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 dollars 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 to 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.
This piece will focus on the Tier 2 level needs. These needs will have to be addressed in the draft unless Ballard is able to use free agency to find some support.
With Frank Gore set to hit free agency and hoping to play for a contender, there is a very real chance the Indianapolis will have to find new rushing talent elsewhere (I would bring him back if he was interested). There are a number of solid running backs who will be available in the upcoming draft but this is a very healthy class of free agents as well. Which free agents could make a lot of sense and push this need down a level or two in priority in April?
The cream of the crop is all world running back Le’Veon Bell (25) of the Pittsburgh Steelers. His public comments have put black and yellow nation in a tough position. He has suggested that if they intend to franchise tag him again, he will retire. There is a very real chance that he is bluffing but Pittsburgh is currently projected as having negative cap space in 2018. If he hits free agency the highest bidder could win his services.
One way to infuse the backfield with another youthful running back would be to take a look at Isaiah Crowell (25) of the Cleveland Browns. They may very well have their sights set on taking Saquon Barkley in the upcoming draft and could choose to spend their money elsewhere with Duke Johnson already playing a big role. This wouldn’t be a splash signing but Crowell has carried the load for Cleveland in the past and is capable of having an impact in multiple phases out of the backfield.
While not every is sold on Carlos Hyde (26) of the San Francisco 49ers, he would be the kind of signing Frank Gore was in terms of adding a proven veteran to the position. He has had some devastating seasons when healthy and is also capable as a receiver, having put up 350 yards through the air in 2017. Adding a player of Hyde’s caliber would go a long way in freeing up draft picks for BPA or other team needs.
Jerick McKinnon (25) of the Minnesota Vikings may be my favorite prospect for the Colts given the likely hire of Josh McDaniels. In a recent mock three round mock draft I picked Sony Michel in the third round because he is the kind of back that McDaniels has utilized in his screen and check down heavy offensive system. He is a younger version of Dion Lewis — though not quite as strong between the tackles — and reminders me a great deal of James White as a receiver. With Latavius Murray on the team and the likely return of Dalvin Cook, it might make more sense to let McKinnon sign elsewhere.
Speaking of Dion Lewis (27) of the New England Patriots, he is also set to become a free agent. Bill Belichick is no stranger to allowing players to leave via free agency before re-stocking and re-tooling his backfield. It wouldn’t be a great surprise to see New England allow Lewis to test free agency, nor would it be a great surprise to see him follow his offensive coordinator to Indianapolis. McKinnon and Michel are like Lewis or White, but Lewis actually is Dion Lewis so that could work in his favor.
Dark Horse Candidates: Orleans Darkwa (25), Terrance West (26), Andre Ellington (28)
The 2017 Indianapolis Colts defense had a strange season. When it all started, there was very little known about how the group would come together and there were 11 new opening day starters from the season before. That kind of turnover will certainly not help against an up-and-coming Rams team in Los Angeles.
While the run defense made noticeable improvements from 2016, the secondary weaved its way through the season without a true identity. There were flashes of excitement with Rashaan Melvin breaking out for a career year and rookie Malik Hooker showing some of the ball hawking skills he promised in last year’s draft. Fellow rookie corner Nate Hairston shocked fans and analysts by vastly outplaying his fifth round draft position and starting every game in the nickel.
Pierre Desir joined the team after final cuts and played impressively after the Colts parted ways with veteran Vontae Davis. Even Kenny Moore went from special teams laughing stock to desperation corner — to end the season showing considerable development. Second round rookie Quincy Wilson went through a “Where’s Waldo” stretch during the vast majority of the season, being held off of the active roster despite generally looking good in his limited opportunities.
Either way, Melvin and Desir are the most experienced cornerbacks on the roster at the end of the season and both will be free agents heading into the off-season. This leaves an army of second-year players to man the secondary. Who should Ballard target to restock the position?
The biggest free agent at the position in 2018 will be Malcolm Butler (27), if the Patriots let him test the market. With the addition of Josh McDaniels as head coach, there will certainly be speculation about bringing him into the fold. It would take a hefty but he would certainly be a very talented addition and hold down a starting spot.
If Colts General Manager Chris Ballard is true to his word about earning new contracts and being respected in the locker room, Rashaan Melvin is a player who has certainly earned a contract extension. The biggest knock on him is that he is 28 years old, so there is some concern that he could be reaching the apex of his career from that standpoint.
