Stampede Blue continues its dive into each potential position of need, giving a detailed look at the current state of the position and avenues and targets in which to upgrade. Up next, the defensive end position.
Arguably the most important part of a defense is its ability to rush and affect the quarterback. The Colts deploy a 4-3 defensive scheme under Defensive Coordinator Matt Eberflus, the pass rush is generated primarily from the front four defensive linemen so therefore the defensive ends in the Colts defense are a crucial part. Coming into the season, on paper, the defensive end position looked underwhelming with only Jabaal Sheard being the only real one with extensive playing experience. However, Colts Defensive Line coach Mike Phair worked miracles with the group and helped produce an above average showing. Jabaal Sheard was able to produce another consistent year in which he had 50 tacles, 14 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks. Sheard was joined by a pair of second round rookies, Kemoko Turay from Rutgers and Tyquan Lewis from Ohio State. Kemoko Turay was drafted initially to be play the designated pass rusher role to help his development. Turay showed flashes of pass rushing ability producing 4 sacks, 13 QB hits and was able to get pressure on the quarterback on 21% of his pass rushes which was the highest pressure rate among all edge rushers between week 11 and week 16. Turay has the potential to be the Colts go to speed rusher but will need to continue his development further to be a reliable starter. Tyquan Lewis was drafted to be the Colts versatile defensive lineman to pair with Denico Autry, having the ability to play both defensive end and 3 technique defensive tackle positions. However, Lewis was injured during training camp and ended up on Injured Reserve. Lewis did manage to be activated off injured reserve and played in two games in week 15 and 16. Lewis in his short playing time did show some big potential, he started at defensive end and was able to produce 7 tackles and 2 sacks. Lewis has shown what he can do in his limited action but will need to continue his development to be a main stay starter at the defensive end position. After Tyquan Lewis was sent to injured reserve the Colts claimed Al-Quadin Muhammad off waivers after the New Orleans Saints waived him. Muhammad spent some time on the practice squad before his was activated to the 53-man roster. Muhammad played as part of the rotation at the defensive end position across from Sheard. Muhammad played pretty much how you would expect a waiver claim defensive end playing in a rotation would, he managed to produce 29 tackles, 5 tackles for a loss and 2 quarterback hits during the season. Overall the defensive end position could need a major upgrade, the Colts defense managed 38 sacks on opposing quarterbacks and the defensive ends only managed 11.5 sacks between the four of them. The defensive end position needs a major upgrade.
Pending free agents
The only free agent to be in the defensive end is Geneo Grissom who was signed only last month during the playoffs as depth due to injuries. Grissom is very highly unlikely to be resigned. The rest of the defensive end group is locked up under son contract until at least 2019.
Upgrades via free agency
One way in which the Colts could choose to upgrade the defensive end position is through free agency. The Colts are sitting on approximately $107 million in cap space, after recently resigning Mark Glowinski and Adam Vinatieri, which is more than enough to add to and upgrade the defensive end position.
Trey Flowers is a name most fans of the game will be familiar with, especially ones who just watched the Super Bowl seeing as Flowers just played and won it. Flowers was drafted out of Arkansas in the fourth round of the NFL draft in 2015 by the New England Patriots. His rookie season was disappointing only being active for one game and ending up on injured reserve. However, since his rookie year Flowers has produce at least 6 sacks in every season and this last year managed his highest total of his career with 7.5 sacks. Flowers, 6 feet 2 inches and 265lbs, made the biggest jump in his young career this past year by taking his game to the next level. Flowers produced elite level production in both round defense, 10.5% run stop percentage which was third best for edge defenders, and pass rushing ability, 65 quarterback pressures. Flowers is exactly the type of defensive lineman that Chris Ballard and Matt Eberflus like, he’s a hard working do it all defensive end who brings versatility to the table, being able to take snaps lined up against all 3 offensive line positions (tackle, guard and center) and still producing at a high level. All the production and talent that Flowers brings, add in that he may be one of the only top defensive ends to hit free agency, means he won’t be cheap by any means. Flowers could easily demand and get a contract with an average per year salary of $14 million. That is a hefty price to pay and if we know anything about Chris Ballard is he isn’t known for putting up big money in free agency but if that hefty price tag upgrades a major position of need will Ballard bite?
