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Building Blocks | Colts’ 2017 Free Agent Group Facing Added Expectations

Chris Ballard’s initial free agent haul will be heavily relied upon to smooth out the transition in scheme, and improve as Colts go through Year 2 of a youth movement

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Indianapolis Colts Marc Lebryk-USA TODAY Sports

In the last edition of our look into those Indianapolis Colts who are heading into their second year with the team we spoke about the 2017 rookies. For this look into those second-year players, we’re talking about Chris Ballard’s first set of offseason free agent acquisitions.

We won’t be getting into those who are free agents this offseason, with one exception. Rather we’ll look into what they did last season and how they can help the Colts in the 2018 season which could prove to be one of the most pivotal rosters in the organization’s development as they undergo year-two of their massive youth movement.

Some are possibly expendable before the season, depending on this year’s free agent grab and draft, but there’s a case to be made for each of the following to be a productive part of the roster. Some will be critical to the rebuilding of the roster, while some of their contributions are still very much up in the air at this point.

The next group to be discussed, in the coming days, will be the acquisitions made throughout the season, as we look to discover if there is a role for them somewhere on this roster.

Margus Hunt

Is there a free agent the Colts brought in last year that outplayed his expectations more than Hunt? I don’t think so. Hunt was known to have been drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals the same year as the Colts grabbed Bjoern Werner — some have even stated that he and Bjoern Werner were two of the better 4-3 defensive ends in the 2013 NFL draft.

NFL’s draft profile for Hunt projected that he could possibly get into the back half of the first round and even compared him to Calais Campbell. He was taken in the second, but in his days with the Bengals he never smoothed out with their plans, becoming no more than a rotational piece.

His time in Indianapolis has been a steal, for what the Colts are paying him, and are getting some great production out of him playing more of a 3-tech role in 2017. In 4 years with the Bengals Hunt totaled 28 tackles, but just last year Hunt racked up 29 total stops and surprised everyone. Hunt was initially seen as only a “possibility” to make the roster.

Going forward the question pops up again, though. The Colts are transforming back into a 4-3 base, and he’ll be forced to prove that he can potentially rake in the production of a year ago, likely within a similar role that he failed to impress up to this point in his career.

Hunt created a lot of pressure on quarterbacks and running backs for the Colts in an uninspiring collective effort. He could be a key piece in getting this transition on track as the Colts move to get significantly younger, and i’ll be very interested to see if he can, again, pleasantly surprise the fan base.

Johnathan Hankins

Things were clicking on all cylinders at times for the Colts run defense and Hankins was a large piece of the improvements up front. Last season the Colts allowed less than 70 rushing yards three times, kept offenses under 90 rush yards six times and 11 times held them to less than 100.

The problem was too many big plays being given up, but otherwise the move in the right direction was quite evident. Hankins did his job of taking on multiple blockers up front, was able to create some pressure occasionally and was very productive in the process. He amassed more tackles, in fewer games, than he did in 2016 and the Colts largely got what they paid for.

Hankins has played in both base fronts throughout his young career and will be asked more of within the new scheme one would think. He’ll be asked to create more pressure from the interior as well as being stout against the run, and hopefully get his hands into the passing lanes as often as he did in 2017.

The Colts ran a healthy dose of sub packages just as the rest of the league did and adding another man to the line, considering the Colts have some theoretical depth there, could make Hankins one of the more noticeable defensive tackles in the league next season. Hankins will transition just fine, and will remain a pertinent piece of the puzzle for the defense.

John Simon

Remembering back, Simon was one of the few creating pressure early on in the season last year. He fit in very well and was a stable piece of the Colts front seven. He didn’t blow anyone away, but he didn’t make many mistakes and was productive when healthy without question.

We wondered before last season if Simon could be versatile enough to work, both, inside as well as outside in order to have more quality personnel on the field at one time. He didn’t do much of that at all, but now the question comes back.

Can Simon be an effective Sam or Will backer in the Colts new system?

I don’t think he’ll have any issues with that, however, it will require him to improve as a coverage backer and to be especially good against the run. While I question how pivotal he’ll be to the production, with the assumption that the Colts will be adding multiple linebackers this offseason, I do believe he’ll be essential to there being a smooth rotation at the position.

As impressed as I was last season, I feel Simon may be amongst those with the most to prove throughout the changes.

Jabaal Sheard

Sheard was very effective last season for the Colts in many different roles. He was good closing off the edge and was able to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks as well. Where so many others find themselves in unfamiliar territory, Sheard will likely be returning to his role that he held with the Cleveland Browns when he came into the league.

As a 4-3 defensive end, often in a four-point stance, Sheard produced his two best seasons with 110 total tackles and 15.5 sacks (2011-12). He appeared more comfortable getting off at the snap quicker then, than he has as a 3-4 OLB and would be a great help to whoever the Colts bring in this offseason.

If the Colts were to land Bradley Chubb — as so many mocks have predicted — having Sheard in a rotation with Tarell Basham, as the team’s edge rushers, would be a good start to improving the Colts sack numbers. Sheard was also good against the run last season which makes him very much the likely starter on one side or the other next season.

Sheard has the best opportunity to remain a heavy participant in the defense next season for my money. We may even see the best he has to offer with the change.

Al Woods

Woods is another who many didn’t peg as being one of the more impressive free agent signings last year. I’d venture to say nobody thought he’d have been a starter, and to have the breakout season of his career. Racking up 44 total tackles is very productive for a nose tackle, not to mention that his rerouting of running backs was critical but obviously doesn’t show up on the stat sheet.

If Woods can become more of an option to puncture the pocket from the interior in a one-gap system he could find himself in a similar position in the 2018 season. The Colts do have some young talent at their disposal, though, which somewhat questions his role in the new system. Hassan Ridgeway and Henry Anderson as well as Grover Stewart and Joey Mbu — along with any new additions — will all be auditioning for heavy roles next season which could leave Woods in some danger of at least a diminished snap count.

With that said, Woods, if he could maintain last season’s production, would go a long way towards keeping the Colts run defense on the climb and prolong his time in Indianapolis another year.

Barkevious Mingo

Now Mingo wasn’t given a second-year opening in his original contract, but I’m going to add him to the discussion anyhow as opposed to Jon Bostic and Kamar Aiken who are also free agents. The difference is that I just don’t see Bostic or Aiken as viable options for the Colts next season.

Mingo is such a fun one to think about. Probably not fun for him in the same vain, though, as many assume that he won’t fit into the changes that are coming for the Colts. Granted, Mingo has a tough road ahead of him, but he took advantage of his opportunities as a pass rusher and was very good in coverage as well.

Among free agents heading into the 2018 season — which Mingo is — he was second in pass rush productivity according to PFF and used his speed to stunt and to track down the quarterback once they left the pocket. Mingo notched 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles and 44 total tackles last season as a rotational piece, but did get 6 starts due to some injuries and filled in nicely.

I think Mingo fits well as an extra linebacker primarily as a coverage option and could certainly be a special teams asset as well if he was to brought back in 2018. Mingo worked his butt off last year to fit in, and I can only assume that he would do the same if the Colts were as impressed with his work ethic as they let on and allowed him to fight for a roster spot.