The NFL is days away from kicking off the 2019 season and today marks the first time that teams can have serious discussions with pending free agents. Prior to this, the NFL Combine came to an end, giving teams a close look at many of the draft prospects who might help fill needs.
All of the scouting work teams have done throughout the season, for collegiate and professional prospects, will now play out for NFL general managers who will do their best to improve their franchises. They will work with their front offices to manage team budgets, determine the value they place on players, and likely their strategy for how to address each of them.
While fans are left without an inside look into this process, one thing that can help is to examine their team’s biggest positional weaknesses and identify players who could move the needle in the right direction. We will do that today for the Indianapolis Colts, and hope to create a free agency cheat sheet to follow as the spending flurry gets under way.
Wide Receiver Tier 1 (Top offensive need)
It has been sometime since the Colts have had legitimately strong options to bolster the wide receiver position in free agency. The track record for production when they have brought in outside receivers has been dismal.
Tyrell Williams seems like a player who could buck that trend in a pretty big way. He is both big and fast, can stretch the defense and make contested catches, and has been consistently productive throughout his career. When Keenan Allen suffered a season-ending knee injury in 2016, Williams became that number one target and used that platform to put up career best numbers.
His wide receivers coach in 2016? Nick Sirianni. His offensive coordinator as a rookie in 2015? Frank Reich.
While Adam Humphries is only 5’11” and isn’t necessarily a burner, he is something that every NFL franchise needs. He is a reliable slot receiver who has a knack for getting open and is capable of picking up yards after the catch.
The Colts could really use an outside receiver to stretch the field, but Frank Reich’s offense relies heavily on quick-release timing plays and getting open in small spaces. Humphries would excel in this area and could move around in the formation with T.Y. Hilton to keep defenses guessing.
Wide Receiver Tier 2 (Top offensive need)
The upside is that Tate has been a highly productive NFL receiver since at least 2013. He has the experience he needs to know how to get open and is difficult to cover one-on-one. He played at Notre Dame so playing in Indiana would be nothing new for him.
The downside is that he is 30 years old and will be 31 by the time the 2019 season gets underway. He does nothing to help Ballard plan for the long-term. At the absolute most, he would be a 2-3 year rental. More likely, he plays a season and Ballard looks to find a younger alternative.
Perhaps the greatest unsung hero of the Colts monumental turnaround in 2018 was wide receiver Dontrelle Inman. After watching the receiver room catch a nasty case of the drops (does that sound wrong to anyone else?) to start the season, patience was wearing thin. Inman has familiarity working with Frank Reich and Nick Siarinni with the Chargers. He knows where he needs to be and had day-one trust.
It is somewhat surprising that Inman wasn’t added to the roster much earlier in the season. It would be disappointing to see him slip away when he is a solid third or fourth receiver who has earned another chance.
Edge Rushers Tier 1 (Top defensive need)
The New England Patriots and Bill Belichick have a knack for allowing promising players to leave in free agency. To their credit, the decisions have worked out in their favor more often than not. Most players who come out from under the hoodie don’t have the same success as they did in his system. Additionally, those players often result in extra draft picks that magically result in new blood to start the process over again.
Sometimes it is the wrong decision, and Trey Flowers could be another exception to the rule.
While Flowers hasn’t set the NFL world on fire as a sack artist, he has consistently been able to put pressure on the quarterback and arguably could improve if his role was simplified. In New England, Flowers had numerous responsibilities and would drop into coverage throughout the game. In Indianapolis? He could pin his ears back and get after the quarterback.
Preston Smith is similar to Trey Flowers in that both players were asked to play different roles for their former teams. Colts fans remember what happened when Chuck Pagano brought a 3-4 defensive front to Indianapolis and how future Hall of Fame pass rusher Dwight Freeney was miscast as an outside linebacker. Teammate Robert Mathis, on the other hand, took to the change quite nicely.
Perhaps Smith would have a similar experience. He did play with his hand in the dirt quite a bit in Washington but his best skills might shine more if he wasn’t asked to drop back into a short zone. He is already a strong run defender on the edge, think Jabaal Sheard, and could have more success rushing the passer as a full time defensive end.
Edge Rushers Tier 2 (Top defensive need)
It is difficult to project how the Colts might use defensive lineman Za’Darius Smith. On the one hand, at 6’4” and 272 lbs he certainly has the size to play defensive end. On the other, he is big enough and strong enough to work his way inside to 3-technique and disrupt from the interior.
The bad news? He could be a tweener. The good news? He could be the kind of hybrid player Matt Eberflus and Mike Phair covet, with the athletic ability and talent to play at multiple positions. There has been quite a bit of discussion about whether some of his production is smoke and mirrors but there is little doubt that he would provide depth and bolster the pressure component on the Colts’ defensive line.
Interior Defensive Line Tier 2 (Primary defensive need)
Prior to suffering a herniated disc that required surgery in April of 2018, Timmy Jernigan was a solid defensive tackle with the Philadalphia Eagles and Baltimore Ravens. He has the ability to play the run and can get pressure on the quarterback. What makes him a strong prospect is that he wins with strength and has the ability to penetrate the offensive line.
There are reasons to believe that Jernigan would excel in an Eberflus/Phair system where one-gap responsibilities allow him to make the most of his best athletic traits. The kicker? He is only 26 years old and still has a lot of career ahead of him, assuming his herniated disc doesn’t become an ongoing issue.
Chris Ballard has a knack for finding underappreciated defensive talent that is not getting the attention it deserves. He finds a way to locate these players and put them in ideal situations to succeed. Examples in his short time with the Colts include Margus Hunt, Al Woods, Denico Autry, Jihad Ward, and Al-Quadin Muhammed. Perhaps the next name you can add to the list is Darius Philon.