Preston Smith is another possible free agent that the Colts could acquire to upgrade the defensive end position. Smith was a second round draft pick out of Mississippi State in 2015 by Washington. His rookie year was exactly what Washington had hoped when selecting him in the draft, producing 30 tackles 6 of which were for a loss, 8 sacks, 10 quarterback hits and 4 passes defended. Smith, 6 feet 5 inches and 265lbs, managed to build on his rookie year and now enters free agency having amassed 24.5 sacks, 29 tackles for a loss, 59 quarterback hits and even managed 4 interceptions. All while forming a formidable duo with Ryan Kerrigan on the edges of Washington’s defensive line. Smith would be transitioning from Washington’s 3-4 defense to the Colts 4-3 defense if he were to sign with the Colts, but seeing as he played in a 4-3 defense in college at Mississippi State it wont be too much of a transition. With Jabaal Sheard set to turn 30 before the season and become a free agent at the end of the season Smith would not only upgrade the defensive end position this year he could become a Sheard replacement down the road. Smith is exactly the type of free agent Ballard likes to target, ones who have show talent but could go to the next level wearing a horseshoe on Sundays. Smith will again be one of the top defensive ends to hit the free agent market with Flowers so wont be the cheapest of options to upgrade the position. However, unlike Flowers, Smith will likely come at a cheaper price in the $8-10 million range. Adding a talent like Smith will give the defensive end position a big upgrade.
Shane Ray isn’t exactly the next name many would have thought would be mentioned in this article especially after mentioning Trey Flowers and Preston Smith. Ray was a first round pick by the Denver Broncos in 2015 out of Missouri, he was regarded as a top 10 talent in the draft who slid due to negative buzz late on in the draft season. Ray slid all the way down to the Broncos who selected him 23rd overall, in his rookie year Ray managed 20 tackles 5 which were for a loss, 4 sacks and 7 quarterback hits. His sophomore year is where he saw his best production with 48 tackles 6 of which were for a loss, 8 sacks and 21 quarterback hits. Since his sophomore year in 2016 Ray has been on a slope downhill, unable to produce more than 1 sack let alone stay healthy. Overall so far in his career Ray is a first round bust, however with the last two years of Ray’s career being injury plagued and his last healthy year being his sophomore year there is still promise for a career turn around. Ray, 6 feet 3 inches and 245lbs, fits the bill in what Chris Ballard is looking for in a “speed rusher”, he has a similar build and wins in a similar fashion to Kemoko Turay, who Ballard drafted last year to be the Colts speed pass rusher of the future. Ray is likely to fly under the radar in free agency as most of the attention will likely go on “bigger names”, factor in his drop off in production and injury history the past two years and Ray won’t be in a psition to be demanding a big pay day. Ray at a reasonable price in the $5-7 million a year range would be a a good addition to the defensive end position group.
Upgrades via draft
Another means of upgrading the defensive end position is through the draft. Chris Ballard has preached building the team through the draft and with eight draft picks in the upcoming NFL draft, the first three picks to be within the first 60 draft selections. This gives the Colts ample draft resources to upgrade the defensive end group.
Jachai Polite from Florida is one of the top edge rushers in the upcoming draft. Polite, 6 feet 2 inches and 240lbs, burst onto the scene this year producing 11 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss in his junior year. He wins in a variety of ways including speed-bend rushing and good technique add in his ability to hold up well against the run and the Colts would have a very good talent on their hands if Polite manages to make it to 26th overall in the first round.
Brian Burns from Florida State is another one of the top edge rushers in the upcoming draft. Burns, 6 feet 5 inches and 235lbs, has consistently produced at a high level and against high level competition in the power five. He amassed 23 sacks and 38.5 tackles for a loss in his three year collegiate career and during that period was able to refine his skills. Burns is a very refined pass rusher who is able to consistently win through bend, hand technique and counter moves. Again the Colts would be looking to draft Burns in the first round if he were available.
Charles Omenihu from Texas is another possible edge rusher the Colts could draft to upgrade the defensive end in the draft. Omenihu, 6 feet 6 inches and 275lbs, was able to produce and stand out in a division where defense isn’t dominate, managing 9.5 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss whilst playing along the Texas defensive line. He was able to show off a great burst off the line, pass rush counter moves and valuable versatility lining up at defensive end and also kicking inside at 3 technique defensive tackle. The Colts won’t have to worry about having to spend a first round pick on Omenihu as he will likely go in the 2nd-3rd round range.