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The Colts 2017 free agent shopping list

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This opinion article is written by Joe Hopkins, a freelance writer and production assistant with FOX59

The drive from Indianapolis, Indiana to Minneapolis, Minnesota is approximately 593 miles. However, the Colts’ road to Super Bowl LII is far longer and contains drastically more expensive tolls. To reach their ultimate goal, Indy needs, well, a lot. Chuck Pagano’s team can pass the ball and that’s about it, as they ranked fifth in that category this past season. While a 4.0 yards per carry average is their highest since 2013, it ranked just 20th last season, and Frank Gore’s next game will be played at age 34. The successor to the NFL’s oldest starting running back is more likely to be found in the draft than this year’s free agent group.

Where new General Manager, Chris Ballard, needs to invest most of his assets is on the defensive side of the ball. Indy’s 22nd ranked scoring defense (24.5 PPG) has already cut starter D’Qwell Jackson and watched future Hall of Famer, Robert Mathis, retire. Veterans Mike Adams, Darius Butler, Erik Walden and Trent Cole are all in need of new contracts. By the time the season starts, those four will be 33 years old on average, leading one to believe Ballard will let them walk in lieu of younger, more promising options.

There is reason for optimism in Indy, as Ballard has a relatively young roster and the seventh highest salary cap space in the league ($54.6 M). Retaining breakout tight end, Jack Doyle, should be a priority, as Pro Football Focus deemed the Cathedral product the sixteenth best receiving tight end in 2016. Beyond that, the Colts should aim to make savvy additions to their offensive line and defense that won’t break the bank. Let’s hope over paying for mediocre players isn’t a trait Ballard shares with former GM, Ryan Grigson. The list below consists of the top players Indianapolis should target in free agency based on past performance, upside, scheme fit, market price and age.

Kevin Zeitler – Guard – Cincinnati Bengals

Zeitler tops my list because of his consistent, well balanced game. The soon-to-be 27 year-old already has 71 career starts under his very large belt, and performed as a top ten guard throughout. The Colts can’t afford to let Andrew Luck get sacked 40 plus time again this year. Zeitler has given up just one sack over the past two seasons and is equally as effective when run blocking. If Costanzo, Mewhort, Kelly and Zeitler make up four of Indy’s 5 starting lineman, all of a sudden Luck’s line looks rock solid. The Wisconsin product will likely demand roughly $7 million a year for his services, a price well within Ballard’s budget.

Calais Campbell – Defensive End – Arizona Cardinals

The Cardinals star was almost left off this list because of his age. Campbell will turn 31 before the season begins, but few defenders have the same level of impact along the defensive line. According to Pro Football Focus, this monster of a man is coming off his best season yet, recording 56 QB pressures and 34 defensive stops. He’s not going to come cheap, but the value he provides for a defense desperate for playmakers is immeasurable. As a defensive end in Pagano’s 3-4 scheme, Campbell will make everyone around him better and is one of the few free agents worth splurging on this year.

T.J. Lang – Guard – Green Bay Packers

If Indianapolis fails to land the aforementioned Zeitler, they wouldn’t exactly be settling by signing Lang. The only knock against the eight year vet is that he’ll celebrate his 30th birthday in September. However, some teams might prefer the long time Packer due to his elite pass blocking skills. Lang didn’t surrender a single hit on Aaron Rodgers last season, despite the QB holding the ball longer than anyone else in the league. While his run blocking isn’t on the same level as his pass protection, the Western Michigan product is still better than most when it comes to carving out running lanes. This Pro Bowler has shown no signs of slowing down and will come with a price tag similar to Zeitler’s.

Stephon Gilmore – Cornerback – Buffalo Bills

If a team like the Bears are willing to give Gilmore the top five cornerback money he is looking for, you can forget I ever mentioned him. However, if his down year last season lowers his market price, Ballard should hand him a pen and a contract. The former top ten pick’s strengths didn’t match the off coverage scheme installed in Buffalo, but this press corner would fit what Indianapolis wants to do like your favorite pair of jeans. At just 27 years of age, Gilmore would be in his prime for the majority of a five year contract. Vontae Davis is in the last year of his deal and will be 30 before the 2018 season begins. If Indy can sign Gilmore for closer to $10 mil a year than $15 mil, the Pro Bowl cornerback will be well worth the investment.

Brandon Williams – Nose Tackle – Baltimore Ravens

2007 was the last time the Colts fielded a run defense that ranked in the top half of the league. Since then Indy has given up almost 4.5 yards per carry. If Pagano is going to lead another playoff run his defense has to improve in that area. Before 2016, Williams’s run stuffing abilities were on par with fellow nose tackle, Damon Harrison, who has proved to be more than worth the five year $46 million dollar contract the Giants coughed up. Even in a down season, the four year vet performed above average against the run and was given a solid overall grade of 75.9 by Pro Football Focus. The poor-timed dip in play could work out in Indy’s favor if they can get the 28 year-old back on track. While he won’t provide much in the pass rush department, Williams could bring a Harrison like impact at a discounted price.

Jonathan Hankins – Nose Tackle – New York Giants

Similar to the situation with Zeitler and Lang, if Ballard can’t secure Williams, Hankins is a fantastic contingency plan. The Ohio State product turns 25 later this month and has proven the ability to be dominant. Like Williams, Hankins is a run stuffing specialist coming off an ill-timed down year. He broke out in 2015 for 51 tackles and 7 sacks but didn’t adjust well to the new role thrown at him once Damon Harrison joined the team. While the 320 pounder’s lack of experience in a 3-4 scheme presents a bit of a risk, his skill set should transition nicely to what Pagano asks for. Hankins possesses tremendous upside and will come at a more cap friendly price than the Baltimore nose tackle.

John Simon – EDGE – Houston Texans

No good shopping trip is complete without a stop by the bargain bin. Simon has started 13 games the past 2 seasons for Houston and has notched 8.5 sacks during that time frame. The 26 year-old has always been stout against the run but improved as a pass rusher in 2016. Last season he pressured the QB on 13% of his pass rushing snaps according to Pro Football Focus, who gave him a 78.3 overall grade for the year. Looking for an expanded role, Indianapolis makes a lot of sense for this former Buckeye, as the Colts are in need of an entirely new linebacking corp. While signing Simon isn’t a sexy move, it’s the kind of cost effective roster building that leads to long term success.