I don’t put a great deal of emphasis on this as he is coming off of the best season of his career, which happens to follow his previous best season. He also is already in the locker room and building, he is a Colts grown player. In 2017, Melvin held quarterbacks to a paltry rating of 60.3 throwing in his direction and had the first three interceptions of his career. The arrow has been pointing up and a three-year deal isn’t taking a major risk.
Pierre Desir (27) went from bottom of the roster to taking over for former Pro Bowl talent Vontae Davis. He had some impressive games against some very good receivers and is vastly underrated. While he didn’t put up numbers as strong as Melvin for the season, he was clearly better during the three to four game stretch before he was shut down for the season than he was earlier in the season. He also was targeted heavily with Melvin shutting things down on the opposite side of the field.
Desir could likely be retained on a very reasonable, relatively low dollar deal. If he wants to bet on himself, he could sign for a one-year prove it deal. Either way, I think he is worth keeping in Indianapolis. I also think he would be included in the “Colts grown” player camp as he earned his first real shot in Indianapolis. The connection between the front office and Seattle, which likely prompted his signing off of waivers, doesn’t hurt him either.
Another player to keep a close eye on is Kyle Fuller (25) of the Chicago Bears. Injuries robbed him early in his career and left him to vastly under perform what the Bears were hoping they would get when they drafted him in the First Round of the NFL Draft. 2017 was a breakout year for Fuller as he finally managed to stay healthy. He allowed only a 69.0 passer rating, picked up 2 interceptions, and added 17 passes defensed. Chicago has plenty of cap space so they could easily retain him.
Finally, Trumaine Johnson of the Los Angeles Rams (28) is a veteran whose play has encouraged consecutive franchise tags. While I don’t believe that he is worth the massive contracts he was paid in both of those years, he is one of the top cornerback prospects available in free agency and has the kind of size and ball skills that Chris Ballard covets. He might be a little deeper in his career than Ballard would like to add to the team (not homegrown) but he should definitely have a few years of solid production ahead of him.
The only wide receivers with starting experience who are set to return to the Colts’ roster at this point are T.Y. Hilton and Chester Rogers. It is very likely that Kamar Aiken will not return to Indianapolis in 2018 and Donte Moncrief is also slated to enter the free agent market for the first time in his career. Typically, this would be point very strongly toward the need to draft a wide receiver — and while that is still possible — this could be one of the most talent rich free agent wide receiver markets as there has been in recent years.
Armed with legitimate salary cap space to make moves, Chris Ballard can significantly reduce or eliminate this need with talented players without investing a ton of draft capital.
The darling of the free agent class might be Allen Robinson (24) of the Jacksonville Jaguars. What limits him is concerns about staying healthy. Additionally, he had a breakout year in 2015 but has been unable to approach that level over the last two seasons. The Jaguars are in a relatively difficult cap position and have numerous offensive free agents and weapons who they could choose to target. The cap hit for the franchise tag on Robinson could make life more difficult for the Jacksonville front office.
With high hopes for DeDe Westrbrook, a solid option in Allen Hurns, and the surprising performance of rookie Keelan Cole, the Jaguars may choose to focus the bulk of their available cap space at other positions. They could bolster their wide receiver room by retaining Marqise Lee for cheaper than Robinson potentially and that could give Indianapolis a chance to bring in a young potential superstar.
While Robinson is a big target at 6’3” and 210 pounds, Jarvis Landry (25) of the Miami Dolphins is more consistent with the type of wide receiver Josh McDaniels has utilized heavily in his offense in the past. He has been heavily targeted, has a very high catch rate, and has shown the ability to get into the end zone. A pairing of Landry and Hilton would create incredible mismatch opportunities for the Colts offense, with both moving inside and outside in formations to find the advantage.
One player who broke out in 2017 was wide receiver Paul Richardson (25) of the Seattle Seahawks. He was used more as a field-stretching big play option for Russell Wilson and could do something similar in Indianapolis. With the way Josh McDaniels likes to utilize more underneath routes and allows quick route running like T.Y. Hilton to do real damage in space underneath, a player like Richardson could be used to stretch the defense vertically and create space underneath.
