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Stampede Blue Q&A: Who will lead the Colts in sacks?

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Washington Redskins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Q: Who do you think will lead the Colts in sacks this year? Do the Colts finish with more total sacks than our opponents?

A: It’s super early but I’ll say Jabaal Sheard. Margus Hunt is a smart choice here in that he’s been far more productive at defensive end than I would have predicted and because I believe he can move inside to defensive tackle and stay on the field more than most others on the team. More snaps means more opportunities so it isn’t a stretch to think that he ends up setting the pace.

The reason I choose Sheard is because he is a more natural pass rusher. He certainly isn’t going to push to lead the league but he is a player who got hotter as the year went on in 2017. As the rest of the defensive line becomes more disruptive and gets off of the snap violently, Sheard will benefit from rushing off of the edge and stunting inside. I expect that his production will start picking up and Hunt will come back to earth a bit.

As for net season total in sacks for versus sacks allowed, I will say that my answer relies upon health. Assuming Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Matt Slauson, Braden Smith, and Joe Heag can all remain healthy throughout the season, there is a reasonable chance. The quicker the team has Anthony Castonzo back at left tackle and Denzelle Good competing at right tackle, the better I like the odds.

It helps that the line will have made it through the toughest part of the season schedule in terms of defensive line talent after the first quarter of the year. I’ll say that the Colts will have more net sacks than they give up in 2018 if the defensive line continues to get off at the snap the way they did against the Redskins.

Q: Do we have an actual WR2 or are we going with a WR2 by committee?

A: Ryan Grant is the WR2. He is our possession receiver who keeps the chains moving and find ways to get open on short routes.

With that said, this offense doesn’t lend itself a great deal to the same kinds of labels as there might be on offensive skill players in other offenses. Who is RB1? Who is RB2? What determines that? Just carries? What about when and how the player is used?

We have the same issue with wide receiver and tight end. Jack Doyle is clearly TE1 because he’s on the field much more than the others. However, Eric Ebron has been the most effective pass-catching TE this season. Does that makes him TE2 or WR2? I still give the label to Grant but answering that question in this offense isn’t particularly easy.

Q: Besides Nelson/Leonard, who will be the best player from our 2018 class?

A: Considering that Cain was lost for the season with an ACL injury, Tyquan Lewis is on the injured reserve, and Reece Fountain is working some things out on the practice squad, it’s a pretty difficult projection. However, I think that Jordan Wilkins could very well earn the “lead back” responsibilities in his sophomore season. Mack and Hines can be the change of pace players while he stays in the game for the vast majority of snaps and creates balance.

I really like his running style, his patience and vision, and I think he can continue to improve if he has more time behind this offensive line, particularly if the line gets healthy.

Q: Can Ballard quiet some of his harsher critics if this yea’rs rookie class plays well?

A: I think any NFL general manager will quiet critics when their rookies play well. However, I think Ballard’s job is broader than just how the rookies play or develop. I think he will be judged primarily on the development of the team overall and an identity that fans can get behind.

Every player who outperforms expectations, no matter how acquired, will help Ballard quiet critics. Here are a list of players who likely are giving Ballard some breathing room and driving some of the confidence for the future:

DE/DT Margus Hunt, LB Darius Leonard, CB Kenny Moore, CB Nate Hairston, TE Eric Ebron, OB Quenton Nelson, RB Jordan Wilkins

There are certainly other players who could be included here but each of these players is here because Ballard brought them here. Each has outperformed any reasonable expectations to this point in their Colts careers. There are 4 draft picks and three free agents in that small list.

Q: What positions do you think the Colts will target in the 2019 draft?

A: It really depends on Ballard’s approach to free agency. The only Colts wide receivers under contract in 2019 are T.Y. Hilton, Deon Cain, Reece Fountain, and James Wright. Chester Rogers will be a restricted free agent. Honestly, the projected free agent wide receiver class isn’t particularly inspiring. I could see him grabbing multiple wide receivers.

I believe Ballard will continue concentrating on the trenches. He will likely look to bring in a player or two to represent the future at each offensive tackle spot. He will also likely look at a pass rushing prospect early on if one is available. Finding another true animal at linebacker would also create a potentially potent situation for the defense. Imagine pairing Darius Leonard with a similar impact player at the position.

At this point in the season, the team needs look far better than what many would anticipate. I would place edge rusher, wide receiver, linebacker, and offensive tackle at the top of the list. Which of these positions, if any, are addressed in free agency? That will likely determine Ballard’s emphasis in the draft.