INDIANAPOLIS – We’re less than two weeks out from the NFL Draft and, more importantly, five months from Kickoff Weekend.
We mention that to remind everyone no team’s roster is set, certainly not after the first wave of high-priced free agency or the more affordable second phase.
The manner with which Chris Ballard and his personnel staff have approached the first month of what absolutely, positively has to be a transformational offseason – you remember the unsightly and owner-infuriating crash-and-burn finish to 2021, right? – has left us with two thoughts regarding the status of the Indianapolis Colts.
- They’re a better team now than the one that slinked out of TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville Jan. 9.
- There’s still significant work to be done.
Both can be true, and are in our estimation.
The Colts are better because of trades that addressed two of the team’s most pressing needs, and a seismic free-agent signing that took care of another.
Ballard – with serious nudging (is that a strong enough description?) from Jim Irsay – conceded the 2021 Carson Wentz trade was a mistake and sent him to the Washington Commanders March 9 despite having no viable option at a reasonable replacement, let alone an upgrade. A week later, that option presented itself when Atlanta decided to move on from Matt Ryan.
We’re in the camp that Ryan, who turns 37 next month and is on the downside of a prolific career, offers a better alternative than running it back with Wentz (which, by the way, never was an option in the aftermath of the Raiders-Jaguars meltdown) and, well, hoping.
The next significant move was adding an edge pass rush presence to Gus Bradley’s defense. Ballard got his man: Yannick Ngakoue.
On Friday, Ballard added cornerback Stephon Gilmore, the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, five-time Pro Bowler and two-time first-team All-Pro.
Those moves overshadowed another that should prove consequential: signing veteran safety Rodney McLeod.
Edge rusher: Check.
Free-agent losses and another quiet foray into the open market have cut deeply into the top-to-bottom strength of the roster.
Yes, there are All-Pros/Pro Bowlers here, there, everywhere: Gilmore, Ryan, Ngakoue, Darius Leonard, DeForest Buckner, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Jonathan Taylor, Kenny Moore II, Luke Rhodes, Ashton Dulin.
You have to go back to the Peyton Manning era to find such a deep collection of Pro Bowl talent.
But it’s worth noting the roster sits at 64 with the addition of Gilmore and backup offensive tackle Brandon Kemp, which is among the smallest collection in the league heading into the draft. Again, there’s plenty of time to fill out the roster with seven draft picks (more if Ballard sticks with his draft-day dealin’ tendencies), the post-draft surge of undrafted players and a handful of veterans who’ll be added.
The lingering issue is reinforcing several positions with reliable backups. Offensive line, defensive line, wide receiver and tight end come to mind, and starter-quality talent is missing at wideout and tight end.
And then there’s this: nine of the 64 players on the roster have never stepped on the field for a regular-season game. Another 18 have zero starts.
Make of that what you will, but at some point in every NFL season, quality depth matters. Injuries and COVID-19 issues forced the Colts to use 10 different starting offensive line combinations last season.
Here’s a breakdown of the roster:
Starter: Matt Ryan.
Backups: Sam Ehlinger, James Morgan.
Outlook: Ryan is expected to bring leadership to the locker room and accuracy and decisiveness to the passing game. He’s completed 65.5% of his passes and averaged 4,267 yards and 26 TDs per season. He’s also adept at utilizing running backs and tight ends in the offense. Yes, Nyheim Hines’ ears just perked up.
Draft concern: Low. We believe the trade for Ryan essentially takes the Colts out of the quarterback chase in the draft. The team guaranteed the final two years of his contact – roughly $54 million – which allows them to push the long-term QB question into 2023. They’ve reportedly had or will have top-30 visits with Liberty’s Malik Willis and North Carolina’s Sam Howell, and senior NFL reporter Albert Breer posted the Colts put Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder through a workout this week. That might be Ballard covering his bases in case one falls to the bottom of round 1 or still is around at No. 42. But with so many pressing issues, drafting a quarterback and having him sit for two years behind Ryan makes little sense.
Starter: Jonathan Taylor.
Backups: Nyheim Hines, Deon Jackson.
Outlook: Status quo looks very good. Taylor returns after leading the NFL in rushing and total yards from scrimmage, and Hines is a top-level backup. This is a position Ballard probably reinforces with undrafted rookies.
Draft concern: Low. That doesn’t mean we would oppose using a late-round pick on another versatile back. Failing that, Ballard will find a couple of interesting prospects in the post-draft signing flurry.
Starters: Michael Pittman Jr., Parris Campbell
Backups: Ashton Dulin, Dezmon Patmon, Mike Strachan Keke Coutee, DeMichael Harris.
Outlook: The group was hardly a strength last season, and it’s without T.Y. Hilton (still unsigned) and Zach Pascal (signed with Philly). Ballard and Frank Reich continue to talk up the young players – Patmon, Strachan, Dulin – but the fact remains Pittman is the only sure-fire weapon Ryan has at his disposal. Here’s where we remind everyone of the combined ’21 stats of wideouts not named Pittman: 28 receptions, 387 yards, four TDs.
Draft concern: How high is up? Timing is everything, and the April 28-30 draft teems with receiver talent. Ballard has taken a wideout in the early rounds twice – Campbell in round 2 in 2019 (59th overall) and Pittman in round 2 in 2020 (34th) – and it’s hard to imagine him not investing an early pick yet again. He’s made it clear he values other positions more, but it makes no sense investing so much in Ryan as a short-term answer at QB then handcuffing him with a substandard receiving corps.
