Earlier this month, I pointed out that the 2018 NFL Draft is particularly strong in most of the Colts primary position needs. With nine picks to use next weekend, Chris Ballard has an opportunity to make serious change to his roster for the short and long term. It is impossible to foresee just how the draft will breakdown so we will take a look instead at my short list of possible targets who should be available throughout the draft.
We will start today with off-ball linebackers.
Roquan Smith - Georgia
No position on the Colts needs to make a greater transition in 2018 than linebacker. A return to the 4-3 Tampa-2 base defense means that speed and athleticism will be at a premium, and raw size will take a back seat. At this point, Indianapolis is entirely lacking in raw athleticism at linebacker and no one is particularly well adept to cover the field sideline-to-sideline, or is particularly strong in coverage.
Smith is the top off-ball linebacker in the 2018 draft class because he has all of the speed, range and athleticism you could want at the position. He might be best suited to play on the weak side but has shown the toughness to play in the middle if he is asked to do so.
Tremaine Edmunds - Virginia Tech
Edmunds is only 19 years old and has quickly became one of the most dominant off-ball linebackers in all of college football. He has size and speed to get all over the field and has positional flexibility. If he works hard in a professional strength and conditioning program, he could put on weight and become a true pass-rushing threat off of the edge. He could also stay in the middle of the field and use his length to be disruptive against the run and pass — particularly on short crossing routes.
Rashaan Evans - Alabama
If you built a prototype of the new generation NFL linebacker it would look a lot like Evans. He uses speed and athleticism to cover a ton of ground on the field and is not afraid to convert that speed to power when he delivers a blow. While Roquan Smith is a superior prospect as a run defender, Evans may have the edge as a short-zone menace. Like Smith, Evans would likely be better utilized as a weak side linebacker in the 4-3 as opposed to manning the middle.
Leighton Vander Esch - Boise State
Some college football players are at or near the very top of their progression physically. Others enter the NFL with room to grow. No player in recent memory better exemplifies the latter than J.J. Watt. Make no mistake, Watt was an excellent college football player but what happened after he made his way onto a professional football team made him look like nothing in college. Another player who seems like he could make a similar leap in the pros is Vander Esch. His frame is impressive, he is very quick for a player his size, and he works extremely hard. With the right training and coaching, he could become a truly dominant middle linebacker in the NFL.
Darius Leonard - SC State
Leonard is another prospect who has a nice combination of size and athleticism that projects well for the middle linebacker position in the Colts new defense. He plays with the range to get from sideline-to-sideline, aggressively crashes to the ball carrier when he sees a lane, and does an excellent job of stopping rushers from getting the edge cleanly. He is a smaller-school prospect who might be available in the middle rounds.
Genard Avery - Memphis
Avery is part old-school, brutish middle linebacker and part new-age, athletic prospect who can cover a lot of ground in the middle of the field. He is a tireless worker who loves the game and takes his opportunities seriously. He recently interviewed on the Stampede Blue Colts Cast and left the team walking away impressed. He may be available in the middle rounds and could add talent at middle linebacker.
Dorian O’Daniel - Clemson
O’Daniel is another prospect in the mold of a Rashaan Evans. He can use his speed to close the gap quickly in short zones and to chase down rushers who try to get the edge. He is not physically imposing and will not win one-on-one against bigger blockers who get their hands on him, but if he plays on the weak side and with some space, he could be a very active part of the Colts’ new defense.