A long off-season is upon us and while Chris Ballard and the Colts front office has plenty of time to work on rounding out the 2020 roster, Stampede Blue would like to take a pretty in-depth look at each position group and assign them letter grades.
The purpose of this exercise is to identify where the team stands at each position, based upon who is currently under contract. Re-signing in-house free agents could have a big impact on numerous grades but until that happens, we know what we know.
With that in mind, let’s dive in and discuss ways the team might move forward and share thoughts about what course of action makes the most sense.
Defensive End: C
No position for the Colts is in more of a state of transition than defensive end. Chris Ballard made a really good choice to bring in Justin Houston as a veteran free agent. He had a productive season and was the most consistent pass rush threat on the defensive line.
Second-year defensive end Kemoko Turay showed some flashes of brilliance early in the season only to suffer an injury that cut his opportunity short. Could he continue his trajectory and become a force in 2020? He could, but it takes a lot of semi-blind faith to hope for that as the answer — particularly after a season-ending injury.
Chris Ballard indicated that rookie Ben Banogu was originally drafted to compete for a spot as the starting strong side linebacker but he quickly moved to the edge over the summer. He saw some early action while Jabaal Sheard recovered from an off-season injury and then showed some flashes as a disruptor off of the edge late in the season.
Speaking of Sheard, he is a free agent this year and while he has been an important part of shoring up the run defense, he did not have a particularly inspiring year as a pass rusher. Will Ballard fork over a lucrative contract to keep a run game specialist or choose to look into free agency and continue his youth movement?
Finally, one of the most overlooked members of the defensive line is Al-Quadin Muhammad, despite the fact that he plays an active role in the rotation. He is still only 24 years old and has showed flashes of progress, gathering the first 3 sacks of his career in 2019.
Under Contract: Justin Houston, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu, Gerri Green, Jegs Jegede
Possible Free Agent Options: Jadeveon Clowney, Ezekial Ansah, Jabaal Sheard, Robert Quinn, Shaq Lawson, Arik Armstead
Draft Prospects: Chase Young, Yetur Gross-Matos, A.J. Epenesa, Terrell Lewis, Jon Greenard, Quincy Roche
There are only a few spots on any team where hope and potential are woefully inadequate if the fan base is hoping for success. The Colts are staring at what could be the unenviable position of having mostly hope and potential at each of them.
There are clear question-marks about the long-term future at quarterback, the team’s long-time franchise left tackle is considering retirement, and outside of one proven veteran pass rusher who is likely on the tail end of his prime, there is more hope and potential than anything else at defensive end.
To be clear, there is a lot to like about the potential with this group. In his first two seasons, Kemoko Turay has shown flashes of being dangerous on the edges. He has the speed, length and bend to give tackles fits and has been efficient in limited opportunities at pressuring the passer. If he returns healthy and can pick up where he left off, he could breakout in 2020.
Both Ben Banogu and Al-Quadin Muhammad are relatively young and both have shown some signs of figuring things out as rushers from the edge but it is too early to reach any concrete conclusions on Banogu and pretty close to the end of Muhammad’s window for major progress as a pass rusher. Again, 2020 will be a key year for these players.
Justin Houston is a free agent signing that has worked out very well for Chris Ballard. He is clearly the best pass rusher on the team. His veteran teammate Jabaal Sheard is certainly more skilled in the run game but he too is likely nearing the back end of his prime playing years and he has youngsters looking for a chance sitting behind him.
While I could be beating a drum that will fall on deaf ears, I still believe that Tyquan Lewis’s ability to make it in the NFL is contingent upon his moving back to the outside. He is simply not big or strong enough to hold up on the interior and carrying the extra bulk takes away his primary gifts. If any player on the current roster could fill the base defensive end role that Sheard could vacate in free agency, Lewis may have the best chance.
Potential. Flashes. Position changes. All of these things are questions and any NFL team who wants to see its defense take a step up requires few questions surrounding the ability to rush the passer. Until these questions are gone, defensive end will remain a primary need.