Assessing the Colts’ 2017 draft needs: Pass rusher

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HOUSTON, TX - NOVEMBER 30: Shonn Greene #23 of the Tennessee Titans is tackled by John Simon #51 of the Houston Texans in the second quarter in a NFL game on November 30, 2014 at NRG Stadium in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – No one should question what’s driving Chris Ballard these days.

It’s the April 27-29 NFL draft.

“We want to be a great drafting team,’’ the Indianapolis Colts’ first-year general manager said. “We want to have a sound structure and foundation in place where we’re producing players every year for the Colts.

“You have to. You have to produce three or four players that are going to help you every single year.’’

The Colts hold seven selections in the seven-round draft, all in the first five rounds. Between now and the draft, we’ll examine some of the team’s more pressing areas of needs.

Today: Outside linebackers.

Projected starters: Jabaal Sheard, John Simon.

Top backups: Akeem Ayers, Lavar Edwards, Curt Maggitt, Barkevious Mingo.

Key stats: We’ll offer two. First, only 11.5 of 33 sacks return from a year ago. The leader of the pack? Nose tackle David Parry with 3, and his status remains uncertain following an alcohol-related arrest in February. Erik Walden, who led the team with a career-best 11, remains a free agent while Robert Mathis, who finished with 5, retired. Second, the Colts’ fortunes in ’16 seemed directly tied to their ability to exert pressure on opposing QBs. They generated 21 in their eight wins and only 12 in the eight losses.

Level of concern: Stratospheric.

What about: Takk McKinley, UCLA; Tim Williams, Alabama; Derek Barnett, Tennessee; Haason Reddick, Temple; Charles Harris, Missouri; T.J. Watt, Wisconsin; Taco Charlton, Michigan.

More about Reddick: A true rags-to-riches story. Serious knee injuries limited him to four total games over his final two high school seasons and forced him to walk on at Temple, the only college that showed an interest. Reddick’s path from afterthought to no-doubt first-round draft pick included an impactful senior season and an attention-grabbing performance in February’s NFL Scouting Combine. As a senior, he ranked third in the nation with 22.5 tackles for loss, including 10.5 sacks. He bounced from end to rush ‘backer with the Owls. At the combine and working out with defensive ends, Reddick’s athleticism was on full display. He ran a 4.52 40, which would have ranked 2nd among linebackers; had 24 reps in the bench press (tied for 3rd), a 36.5 vertical jump (4th), and an 11-foot, 1-inch broad jump (2nd).

Whichever team grabs Reddick in the first round will be adding versatility to its roster. While he possesses the explosiveness to be a serious pass-rush threat, some draft analysts believe the 6-1, 237-pounder’s NFL best fit might be as an inside ‘backer in a 3-4 scheme.

More from Reddick: “Outside linebacker in a 3-4 system is most natural to me. Because of the type of player I am, how fast I can learn the game. I know that if I’m put at inside linebacker I can be the best at that as well.’’

Final word: The NFL is all about making plays that make a difference. Adding free agents Sheard and Simon certainly upgraded the defense, but neither has approached being a top-tier pass rusher. They combined for just 8.5 last season. The need to find that next Dwight Freeney or Robert Mathis is glaring and must be addressed. A reliable pass rush eases the load on the backend in coverage. The draft is deep in pass-rush talent and the Colts might be able to find a viable talent in the second round, but the longer they wait, the less likely they are find a difference-maker.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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