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Free Agents Who Can Set up the Colts for a Strong Draft: Tier 1 Needs

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NFL: Green Bay Packers at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

As the Indianapolis Colts head into the first full off-season of General Manager Chris Ballard’s tenure, the first time he has been able to control not just moves in free agency but has had his own staff to scout and prepare for April’s draft, there are plenty of holes to fill. With over $80 million in projected room to help fill those holes, Ballard needs to repeat what he did last season — add important players at key positions and reduce the number of “must haves” in the upcoming draft. He needs the flexibility in April so he can to get the most talent out of his full slate of picks as possible.

Here are the Colts’ most glaring needs as Ballard prepares to turn the page and enter a new chapter in Indianapolis with his hand-picked coaching staff in tow.

Colts Positional Needs:

Tier 1: Pass rush, guard, inside linebacker
Tier 2: Running back, cornerback, wide receiver
Tier 3: Tight end, defensive line, safety

No matter what Ballard does in free agency, Tier 1 areas will likely also require some kind of attention in the draft. Tier 2 needs will be somewhat dependent on what happens in free agency. Tier 3 could be addressed but will likely require a great deal of value or clear BPA to warrant one of Indy’s draft picks — particularly early.

Let’s start by addressing each of the Tier 1 needs in free agency.


PASS RUSH

The reality in the NFL is that great pass rushers don’t escape their current teams. They are as valued on defense as quarterbacks are valued on offense. Really good ones are also just as rare.

There are five names the pop out as potential targets in free agency. Three of these targets play for teams with plenty of cap space and one of them is the top pass rusher currently set to hit free agency. Which of them is actually allowed to test the market is hard to guess — none is a possibility.

The top overall pass rushing prospect set to hit free agency is DeMarcus Lawrence (25) of the Dallas Cowboys. His team is tight in terms of available cap space and he makes a lot of sense because linebackers coach Matt Eberflus is slated to become the Colts’ defensive coordinator, but it is unlikely Jerry Jones allows Lawrence to escape.

The next tier of pass rushers have shown ability but carry some risks. Trent Murphy (27) was a solid pass rusher for the Washington Redskins but tore his ACL and MCL in August of 2017 and missed the whole season. While he may well be ready for the start of the 2018 season, it is always a risk to sign a player coming off of that type of injury. Some players are never the same.

Ezekiel Ansah (28) could make some sense as a short-term stopgap to ease the transition for a rookie. The Lions may not choose to keep him in the fold and while he has had his own issues staying healthy over the last few seasons, he can be a dominant pass rusher. Based upon Ballard’s free agent targets in 2017, his age might put him further down the list.

If you watched Dee Ford (26) play football in 2016 for the Kansas City Chiefs, you might think that he was well on his way to breaking out as one of the league’s premier edge defenders. If you watched him in 2017, you would likely think something entirely different. A back injury in Week 3 did slow him down so it will be up to Ballard to do his background work here. The Chiefs are slated to have the least amount of cap space in the NFL. Ford currently carries an $8 million cap hit and would save the team the full $8 million if they cut him — Ford will likely be an option. Ballard should be very familiar.

Finally, Kony Ealy (26) had a nice impact for the New England Patriots in the playoffs in 2016 but found himself with the New York Jets this season. He started off the year pretty hot but cooled down later in the season. His connection with the Patriots and familiarity to Josh McDaniels could make him a target.

Dark Horse Candidates: Barkevious Mingo (27), Shaquil Barrett (25, RFA), Adrian Clayborn (29)


GUARD

Indianapolis will enter the off-season with guard/tackle fill-ins Denzelle Good, Joe Haeg, Le’Raven Clark and undrafted center Deyshawn Bond as the only guard prospects under contract. While that seems like a lot of bodies — and it is — none of these players have proven to be consistent, strong starting options. In this writer’s opinion, Ballard must get at least one immediate plugin starter at guard in free agency.

The top prospect in the NFL will be Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell (26). He is one of the best guards in the league, a Pro Bowler, and would offer a huge boost to the interior of the offensive line. With so much cap space, targeting Norwell should be one of Ballard’s top priorities. Nothing could be more important to the continued development and improvement of this team than nailing things down in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

Jonathan Cooper (27) of the Dallas Cowboys saw mixed results early in his career but he settled down in the starting guard spot on one of the best offensive lines in football in 2017. He would be a clear upgrade over the current options in Indianapolis and he is coming from a team who is projected to have only $20 million in cap space with the need to retain Lawrence, Anthony Hitchens, and possibly backup guard and tackle Joe Looney. Something may have to give and Cooper could be on a list of cap casualties.

A player who will be very familiar to Ballard is center/guard Zach Fulton (26) of Kansas City. It is worth mentioning again that the Chiefs are currently projected with the least cap space in the league. Fulton has outplayed his draft position and shown real improvement throughout his NFL career. He held down the guard position for Kansas City this season and could be a reasonable option.