Another smaller receiver who could play the same kind of role as Danny Amendola or Julian Edelman is Kendall Wright (28) of the Chicago Bears. He was targeted more in Chicago than he has been in recent years and was a reliable pass-catcher. While he isn’t as strong as Jarvis Landry for this role, he is certainly one of the better slot receivers to hit the market.
One of the more underappreciated wide receivers in the NFL might be Taylor Gabriel (26) of the Atlanta Falcons. He is very small, at only 5’8” and 167lbs. He has value as a special teams returner and can certainly do damage in a rotational and situational role on offense as well. The Falcons will have a hard time keeping some of their pieces with big name free agents at other key positions so Gabriel could be a special teams win and depth win at receiver who is dangerous in the open field.
While it is entirely fair to say that Donte Moncrief (24) has failed to live up to expectations as a former second round draft pick, it is equally fair to say that his value has been heavily tied to his chemistry with franchise quarterback Andrew Luck. After having injuries slow him down for a couple of seasons, some of his production was limited. However, he was a huge red zone target for Luck when they were both healthy in 2016. Can that relationship be rekindled in a new offense?
It’s fair to say that the only players to look good with Brissett or Tolzien under center were T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle — maybe the team can retain Moncrief on a short prove-it contract and keep him in the fold with Luck set to return?
Darkhorse Candidates: Sammy Watkins (24), Jordan Matthews (25), Marqise Lee (26), Willie Snead (25), Terrelle Pryor (28), Dontrelle Inman (28), Eli Rogers (25), Michael Floyd (28), Tavarres King (27)
Semi-Realistic Dream Scenario
As I did previously, I am going to throw out the top candidate at each position. I do so not because I don’t think Chris Ballard should go after elite talent or be willing to pay elite money for those players. I do this because the top talent at each position is more likely to be retained by their own teams or be more difficult to “win” against all other interested team.
Running Back - Jerick McKinnon (25), Frank Gore (34)
Chris Ballard will work with Josh McDaniels to put together the type of offensive weapons he wants to use. He will also be smart about how he spends his resources. As much as Robert Turbin was a short-yardage specialist under Rob Chudzinski, McDaniels will likely focus more on players like McKinnon (James White, Dion Lewis) or Mack in these situations. He will also want to have a veteran back who is proven running between the tackles and who can carry the load in the right situations (LaGarette Blount, Corey Dillon, Laurence Maroney).
Even at 34 yards old, there is no way Frank Gore isn’t a superior offensive weapon than Robert Turbin or any other current prospect in the backfield. A group like Gore, Mack, and McKinnon brings the skill set McDaniels has worked with in New England and could come with a very reasonable price tag. These are high value signings who bring a lot to the table. If a rookie drops and is too good to pass up, there is still roster flexibility.
Cornerback - Rashaan Melvin (28), Pierre Desir (27)
While there are certainly free agent options that will command a lot of attention and who would be immediate starters for the Colts new defense, both Melvin and Desir have the skill set the Colts are looking for in a scheme that will likely resemble the aggressive secondary of the Seattle Seahawks.
Both players are coming off of their best seasons at professionals, both are already integrated into the locker room, and both could be fairly described as home grown players for different reasons. Desir shouldn’t break the bank and could present tremendous value. Melvin should have a few strong seasons left and could be signed for a front-loaded three year contract without taking a major risk. Locker room chemistry shouldn’t be overlooked. Melvin, Desir, Wilson, Hairston, and Moore gives Ballard a lot of flexibility in the draft.
Wide Receiver - Jarvis Landry (25), Donte Moncrief (24)
One position that is worth investing a good chunk of cap into in free agency is wide receiver. As mentioned before, this kind of saturated market doesn’t come along that often. The talent saturation at wide receiver might push down the asking price just a bit -- even at the top. The Dolphins are not in a good position to re-sign Landry and he is exactly the type of weapon McDaniels has a ton of experience using in his offense.
Landry and Hilton provide a potent 1A and 1B punch. Bringing back Donte Moncrief on a prove it deal retains a player who Andrew Luck already knows. Moncrief proved in 2016 to be a red zone target and was a popular target for Jacoby Brissett on go routes along the sidelines. He brings the kind of balance to the wide receiver group that the unit needs with smaller players like Landry and Hilton in the fold and will do so at a very reasonable price. With Chester Rogers as another a young player who has flashed potential, particularly when passing catches from Andrew Luck, the top four spots look good heading into the draft.