ESPN’s Mel Kiper still bullish on Colts addressing defense in round 1

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The contrarians remain.

With the 15th overall pick in the April 27 NFL draft, a few predict the Indianapolis Colts will go on the offensive. Maybe first-year general manager Chris Ballard opts for Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, tackles Ryan Ramczyk of Wisconsin or Cam Robinson of Alabama, or Western Kentucky guard Forrest Lamp.

ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. understands the rationale, but has been unwavering in his unsolicited advice to Ballard. While he has adjusted his initial first-round projection to reflect the Colts’ free-agent additions, he’s still lobbying for more help for a defense that a year ago was one of the worst in franchise history.

In his latest mock draft, Kiper slots Alabama inside linebacker Reuben Foster to the Colts at No. 15. He previously had them hooking up with Takkarist McKinley, an edge pass rusher out of UCLA.

“Once free agency started, McKinley comes off the list,’’ Kiper said, explaining his switch during a conference call. “I thought McKinley could be like Robert Mathis. That’s who I compare him to.

“But they’ve gone (with) other options and other routes there.’’

Ballard’s ultra-busy offseason has involved adding 10 veteran free agents, including four linebackers. The perceived headliners are former New England Patriot Jabaal Sheard and ex-Houston Texan John Simon.

Both are outside ‘backers and both have flashed pass-rush pop. Sheard has 36 career sacks in six seasons, but never more than 8.5 in a year. Simon’s career-best was 5 in ’15. They combined for 8.5 last season.

That’s why if a premier edge rusher is available when the Colts are on the clock with the 15th pick, it behooves them to run to the podium with the appropriate name on the card: McKinley, Alabama’s Tim Williams, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett, Missouri’s Charles Harris, perhaps Michigan’s Taco Charlton. Temple’s Haason Reddick would offer versatility as an inside option on early downs and an edge threat in passing situations.

Kiper, though, believes Foster represents an ideal complement to Sheard and Simon.

“You have the outside presence you need,’’ he said, “now you get the big-time inside ‘backer if he’s there, and he could be.

“To do the things that they did in free agency, if you do all that it helps your defense, particularly on the outside. If you bring in Foster, you’ve really upgraded your linebackers tremendously.’’

If the Colts opt to address another area in the first round – running back, offensive line, cornerback – Kiper believes the draft is deep enough for them to acquire a viable pass-rush option in later rounds. He’s high on Youngstown State’s Derek Rivers and Houston’s Tyus Bowser.