Philon is a disruptive interior defensive lineman who has the strength to hold up against the run and has a knack for getting penetration through the offensive line. There are reasons to believe that he could improve in the simplistic, fast defensive scheme Matt Eberflus and Mike Phair have established in Indianapolis.
Bonus: If the Colts do land Philon and pursue Trey Flowers, they both played together in college at Arkansas.
Safety Tier 1 (Primary defensive need)
Few players in recent Colts NFL Draft history standout as a bigger missed opportunity than Landon Collins. Former GM Ryan Grigson chose to use a first round draft pick on small, speedy receiver prospect, Phillip Dorsett, despite the fact that T.Y. Hilton was already on his roster. At the time, much of the fan base was convinced that Collins would be the choice and would help to shore up defensive issues that had been ongoing for many seasons.
Now is the chance for redemption. Collins will reach free agency and be available to the Colts. He would be a considerable upgrade from Clayton Geathers and Matthias Farley and could create a formidable tandem with Malik Hooker on the back end. He can do enough in pass coverage to stay on the field in passing situations and can be a tone setter against the run.
Will Ballard part with the cash it might take to bring him to Indianapolis? Collins is only 25 years old.
Another 25 year old prospect who will hit free agency is Adrian Amos. While Collins is clearly the top safety target available, Amos isn’t considerably behind him. He has a similar play style but may be superior in coverage. How much of his success was the result of playing alongside Eddie Jackson and in on of the league’s best defenses?
While environment will always play a role in a player’s ability to succeed, adding Amos to the mix at safety in Indianapolis would give Matt Eberflus strength on the back end that few NFL teams can boast.
Safety Tier 2 (Primary defensive need)
Prior to free agency a season ago, Tre Boston would be considered a tier 1 prospect. Now, he finds himself atop the second tier. He still has the ability to impact the game in both phases and has been impressive in coverage throughout his career. He is only 26 years old and sliding him in across from Malik Hooker would mean that opponents have to throw into strength on either side of the field when they test Indianapolis deep.
Boston is certainly familiar with both Nick Sirianni and Frank Reich as they were both with the Chargers early in his career. Would he be open to a reunion?
Chris Ballard has complimented the hard work Clayton Geathers has shown in his return to football after suffering a neck injury that jeopardized his career. Will his proclivity to show up on the injury report and serve only as a limited practice participant leave him on the outside looking in?
If not, Geathers is a strong box safety who can move up into a linebacker role for Anthony Walker Jr. in nickel packages. He still racks up a lot of tackles and has a nose for the football against the run. Can his career trajectory improve as he moves further away from his surgery?
Only time will tell.
Cornerback Tier 1 (Secondary defensive need)
The Indianapolis Colts have the luxury the biggest bank on the open market. They can choose which top tier players are worthy of their consideration and have the money to get that player’s agent to sit down at the table. They also have a general manager who thinks about the long-term and won’t allow short-sighted, impatient thinking deter him from his mission to build a perennial contender.
Ronald Darby is one of the best young cornerbacks to hit free agency in years. At just 25 years old, he could have 4-6 years of his prime remaining for whatever franchise chooses to bring him in. He also has questions surrounding a recovery for a torn ACL. Modern medicine has made it easier for players to recovery from these injuries but will his next team have the patience to give him a year to return to form?
Cornerback Tier 2 (Secondary defensive need)
When you start throwing around conceptual labels like “homegrown players” or “blue collar” you might see the image of Colts cornerback Pierre Desir form in your head. Originally nabbed off of waivers from the Seattle Seahawks to start the 2017 NFL season, Desir has grown into an every game starter as a boundary corner and easily the most talented player in man coverage for the Colts.
Through two seasons he has played a big role in efforts to shut down receivers like DeAndre Hopkins, Amari Cooper and limit A.J. Green and Antonio Brown. Retaining Desir means that the Colts would have their three starters back from 2018 and can choose to add depth or talent somewhere else. Losing him creates a void that must be filled.
While it is fair to note that Nelson doesn’t belong with the top tier options at cornerback, he is coming off of the best season of his career. He played for the Chiefs in 2018 and was drafted in the third round by a front office that included current Colts GM Chris Ballard. He flashed the ability to make big plays last season and could improve in a simplified system, like the one he would find in Indianapolis.
Linebacker Tier 1 (Tertiary defensive need)
While it is difficult to project the contract Jamie Collins will attract on the open market, he would be a potential upgrade as a SAM linebacker in Indianapolis. He has a nose for the football, a habit for creating turnovers, and the ability to quickly diagnose plays. Once he diagnoses the play, if he is not responsible for dropping into a zone, he will quickly get up the field to pressure the quarterback.
The downside is that he is about to turn 30 years old and would be asked to play a role that would keep him on the sideline for much of each game. Perhaps the lower snap count can extend his career? On the other hand, lower snap counts mean smaller paychecks.
Linebacker Tier 2 (Tertiary defensive need)
The Indianapolis Colts have often used an in the box safety/linebacker hybrid in their system in certain packages. The most important are small nickel or dime packages where a player like Clayton Geathers has historically come into the box and lined up as a linebacker while rangier defensive backs are tasked with deep coverage responsibilities.
Bucannon took the NFL world by storm in 2015 but has been driven into the ground and miscast by the Cardinals. He has legitimately been asked to be a linebacker at 6’1” and 216 lbs. This is an absurd request and set him up not only to fail, but to have a shortened career.
Could he resurrect the magic in a scheme that wouldn’t ask him to be Darius Leonard or Anthony Walker Jr.? Perhaps. Oh yeah, he is only 26 years old — will be 27 at the start of the 2019 regular season.