Carson Wentz, two edge rushers ‘changes everything’ for Colts

Sports

CLEVELAND, OHIO – APRIL 29: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announces Kwity Paye as the 21st selection by the Indianapolis Colts during round one of the 2021 NFL Draft at the Great Lakes Science Center on April 29, 2021 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Jim Irsay is confident – over-the-top confident, truth be known – that three days have changed the face and future of his franchise.

 Feb. 18: a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles delivered Carson Wentz to the Indianapolis Colts as their latest QB1.

April 29: the 21st overall pick of the NFL Draft added Michigan edge rusher Kwity Paye to coordinator Matt Eberflus’ aggressive defense.

April 30: the 22nd pick of round 2 – 54th overall – added yet another QB chaser/disruptor in Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo.

“Very excited about where we are right now,’’ Irsay said during a Saturday Zoom conference call. “I really want to emphasis it’s stunning and in the future prove to be quite epic when you see that we’ve gotten a quarterback and two edge rushers like we have all within the context of this draft.

“When you can get your franchise quarterback and what we feel are two outstanding edge rushers – I mean special guys – it’s very hard to do, particularly when you’re not even drafting in the top-20 of the draft.’’

There still remains the not-so-insignificant task of finding a viable replacement for left tackle Anthony Castonzo, who retired in January. General manager Chris Ballard waited until round 7 – and the 248th overall pick – to address his offensive line, and that was with Penn State tackle/guard Will Fries.

Unless the team looks to a veteran free agent – that’s a real possibility – it appears Sam Tevi gets the first crack at replacing Castonzo.

“We feel that Tevi can do a very solid job there,’’ Irsay said, quickly adding “there are other options that could be coming down the line.’’

The lingering tackle issue, though, couldn’t begin to temper Irsay’s enthusiasm.

The wild-card playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills – 27-24 in Orchard Park, N.Y. – remains fresh. The Colts were a play or two away – perhaps a sack or two, maybe a few offensive conversions – from pulling off the upset.

Four months later, Irsay believes his team has taken major strides, even if it’s primarily because of the additions of Wentz, Paye and Odeyingbo.

“I really believe we’ll look back and say this may have put us in the Super Bowl, this draft as this class matures with the group we already have and we add some finishing touches,’’ he said. “We’re a completely different football team with these rushers and Carson Wentz at quarterback.

“That changes everything.’’

This was the 50th draft that Irsay has been a part of in some form with the Colts, and it apparently will be one of the more memorable. It’s just the second time in the common-era of the draft (since 1967) the franchise has used its first two picks on the defensive line.

“I have never in my 50 years . . . sat there in a 24-hour period, got two edge rushers like this back-to-back,’’ Irsay said. “It’s remarkable as it is landing Carson and those things falling together at the right time.’’

Clearly, Ballard and coach Frank Reich must be correct in their assessment of Wentz. His career arc was ascending before a crash-and-burn 2020. From 2016-19, Wentz had a 97:35 touchdown-to-interception ratio and was 32-24 as a starter. Then came the forgettable ’20: a career- and league-high 15 interceptions, a league-high 50 sacks, being benched in favor of rookie Jalen Hurts over the final four games.

It’s clear Irsay is convinced he’s getting the pre-2020 Wentz.

“I think with Carson we have a chance for someone who can really be special,’’ he said. “He’s got immense talents. We don’t feel like the league has seen what he can totally do because we think it’s special.’’

He envisions the 28-year old Wentz being his quarterback “for now and the future big time . . . big time.’’

If getting the right QB1 is the most critical building block – i.e. Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck – finding legitimate edge rushers is a close second. Let’s not forget the withering impact in the 2000s of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

“Putting pressure on the quarterback is the most critical thing besides us having a (franchise) quarterback,’’ Irsay said. “You saw our Tennessee game in Tennessee. You saw what happened when we have a relentless pass rush.’’

In a week 10 matchup, the Colts overwhelmed the Titans 34-17 and smothered quarterback Ryan Tannehill in the process. There was only one sack, but the pressure was constant.

“We saw the Super Bowl with Kansas City,’’ Irsay added, referring to a Tampa Bay pass rush that hounded Patrick Mahomes from start to finish. “(Quarterbacks) are so good you can’t let them sit back there and throw the football. You have to bring pressure.

“You have to be able to get to the quarterback and you can only blitz so much. You have to be able to beat guys in man-to-man situations at the line of scrimmage and that’s what these two guys can do. These guys are special guys coming in.’’

Special guys have the potential to help take the Colts to special places.

“I don’t think anyone quite realizes what the franchise has done adding these three guys to what we already have,’’ Irsay said. “It has to be proven, but I think everything’s changed and we’ve gone up a notch exactly where we need to be.’’

Adding Paye and Odeyingbo, he reiterated, “really changes the dynamics of things. There’s no question when we took both of them we know what kind of statement we are saying. When you play the Colts, you better be ready because when we’re on defense, we are coming after you.

“The quarterback has to know it’s not a touch football game. That’s so critical and we feel we’ve achieved that.’’

Extensions looming

Irsay is confident he’ll be able to sign All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard and starting right tackle Braden Smith to extensions this summer. Each is in the final year of his rookie contract.

“It’s just a question of finding numbers with each extension that makes sense. I really feel that we should be able to get it done. We understand where the market is and we’re willing to pay what we feel is market value to get these deals done.

“I’m very optimistic that we’re going to be able to get them done. I’m planning on the fact that we’ll be getting them done.’’

Ideally, Irsay would also like to sign running back Nyheim Hines to an extension.

“It just depends on what the numbers are,’’ he said. “But Darius and Braden we’re looking forward to coming to extensions for those guys and that’s part of our plan.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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