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Why the Colts’ most pressing need right now is edge rusher

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Colts defense took a massive step forward this season with the addition of All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, and also thanks to the surprise performances of players like Xavier Rhodes, T.J. Carrie, and Julian Blackmon. Led by star defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, the defense ranked 8th in yards allowed, 6th in takeaways, 2nd in rushing yards allowed, and 8th in percentage of opposing drives resulting in a score. However, there was a very important part of a successful defense where the Colts were below-average in 2020: pass rushing.

Just looking at the raw numbers, the Colts’ pass-rushing department seems like more than okay, as Justin Houston set a single-season record in safeties, Autry and him surpassed 7 sacks each, and the presence of Buckner made the Colts a team to fear, but the truth is far from that. Houston and Autry got most of their sacks against mediocre teams, in fact, against teams with a record worse than .500 the duo got on average 1.44 sacks and 1.87 quarterback hits per game, while against teams at or above .500 those numbers fall to 0.78 and 1.11 respectively, a drastic drop off that is most certainly worrying.

Taking an even deeper look at the numbers, Autry and Houston start to look even worse. I always hated sacks as a measure of how effective a pass-rusher is, as they fail to tell the whole story of the play. However, looking at (sacks + hurries + knockdowns) paints a much clearer picture as to how good a pass-rusher really is. Now take a look at all the edge rushers that got more than 7 sacks for the 2020/21 season, and then take a look at the sum mentioned above.

Top pass-rusher stats 20/21 season

Rk Player Tm Pos G GS Hurry QBKD Sacks H + Kdwn + Sk
Rk Player Tm Pos G GS Hurry QBKD Sacks H + Kdwn + Sk
1 T.J. Watt *+ PIT OLB 15 15 19 26 15 61
2 Joey Bosa* LAC DE 12 10 18 19 7.5 45
3 Shaquil Barrett TAM OLB 15 15 24 10 8 42
4 Za'Darius Smith* GNB OLB 16 16 12 14 12.5 39
5 Brian Burns CAR DE 15 14 16 11 9 37
6 Emmanuel Ogbah MIA DE 16 12 14 13 9 36
7 Stephon Tuitt PIT DE 15 15 10 14 11 36
8 Haason Reddick ARI OLB 16 11 16 5 12.5 34
9 Bradley Chubb* DEN DE 14 14 15 11 7.5 34
10 Malik Reed DEN OLB 16 13 15 9 8 33
11 Trey Hendrickson NOR DE 15 15 7 12 13.5 33
12 Maxx Crosby LVR DE 16 16 19 6 7 32
13 Kerry Hyder SFO DE 16 14 15 8 8.5 32
14 Myles Garrett *+ CLE DE 14 14 12 7 12 32
15 Khalil Mack* CHI OLB 16 16 16 4 9 31
16 Montez Sweat WAS DE 16 16 11 11 9 31
17 Romeo Okwara DET DE 16 9 10 10 10 31
18 Leonard Floyd LAR OLB 16 16 10 9 10.5 30
19 Brandon Graham* PHI DE 16 16 11 10 8 29
20 Olivier Vernon CLE DE 14 13 12 7 9 28
21 Bud Dupree PIT OLB 11 11 12 7 8 28
22 Yannick Ngakoue 2TM DE 15 8 12 6 8 26
23 Cameron Jordan* NOR DE 16 16 9 9 7.5 26
24 Justin Houston IND DE 16 16 12 4 8 25
25 Chase Young * WAS DE 15 15 10 6 7.5 24
26 Denico Autry IND DE 14 13 12 2 7.5 22
27 Jason Pierre-Paul* TAM DE 16 16 8 4 9.5 22

As you can see, Houston and Autry are near the bottom in terms of pass-rushing productivity. The argument can also be made that those sack numbers are inflated because of the havoc DeForest Buckner was causing on the inside, and his presence demanding double teams almost on every single play.

Now that we have shown that Houston and Autry cannot be relied upon as the starting edge rushers for the Colts next season, let’s take a look at what options Ballard has to help improve this massive area of need.

First, let’s look at the in-house options Indy has at edge rusher. Kemoko Turay has shown flashes of the potential he has, but he suffered a horrible ankle injury in the 2019 season, and he was not 100% when he returned. Turay also made the most stupid mistake I have ever seen from a Colts’ player, jumping offsides on a 4th down hard count against the Bills in the playoffs, giving them a free 1st down, and gifting them the 4 points that ended up being the difference between moving on or going home.

The Colts also have Al-Quadin Muhammad who is a free-agent this off-season, but his ceiling is as a backup defensive end that can occasionally make a big play here and there. Ben Banogu is an intriguing case, as he was a second-rounder just two years ago, but has still failed to find any sort of consistency, and was actually a healthy scratch throughout most of the 2020 campaign. Perhaps the Colts were just developing him slowly, and he will start to show why Ballard drafted him so high.

Other than those 3 players, there is not much more worth writing about on the current Colts roster.

Free agency will be really interesting this year, as there are plenty of options at edge rusher, and there are a lot of rumors going around that Ballard is ready to spend some serious money this off-season. There are some older blue-chip players that could make an immediate impact, like Von Miller, former Texan J.J. Watt, Matthew Judon, and Bud Dupree, while there are also some under-the-radar players I really like Romeo Okwara or my personal favorite, Carl Lawson.

As for the Draft, I have not taken a deep look into this edge rusher class just yet, so I cannot say right now if there are some decent options available, but many mock drafts have the Colts drafting an edge rusher in the first round with the 21st pick. Some options that I like are Jayson Oweh, Gregory Rousseau, or Azeez Ojulari.

In conclusion, I expect Chris Ballard to make some major changes at the defensive end position this summer and bring some much-needed improvements to the defensive line; improvements that will hopefully take the Colts defense from very good, to one of the League’s best. Give Matt Eberflus a proven edge-rusher that can consistently win one-on-one battles, and the sky is the ceiling for this unit.