Finally, a versatile interior offensive lineman who could find his way onto a new roster via free agency is center/guard Ryan Jensen (26) of the Baltimore Ravens. Ozzie Newsome tends to find a way to keep his best players around but his team is projected to have only $13 million in cap space next season and he has other free agents who might take priority. That list includes James Hurst, who is another free agent offensive lineman, Mike Wallace, Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gilmore, Terrence West and backup center Luke Bowanko.

Dark Horse Candidates: James Pugh (27), Jack Mewhort (26), James Hurst (26)


INSIDE LINEBACKER

One of the more discouraging positions for projected free agents in 2018 is inside linebacker. The Colts need to infuse the position with talent and, unfortunately, do not have a ton of great options outside of potential trade scenarios (and they don’t have much other than draft picks to offer there).

The biggest and most likely potential target for new defensive coordinator Eberflus might be his former inside linebacker Hitchens of the Cowboys. While there is a reasonable chance that he could be re-signed, we already discussed earlier that money is quite tight in the lone star state. Hitchens is a balanced inside linebacker prospect who can play with range inside in 3-4 schemes and slide over into a weakside role if the defense moves to a 4-3.

The biggest free agent prospect at the position in 2018 will be Preston Brown of the Buffalo Bills. He would provide a huge boost to the position and help turn a relative weakness into more of a strength. He can also play in all phases of the game and have enough range to be disruptive inside and outside, against the run or the pass. Unfortunately for the Colts, the Bills have over $30 million in cap space and Brown has to be one of the top three players on their list of priorities to retain.

Last year’s top inside linebacker prospect was Zach Brown, formerly of the Bills and currently with the Redskins. He was one Washington’s top defensive players this season, however, and they have plenty of money to reward him for his play.

Finally, another one of last year’s most sought-after inside linebacker prospects was Kevin Minter, formerly of the Arizona Cardinals and now with the Cincinnati Bengals. Minter suffered a season-ending elbow injury early on that left him without a real chance to prove that he deserved a longer deal. The Bengals may choose to work something out with him on another short-term deal but allowing him to test the market is another possibility.


SEMI-REALISTIC DREAM SCENARIO

Although this would be considered a monster haul in free agency and is unlikely enough to be considered a dream scenario, it is not completely outside the realm of possibility.

First, let’s toss out the top prospects at each position. In a perfect world, Norwell hits free agency and the Colts are able to grab him. Similarly, if the franchise tag didn’t exist, the tight cap situation in Dallas could allow Lawrence to become an option. Also, Brown would likely be considered the dream scenario. All of these players are either going to cost a lot of money and be outside of what Ballard has shown the propensity to do or will be retained someway by their current teams.

Now, let’s move on to what could be legitimate targets that find their way to Indianapolis.

Pass Rush - Dee Ford (26)

As I mentioned above, there is almost no chance that Ford will come off of a down season and retain an $8 million cap hit. The Chiefs may try to find a way to squeeze him in but they are in a desperate cap situation currently and he is the most obvious way to free up some breathing room.

This could be a steal if Ford returns to health and joins John Simon, Jabaal Sheard, Tarell Basham and potentially Bradley Chubb to repair what ails the Colts pass rush. No general manager in the NFL will be more familiar with what Ford can do and what he is worth than Ballard.

Guards - Zach Fulton (26) and Jack Mewhort (26)

For reasons that I already mentioned about the difficult cap situation the Chiefs are facing, Fulton could be a very reasonable upgrade to the interior of the Colts offensive line. His likely familiarity with Ballard would make it easy for him to feel comfortable with the plan in Indianapolis and he hasn’t been such an outstanding performer than he will break the bank. He has position flexibility and can play center if needed as well. Bottom line, there is a real chance Ballard can get him if he wants him.

As for Mewhort, we already know that he has struggled to stay healthy over the last couple of seasons. Missing games is a big problem and will limit his value in the open market. This ultimately means that if Mewhort plans to continue playing football and if he wants to stay in Indianapolis — which I feel is probably likely — he will sign for a one-year prove it contract and provide the team with an average or slightly better than average NFL guard as a potential starter or a very strong backup if the team finds another option in the draft.

Inside Linebacker - Anthony Hitchens

Of the potential free agent inside linebackers to hit the market in 2018, Hitchens makes the most sense by a mile. Sean Lee, Damien Wilson and Jaylon Smith will still be on the team without Hitchens (they don’t have to keep him). Dallas is relatively tight on available cap space and will have to choose whether to jettison their defensive leader in Lee, continue holding back Smith’s career development, play Hitchens out of place in Wilson’s spot — or give up offensive line pieces that are super important to Ezekiel Elliott.

I have every reason to believe the Jones would like to keep Hitchens and that he would like to stay with the Cowboys. I just also have reason to believe that he could be the hardest player to squeeze onto the roster at the end of the day. Why would he go anywhere other than with his former linebackers coach to play a prominent role in Indianapolis? I think it just makes too much sense.