Here’s what the ‘ideal draft’ for the Indianapolis Colts looks like

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Colts GM Chris Ballard

by Joe Hopkins

The first two months of General Manager Chris Ballard’s campaign have been promising. He avoided overpaying players in free agency but reeled in defenders Johnathan Hankins, Jabaal Sheard and John Simon with team-friendly contracts.

At this point in time, Indy’s commander-in-chief should be putting final grades on draft prospects and deciding where to position them on his draft board. Though Ballard has stated he’ll take the best player available in each round, it’s hard to imagine the GM not gravitating toward his roster’s weak spots.

Not since 2013 have the Colts fielded a top ten scoring defense. The departures of aging starters Robert Mathis, Mike Adams, D’Qwell Jackson, Erik Walden and Trent Cole further amplify the need for defensive talent. A glance over the horizon reveals star cornerback, Vontae Davis, is in need of a new contract after 2017, at the age of 30. Long story short, there’s not a position on this defense that couldn’t use an upgrade.

The offensive outlook is a bit more positive. Despite an o-line that surrendered the fifth-most sacks (44), Andrew Luck managed to lead the league’s eighth-highest scoring offense (25.7 PPG). If this is to continue, Luck has to take fewer hits.

Though four draft picks were spent on offensive linemen last April, more help would be welcomed. Improved blocking would additionally provide aid to a subpar running game. Only nine teams managed a lower yards-per-carry average than Chuck Pagano’s unit (4.0). The only skill position that needs addressed is running back, as Frank Gore, the league’s oldest starting rusher, will turn 34 in May.

This year’s crop of incoming rookies is considered to be historically deep at defensive back, edge rusher, running back and tight end, putting the Colts in position to substantially upgrade multiple positions. Three selections in the fourth round provide Ballard some ammunition should he wish to trade up at any point. For the purpose of this exercise, let’s assume Indianapolis holds tight on their draft picks. If everything works out perfectly, these are the players Indianapolis will come away with from the 2017 NFL Draft.

Projected pick: No. 11 to New Orleans/TAMPA, FL – JANUARY 09: Linebacker Reuben Foster #10 of the Alabama Crimson Tide attempts to tackle running back Wayne Gallman #9 of the Clemson Tigers during the second half of the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium on January 9, 2017 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Round 1 – 15th Overall: Reuben Foster – LB – Alabama

NFL Comparison- Patrick Willis 

On the field Foster is a top five talent. Prior to the combine, his blazing speed, dizzying agility and bone-crushing hits had his name in the conversation for the second overall pick. It was during the Butkus Award winner’s wait for his medical test in Indianapolis that he engaged in a heated argument with a hospital worker. This led to his dismissal from the all-important workout. The incident has triggered concern regarding Foster’s maturity and character. Additionally, despite not missing a game over the past two seasons, some are questioning his durability. Post-season rotator cuff surgery, a concussion and multiple stingers haunt the 23-year-old’s history. The Colts hope to be the beneficiaries of all this white noise. If Foster makes it to the 15th pick, Indianapolis should sprint to the podium to select the best linebacker prospect since Luke Kuechly.

ARLINGTON, TX – JANUARY 02: T.J. Watt #42 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrates after a play during the 81st Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic between Western Michigan and Wisconsin at AT&T Stadium on January 2, 2017 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)

Round 2 – 46th Overall: T.J. Watt – EDGE – Wisconsin

NFL Comparison- Connor Barwin

It’s time to fight Watt with Watt. T.J. is just scratching the surface of his potential and has as high of a ceiling as any edge rusher in this class not named Myles Garrett. While the youngest Watt brother should be in play for the Colts at pick fifteen, there are some concerns that could drop him into the second round. The 22-year-old came to Wisconsin as a tight end and didn’t make the switch to linebacker until the summer of 2015. After playing in a reserve role that year, Watt exploded in 2016 with 15.5 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks, earning All-Big-Ten honors. Though his lone season as a starter was impressive, teams may favor some of the more refined pass rushers in this strong class. The former Badger also enters the league with a pair of knee injuries under his belt, the first of which cost him all of 2014. While he does carry some question marks, Watt’s 2016 season and stellar combine performance prove he’s worth the investment.

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN – NOVEMBER 28: Devine Redding #34 and Dan Feeney #67 of the Indiana Hoosiers celebrate a touchdown against the Purdue Boilermakers at Ross-Ade Stadium on November 28, 2015 in West Lafayette, Indiana. Indiana defeated Purdue 54-36. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)

Round 3 – 80th Overall: Dan Feeney – OG – Indiana

NFL Comparison- Clint Boling  

Staying in the Hoosier State, Feeney won’t have to go far to find his new home. The four-year starter earned first-team All-American honors his senior season after playing right guard and right tackle for Indiana. The hard-nosed lineman’s light feet and long frame allow him to excel in pass protection and get out in front on screen passes. Though Feeney projects to be a quality starter early in his career, there are some aspects of his game that are concerning. He packs a strong punch up top, but his lower body strength leaves something to be desired. This hurts his ability to consistently bulldoze opponents out of their spot. Feeney also needs to improve his pad level in the pros, as his stance can be too upright at times, leading to poor balance. A foot injury caused him to miss all of 2013, and a concussion cost him four games this past season. All things considered, Feeney would instantly upgrade the right side of Indy’s line and give Andrew Luck some added time in the pocket.

