely changed.

One of the most exciting defensive units for the coming season is the defensive line that is so stacked with competition that no effort was made to bring back an entirely capable rotational lineman like Zach Kerr. Instead, whatever combination of players make the roster this year has the look of being one of best formed defensive lines the Colts have seen in years. Earlier this week I discussed that group and why Johnathan Hankins will live up to the hype.

It is quite clear that Nate Davis of USA Today either has no idea who is on the Colts roster at defensive line or that he does and sees no reason to be excited. During the off-season Davis has been taking the time to rank position groups for all 32 NFL teams. His rank for the Colts defensive line? 32nd.

Like the linebackers, the Indy line has undergone a makeover, with behemoth NT Johnathan Hankins and Margus Hunt signing as free agents, while the draft brought Tarell Basham and Grover Stewart. Now, will it actually help?

Will it actually help? Are you serious? Best I can tell Davis thinks that the defensive line will be even worse than it was a season ago even though it added Johnathan Hankins. I refuse to believe that he is aware that Kendall Langford is on the team because he didn’t play last year. I also refuse to believe that he has any idea who Henry Anderson is or that he tore his ACL late in his rookie season — during which he received a great deal of recognition as a upcoming rookie defensive lineman.

I could go even further discussing the depth on the defensive line that gives Colts fans a reason to be excited about the prospects of the group but it’s not worth the additional time. Afterall, this isn’t the only group Davis has no confidence in for the 2017 Colts defense.

If we move to the secondary, it has long been known that the Colts secondary has been lacking key pieces for quite some time. The team has been unable to find a valuable compliment to Vontae Davis on the outside — though Rashaan Melvin finally showed signs of being about to do that in 2016 — and that the clock was ticking on the return former General Manager Ryan Grigson was able to get from aging veteran Mike Adams.

This season? The Colts have Davis returning for his contract year, they drafted a young corner with legitimate promise to line up opposite Davis, still have Melvin and Daryl Morris who both performed well in 2016, have Darius Butler as the veteran roamer at safety or in the nickel if needed, and used their first round draft pick on a player who has been compared to Ed Reed as a ball-hawking center fielder with the potential to be a quarterback’s worst nightmare. In my opinion, this group has the chance to be the most talented, deepest, and most dynamic secondary the Colts have had in years. If Clayton Geathers returns to full health, this group has the potential to be very good by the end of the season.

Not according to Davis. He ranks the Colts secondary 28th in the league.

Former mainstay Vontae Davis had an awful 2016. But it appears his supporting cast has improved with Round 1 S Malik Hooker and Round 2 CB Quincy Wilson.

Again, some sideways comment from Nate Davis about improvement with no reflection of that thought process in his ranking. You get the impression that these guys go to NFL.com and read the defensive rankings from a season ago and then roll a die to figure out how to move things around.

As you may have guessed, Davis doesn’t feel any better about the Colts linebackers. Let’s reflect: last season the Colts had two aging outside linebackers as their primary pass rush specialists, a strong side outside linebacker who led the team in sacks, an undrafted free agent rookie who received snaps to generate pressure, an aging inside linebacker who was solid against the run and a liability against the pass, and two rookie inside linebackers who finished the season as starters.

This season: one aging pass rusher retired, two other players who were receiving starter-level reps aren’t even signed to another team, the undrafted free agent is currently without an NFL job, the aging run stopper is still a free agent, and the rookie inside linebackers all gained a year of NFL experience with starting reps. Added to that mix is group of young veterans who have all proven that they can either get after the quarterback, play fast and physical, and have better range to be more effective against the pass. The team also brought in two rookie linebackers, in the third and fifth rounds, who both have real potential to be year-one contributors.

How does Davis feel about that? He ranks the Colts linebackers as 29th in the league.

An almost unrecognizable group. Gone are Robert Mathis and D'Qwell Jackson. Free agents Jabaal Sheard and John Simon should play outside with Barkevious Mingo hoping for a role. Jon Bostic, Sean Spence, Antonio Morrison and Edwin Jackson will vie for inside duties. If nothing else, the Colts got younger.

Once again, on the one hand he openly indicates that this group is entirely different. He comments that the group has gotten younger. He doesn’t mention the draft picks at all and seems to believe that Barkevious Mingo is a shoe-in to make the roster? Get out of here with this nonsense. No group on the team should be noticeably more improved than the linebackers who desperately needed an infusion of new talent.

If all of this isn’t enough, ProFootballFocus can’t stop arguing with itself in its coverage of the Colts defensive changes. On the one hand, they tweet this out:

Then they put together their own story ranking the front seven units of all 32 NFL teams and rank the Colts 31st.

The Colts had 10 players see more than 125 snaps at linebacker last season, and with Erik Walden and Robert Mathis no longer around, Indianapolis will search for consistency along their LB corps. Former Buckeyes Jonathan Hankins and John Simon will each look to increase their grades from a year ago, but for different reasons. Hankins saw a career-low grade of 47.1 and Simon will hope to continue to increase his overall season grade for the fifth consecutive year. Can this unit meld together and perform on a consistent basis in 2017?

All I can say is that I expect the national media to sing a different tune when the pads are on and the regular season gets under way. Look, it is fair to say that with turnover and youth there will be some growing pains but to not look at the addition of key players, rookies and free agents, at key positions on the 2017 Colts defense and see reason to feel remotely optimistic the defense will perform better than it did in 2016 — or that the group of players that will take the sidelines are not at least marginally better than they were a season ago — is baffling.

I hope the Colts defensive players read this nonsense and keep it in mind as they take on “the easiest schedule in the NFL.” I know if I was a player, I would.