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Deep draft might be remedy to what ails Colts’ pass rush

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – In case you haven’t noticed, the NFL, and by extension the draft, is quarterback-centric.

It’s all about finding a quarterback who’s a cut above.

And finding someone whose specialty is chasing the quarterback.

“This league is a passing league,’’ Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “It’s about protecting your quarterback and going to get the other guy’s quarterback.’’

General managers, coaches and scouts again have converged on Lucas Oil Stadium for the NFL Scouting Combine, intent on ferreting out that next great QB and finding a defensive end/outside linebacker capable of turning a game in the blink of an eye.

Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett has been the strong frontrunner to be the first overall pick in the April 27 draft. The 6-4, 272-pounder did nothing to endanger his status, acing his audition at Lucas Oil: a 4.64 time in the 40; a 41-inch vertical jump; a 10-foot, 8-inch broad jump; 33 repetitions in the 225-pound bench press.

The wild card is Cleveland, situated in the No. 1 slot. The quarterback-starved Browns could opt for North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer or Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.

However the top of the draft shakes out, it’s impossible to imagine a scenario that has anyone other than a passer or pass rusher walking across the stage in Philadelphia and being bear-hugged by commissioner Roger Goodell as the first overall pick.

Consider the NFL’s track record when it comes to the draft. Over the past 20 years, a QB has selected No. 1 overall 14 times. The other six are evenly divided between a pass rusher and a left tackle.

The Colts, who hold the 15th overall pick, have their QB. Andrew Luck arrived as the first overall pick in the 2012 draft.

The Colts don’t have the guy, or guys, capable of chasing QBs. They’re likely to address that glaring deficiency when veteran free agency opens March 9, and in the draft.

“It’s a deep group,’’ Ballard said. “There are some explosive players that all have rush talent.’’

Ballard smiled when asked to elaborate on the impact an elite pass rusher can have with a defense.

“It’s about going to get the quarterback,’’ he said. “If you ask that question to 31 other general managers, they’re going to tell you we’re always looking for pass rushers.

“We will always be looking for pass rushers.’’

The Colts’ need at that position can’t be overstated.

Robert Mathis has retired after piling up a team-record 123 sacks in 14 seasons. Erik Walden, who led the Colts last season with a career-high 11 sacks, is on the verge of hitting the open market as a free agent. So is Trent Cole, who never emerged as a steady force after being signed as a free agent in ’15.

Barring the unlikely return of Walden, the Colts’ leading sack producer will be nose tackle David Parry, with 3.

That’s why the draft is so crucial as Ballard must address a defense void of playmakers. Past personnel failures have contributed to the Colts routinely possessing one of the NFL’s least effective pass-rush groups. Remember Jerry Hughes (31st overall pick in 2010), Bjoern Werner (24th in ’13) and Jonathan Newsome (fifth-round in ’14)? And as we mentioned, Cole never fulfilled the short-end expectations.

The latest opportunity arrives in late April. NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock is bullish on areas that figure to be high on the Colts’ radar.

“I think it’s one of the best defensive drafts I’ve seen . . . (including) the defensive edge rusher, whether it’s 4-3 or 3-4,’’ he said.

Along with Garrett, he singled out Stanford’s Solomon Thomas, Alabama’s Tim Williams, Michigan’s Taco Charlton, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, Missouri’s Charles Harris and UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley.

Thomas and defensive ends Tarell Basham of Ohio and Davon Godchaux of LSU confirmed they had formal meetings with the Colts.

“They’re awesome,’’ Thomas said of his meeting with the Colts. “Coach (Chuck) Pagano’s awesome. It was really nice to be in there and talk with the coaches and the linebackers coach.

“I was really happy to be in there. It was awesome to be in their presence.’’

No one should be surprised if the Colts invest yet another first-round pick in a pass rusher. And they need that player to more closely resemble Dwight Freeney (11th overall in 2002) than Hughes or Werner.

Also, no one should be surprised if Ballard invests his first-round pick elsewhere and looks to upgrade the Colts’ pass rush concerns with a second- or third-round talent.

“You can get an edge guy in the second or third round,’’ Mayock said.