The Indianapolis Colts are basically in “run it back” territory with this offseason, as they appear to be entering the 2021 NFL season with few differences on the roster from the year before. The three major changes from a year ago, though, are the switch at quarterback from Philip Rivers to Carson Wentz, the switch at left tackle from Anthony Castonzo to (likely) a highly drafted rookie, and the departure of Denico Autry.
That last loss seems to be the most interesting as it is the one without a direct replacement. Autry played a pivotal role on the Colts’ defense over the past few years, as he started games at both three technique defensive tackle and strong side defensive end. That versatility was vital to what the Colts like to do on defense and it will be hard to replace his impact. With that being said, here are some in-house and draft candidates that could replace the versatile void left on the defensive line.
The most likely player to fill this role would be former second round pick Tyquan Lewis. Lewis appeared to be entering bust status prior to this past season, as he only appeared in 562 snaps throughout his first two years and produced just three sacks and 10 defensive stops (per PFF). That changed last year though as he had a bit of a breakout in year three, appearing in 433 snaps and surpassing his career totals in sacks (5) and defensive stops (18).
While this past year was a great step forward for Lewis, there are still some issues to iron out in his game. He is a strong run defender playing at defensive end, and a good pass rusher from the interior. The issues arise when he is asked to rush the passer from the edge or defend the run from the interior. These issues are obviously still fixable and his strong play from a year ago does point to his ability to improve his game. Even if he doesn’t fill or replicate the Denico Autry role, he is a nice piece to have in a defensive line rotation.
Tyquan Lewis speed on the interior. Let's give him some more snaps. He's got the juice. pic.twitter.com/OKlzIs05UO— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) September 23, 2020
The only other in-house option that intrigues me is 2020 UDFA Kameron Cline. Cline spent a majority of last season on the Practice Squad for the Colts, meaning that they must have liked him enough to keep him around all year. Cline is a 6’4” 283 pound defensive tackle who is a phenomenal athlete for his size. While he didn’t have his Pro Day last year due to Covid, I was sent numbers that he was consistently hitting in training on laser times. I actually took the lowest possible numbers of the scores given me and he still measured as an elite athlete.
The Colts kept UDFA Kam Cline on their practice squad all season last year, which means they clearly like him. He didn't have a Pro Day due to Covid but I was sent some training numbers that he consistently put up. I used the lowest scores from his training for these RAS scores pic.twitter.com/kwRkJH2qYC— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) April 5, 2021
It may be a long shot for him to make this roster in 2021 but his athletic profile and the fact that the Colts kept him around all offseason does intrigue me a little bit. If they managed to refine his technique and add some strength to his frame, I think the Colts could have found a gem in the UDFA period of last year’s draft.
I am sincerely intrigued by Kameron Cline and his abilities. UDFA out of South Dakota last year. Didn't have a combine last year because of Covid but was putting up elite numbers in training for a 6'4" 285 pound DT. Not saying he's a roster lock but the Colts do like him a lot. pic.twitter.com/IM0wFDszm5— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) March 21, 2021
Options in the Draft
Payton Turner, DT, Houston
Getting to the fun part of this article, there are plenty of versatile defensive ends/defensive tackles in this draft class. The most perfect fit for this role and a player that Chris Ballard should love is Houston DE Payton Turner. Turner is a Senior Bowl defensive lineman who stands at 6’5” 270 pounds with 35 inch arms. He is a freaky athlete who can rush from any position along the defensive line. He possesses outstanding explosion, hands, bend (for his size), and energy that the Colts could use on their defensive line. He should go somewhere on day two in this draft, and would be a perfect player for the Colts to target if they are able to acquire more day two picks in a trade back.
My first draft crush of the season, Houston DL Payton Turner (#98). High effort player who can play any position across the defensive line. Flashes really good hands even though he could still use refinement as a pass rusher. Excited to see him in Mobile. pic.twitter.com/h2AIy9240A— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) December 11, 2020
Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan
Going a bit on the higher end now, Kwity Paye would be the perfect fit for the Colts in round one to replace this role and add a high level pass rusher to the team. Paye is a 6’2” 261 pound defensive end who measured as an elite athlete this offseason, as he had a 40 yard dash of 4.52, vertical jump of 35.5 inches, and benched 225 pounds 36 times. He is a bit of a project— mainly due to Michigan misusing him— but the traits are as elite as they come. He is one of the more explosive and bendy pass rushers in this class and when he is allowed to attack downhill, he looks deadly from the edge or the interior. If Paye falls to the Colts at 21 somehow, he would be the perfect player to replace Denico Autry and his role on the defense.
I know Kwity Paye is a bit of a project but he just has so much juice for a player of his size. Whenever he was allowed to pin his ears back and use his explosiveness and bend, it was so good to watch. I think he's going to be a star in the NFL pic.twitter.com/II1o8aBCSY— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) April 4, 2021
Carlos “Boogie” Basham, DE, Wake Forest
Getting back to Senior Bowl players, Boogie Basham is a player who also fits the Chris Ballard mold. He is a 6’3” 274 pound defensive end who tested as an elite athlete this offseason, as ran had a 40 yard dash of 4.64, a broad jump of 122 inches, and 3-cone time of 7.13. Basham is a player that I am personally a bit lower on but he does fit what this defense likes to do. On film, he excels as a run defender off the edge as he has good power and closing speed on the outside. As a pass rusher, he has shown the ability to collapse the pocket from the end position as well as beat slower guards on the interior. Projections seem to be all over the place for Basham, as some places have him as a first round player and others have him as a day three player. I personally think he checks so many boxes for the Colts that he is an underrated option for the team at pick 21 (or in the late first if they trade back).
Carlos ‘Boogie’ Basham didn’t play inside a ton at Wake but there are some 3rd down/sub reps in his career to look at— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) March 6, 2021
I’m glad he got more 3-tech experience down at @seniorbowl - I honestly feel he can win up-and-down the DL
Size. Strength. Sudden. Relentless. pic.twitter.com/0JcNGMr8X8
Jonathan Marshall, DT, Arkansas
The final player on this list is a bit of an underrated prospect in this class. Jonathan Marshall tested an all time elite athlete for a defensive tackle this offseason. He is a 6’3” 310 pound defensive tackle who had a 40 yard dash of 4.9, vertical jump of 32 inches, broad jump of 114 inches, and benched 225 pounds 36 times. All of those numbers around or above the 90th percentile for defensive tackles since 1987. He is a bit tough to call a “Denico Autry-role” player because he is more of a pure defensive tackle, but I think he can get down to 290 and play on the edge a little bit in base down situations. I personally love his fit in this defense as a gap shooting three-technique behind DeForest Buckner, though. He should be an option for a team like the Colts on day three of this upcoming draft.
Arkansas DT Jonathan Marshall put up absurd numbers at his Pro Day (6'3"/310 lbs/4.88s/ 32" vert/36 bench reps).— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) April 1, 2021
Arkansas had him play 0-T a bit too much but I love his potential as a one gap 1-T. Needs a lot of development but he has them traits pic.twitter.com/aWhaDAu5Ct
I, personally, think that the loss of Denico Autry is a bit bigger than most realize. He wasn’t a perfect player by any means last year, and the Colts did need to add younger player with more juice but the versatility and power he brought to the Colts’ defensive front can’t be understated.
He was an incredibly productive player over the past three seasons and that production will be tough to replace. Luckily, the Colts do have Tyquan Lewis on the roster and this draft seems to have some athletic players who could fill the role well on this defense. The Colts’ defensive line should be okay overall and I think there are plenty of potential options for the Colts to explore in replacing this position.