DENVER, CO – SEPTEMBER 2: Wide receiver Michael Gallup #4 of the Colorado State Rams goes up for a pass under coverage by defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon #23 of the Colorado Buffaloes in the first half of a game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on September 2, 2016 in Denver, Colorado. The pass was incomplete. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

Round 4 – 121st Overall: Ahkello Witherspoon – CB – Colorado  

NFL Comparison- Sean Smith

Most years it would be nearly impossible to find a 6’3” corner who runs 4.45 40’s lingering in the fourth round. Indianapolis capitalizes on this draft’s profound talent pool by providing Rashaan Melvin some competition for the team’s second cornerback spot. Beyond his length and straight-line speed, Witherspoon displays fluid hips and quick feet that aren’t commonly found in larger corners. The senior’s 23 passes defended illustrate his tremendous ball skills, and tied teammate, Tedric Thompson, for the most in the nation this past season. While Witherspoon possesses exciting qualities, his game does come with some hang-ups. The multi-sport athlete didn’t give football a try until his senior year of high school, and his technique is noticeably unrefined. Functional strength is also an area that needs improvement if he is going to avoid being bullied by the NFL’s more physical receivers. The biggest turn-off for teams is his passivity against the run, as his disappearing act would impress even the most critical magician. If he’s willing to put the work in, Witherspoon has All-Pro potential.

TAMPA, FL – OCTOBER 08: Running back Marlon Mack #5 of the South Florida Bulls gains yards against the East Carolina Pirates at Raymond James Stadium on October 8, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Jason Behnken/Getty Images)

Round 4 – 137th Overall: Marlon Mack – RB – South Florida  

NFL Comparison- Lamar Miller 

The depth of this draft allows the Colts to wait until the fourth round to select Frank Gore’s heir apparent. Mack started all three years at South Florida and declared for the draft as USF’s all-time rushing leader (3,609 yards). The three-time All-AAC selection’s frame and athleticism compare to probable first round pick, Dalvin Cook’s. Mack possesses plus vision and balance and is equipped with plenty of wiggle and burst. He can stop and start on a dime and get to full speed in an instant. Though he isn’t likely to run many defenders over, the former Bull has enough power to be effective between the tackles. Mack’s soft hands and polished route running make give him instant value in the passing game and suggest he has the tools to become a three-down back. His level of competition in the American Athletic Conference depreciates his stock a bit, as some wonder if he can perform against top level talent. Teams may also prefer some of the more powerful runners this draft offers. Mack is a mid-round sleeper with a high ceiling.

IOWA CITY, IA – NOVEMBER 21: Tight end George Kittle #46 celebrates with wide receiver Matt VandeBerg #89 of the Iowa Hawkeyes after a touchdown in the second half against the Purdue Boilermakers on November 21, 2015 at Kinnick Stadium, in Iowa City, Iowa. (Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images)

Round 4 – 144th Overall: George Kittle – TE – Iowa  

NFL Comparison- Charles Clay    

Jack Doyle emerged as the primary tight end for the Colts this past season and in doing so made Dwayne Allen and his lofty contract expendable. Allen was shipped to New England for a fourth-round pick, leaving Indianapolis a bit thin at the position. While Erik Swoope showed some flashes of big play ability late last year, the former basketball player doesn’t offer much in the way of blocking and has one season remaining on his contract. In a loaded tight end class, Kittle seems to have gotten lost in the mix. The 23-year-old blocks like an offensive lineman and has sticky hands when the ball is thrown his way. He opened some eyes in March when he posted a 4.52 40 yard dash and 132” broad jump at the combine. That athleticism was seldom used at Iowa, and the former Hawkeye is raw in his route running because of it. Kittle provides instant value in Indy’s two tight end sets and could challenge Doyle for the starting spot in the near future.

Round 5 – 158th Overall: Will Holden – OT – Vanderbilt

NFL Comparison- Sebastian Vollmer  

Ideally, the four offensive linemen selected in last year’s draft will develop into quality starters for Indianapolis. For Andrew Luck’s sake, let’s hope the Colts don’t bet the house on that happening. Holden has started the last 37 game for the Commodores and is a four-time SEC Honor Roll student. He is the son of a Navy veteran and the work ethic he learned from his father is apparent on the field. This 6’7” behemoth’s overpowering strength and refined technique make him one of the more pro-ready linemen in this class. His availability this late in the draft is due to physical limitations. Holden’s short arms and lack of lateral quickness present a liability against speed rushers. This indicates a move to right tackle or guard is necessary at the pro level. Additionally, the 23-year-old will celebrate another birthday before the season starts, and his advanced age is a red flag among certain organizations. From day one Holden will compete with youngsters Le’Raven Clark, Joe Haeg and Denzelle Good for the starting right tackle and guard positions.