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Low-cost defensive ends the Colts could pursue in free agency

Which bargain defensive end should Ballard pursue in free agency?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

We are officially just two weeks away from the start of free agency. Even after trading for Carson Wentz, the Colts have a projected 48 million dollars in cap space (which is still among the top five most in the league). At the forefront of needs for this team in free agency is grabbing an established pass rusher to add consistency to a front that really lacked it— besides DeForest Buckner, that is.

This article in no way is saying the Colts should ignore all the potential high-level pass rushers in this year’s free agency class. However, with such a need at the position and a few roster spots potentially opening up with Al-Quadin Muhammad, Justin Houston, and Denico Autry all being free agents, the Colts could stand to double-dip at the position. With that in mind, here are four low-cost defensive ends the Colts should pursue to potentially pair with whichever big name rusher they also pursue.

1.) Deatrich Wise, DE, Patriots

Wise seems like a perfect fit for what Ballard likes up front on his defensive line. He is a power player who defends the run at a high level and has the versatility to play inside and out. While this past year may not have been his most productive— 3 sacks, 10 QB hits, and 17 hurries— it was a good enough year to earn his highest Pro Football Focus grade to date with a 70.6 season grade.

For the Colts, Wise would take a bit of the role that Denico Autry may be leaving behind this offseason if he departs in free agency. The benefit of adding Wise would be that he is four years younger than Autry and offers a bit more explosion off of the edge. To add even a bit more to this, former Colts’ running back Jonathan Williams— a former teammate or Wise’s at Arkansas— relayed to me that Wise “fits the culture.”

2.) Aldon Smith, DE, Cowboys

Chris Ballard is notorious for mentioning early in his Colts’ tenure that he wouldn’t pursue big name free agents or character risk players until he felt like his locker room had a good enough culture to handle that. Last offseason, Ballard did remark in an interview that he felt this locker room was finally ready. Aldon Smith would be a risk but it is one that this team seems ready to take on.

A former All-Pro with the 49ers, Smith amassed 50 sacks over a three year stretch to start his career. However, multiple issues with substance abuse derailed a potential Hall of Fame career. He did return to the NFL this past year for the Cowboys and have a bit of a resurgence nearly five years after his last snaps he played. He faded a bit down the stretch but a stat line of four sacks, 11 QB hits, and 35 hurries isn’t bad at all considering how long he was out of the league.

The Colts could likely get this talented edge rusher on a low-end deal at this point in his career. He doesn’t offer as much explosion as he did early in his career but with how nuanced and refined his technique is, he would be a welcomed addition to an inconsistent Colts’ pass rush. Also, he would probably be more productive in a reserve role that the Colts would likely use him in.

3.) Tyus Bowser, DE, Ravens

While he is not your true defensive end, Bowser would be an interesting addition to the Colts’ front seven. He has the athleticism and coverage ability to play as a base down SAM linebacker, a position that the Colts likely have to fill with Bobby Okereke expected to move over to the MIKE position this season. Bowser logged a total of 155 coverage snaps this past season with the Ravens, so he wouldn’t be a stranger to that type of role.

The real intrigue with Bowser comes in what he could be as a pass rusher. He is an elite-level athlete who at the very least could be a major threat as an extra blitzer or on stunts and twists (had a 6.75 second three cone!!). Considering that there is a good baseline there as a SAM, that he is an elite athlete, and that the Colts had considerable interest back before the 2017 NFL Draft (they had a private workout with him) and I think this signing just makes so much sense for this team.

4.) Tarell Basham, DE, Jets

Last but not least is one of the first ever Chris Ballard “busts.” Tarell Basham was a fun prospect out of Ohio when the Colts drafted him in the third round of the 2017 Draft. He struggled mightily to switch over to the Colts’ 4-3 scheme and saw less and less playing time over the years. He was eventually cut and claimed by the New York Jets.

He quietly revived his career in New York as he finished this past year with four sacks, seven QB hits, and 21 hurries. While those aren’t incredible numbers, they are much better than where he was when he left the Colts. I doubt this reunion happens— why would Basham want to return?— but he is yet another interesting young player on the market of edge rushers this offseason.

Final Thoughts

The Colts need a lot of help at defensive end this offseason. Justin Houston and Denico Autry were solid last year, but the pass rush completely disappeared far too often. I am not saying that the Colts should sign one of these guys listed above and all of a sudden the pass rush issues are fixed. However, signing one of these players along with a top free agent pass rusher— Romeo Okwara, Bud Dupree, Yannick Ngakoue— and now we are talking.

Chris Ballard has the flexibility to put a really good team around Carson Wentz this offseason. While adding to the wide receiver and left tackle groups are important, fixing up the pass rush would go a long into making this a championship roster. The Colts have the cap space and have to at least try and double dip at this important position of need.