Starter: Mo Alie-Cox.
Backups: Kylen Granson, Farrod Green, Michael Jacobson, Nikola Kalinic, Eli Wolf.
Outlook: Jack Doyle’s retirement after nine stellar seasons leaves a void not only on the field but also in the locker room. The Colts limited further damage by re-signing Alie-Cox, and they’re expecting 2021 4th-round draft pick Granson to experience a sizeable leap in year 2. But this remains one of the weakest links on the offense. Alie-Cox had 24 catches and 316 yards last season while Granson had 11 catches for 106 yards as a rookie. No other tight end on the roster has an NFL catch.
Draft concern: High. The decision not to address the position in free agency shifts the focus to the draft. Among the reported prospects to visit Indy was UCLA’s Greg Dulcich, Mel Kiper Jr.’s 2nd-ranked tight end.
Starters: LT Matt Pryor, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Danny Pinter, RT Braden Smith.
Backups: Will Fries, Shon Coleman, Jordan Murray, Carter O’Donnell, Brandon Kemp.
Outlook: On one hand, three-fifths of the line returns – Nelson, Kelly and Smith. But on the other, three of last year’s top six are gone – left tackle Eric Fisher and guards Mark Glowinski and Chris Reed. Pinter will be given every opportunity to settle in at right guard while Pryor is penciled in at left tackle. Even if that works, proven depth – always a priority for Ballard – is virtually nonexistent. Coleman appeared in 23 games and started all 16 with Cleveland in 2017 but hasn’t stepped on the field since. Fries, a 2021 7th-round pick, appeared in two games and was on the field for 23 snaps as a rookie.
Draft concern: High. No one should be surprised if Ballard and his personnel staff look for a developmental tackle with one of their early picks. Some draft analysts have the Colts hooking up with Central Michigan’s Bernhard Raimann with the 42nd overall pick. We could be talked into that if Ballard believes he’s a long-term answer at left tackle. If not, we’re sticking with a wideout at No. 42.
Starters: DE (LEO) Yannick Ngakoue, DT DeForest Buckner, DT Grover Stewart, DE Kwity Paye.
Backups: Dayo Odeyingbo, Tyquan Lewis, Kameron Cline, Ben Banogu, R.J. McIntosh, Chris Williams.
Outlook: It’s amazing what the addition of one player can do for a unit. Two years ago, it was Buckner. A trade with the 49ers added the 3-technique catalyst. Now, it’s Ngakoue. The trade with the Raiders injected a legitimate edge pass rush threat. Those type of players lift the effectiveness of everyone else on defense. Again, depth is a concern with the departures of Al-Quadin Muhammad (Chicago), Taylor Stallworth (Kansas City) and Kemoko Turay (San Francisco). Everyone is eager to see what year 2 holds for Odeyingbo and how quickly Lewis is able to get back after tearing his patellar tendon in late October.
Draft concern: Moderate. Ballard’s commitment to keeping the offensive and defensive lines well-stocked is real. Using early picks last year on Paye and Odeyingbo and acquiring Ngakoue in a trade allow him to wait for later rounds to add more talent. But he’ll undoubtedly add more talent.
Starters: WLB Darius Leonard, MLB Bobby Okereke, SLB Zaire Franklin.
Backups: E.J. Speed, Jordan Glasgow, Malik Jefferson, Brandon King.
Outlook: All that’s missing is adding a developmental prospect to the pipeline. Leonard, Okereke and Franklin form one of the NFL’s best units while Speed should represent a reliable backup.
Draft concern: Moderate. Again, the only real concern is addressing the back end of the depth chart. Last year was the first time Ballard didn’t draft at least one linebacker, but that’s because he had been so successful with his previous four drafts: Anthony Walker (2017), Leonard (‘18), Franklin (’18), Matthew Adams (’18), Okereke (’19), Speed (’19) and Glasgow (’20).
Starters: Stephon Gilmore, Kenny Moore II (nickel), Isaiah Rodgers.
Backups: Brandon Facyson, Marvell Tell III, Chris Wilcox, Tony Brown, Anthony Chesley, Alex Myers.
Outlook: One of Ballard’s out-of-character free-agent moments totally changed the complexion of this group. Signing Gilmore to a two-year, $23 million contract this week filled the hole created when starter Rock Ya-Sin was shipped to Las Vegas for Ngakoue. But Gilmore doesn’t just fill the hole, he injects another top-level talent into the defense in general and the secondary in particular. He allows everyone else to settle into more appropriate roles: Rodgers as Gilmore’s likely sidekick on the outside, Moore as the nickel and Facyson as the No. 4 corner. In case you haven’t noticed, the NFL is a pass-happy league. A team can’t have too many reliable corners. It can’t win with too few.
Draft concern: High/moderate. We’re sticking with the 42nd overall pick targeting a wideout, but we’d have no problem with a later-round pick adding a corner. Gilmore is a short-term addition. Ballard always has an eye on the long term.
Starters: Khari Willis, Julian Blackmon.
Backups: Rodney McLeod, Armani Watts, Will Redmond.
Outlook: We list Blackmon as a starter, but McLeod could be Willis’ week 1 compadre. Blackmon saw his second season end with a torn Achilles tendon in week 6 against Houston. While the signing of McLeod adds a proven veteran to the mix – 123 starts in 10 seasons – it also gives Bradley a fallback option if Blackmon’s rehab lingers.
Draft concern: Moderate. A late-round pick could add additional depth, but we believe other areas are more pressing.
Punter: Rigoberto Sanchez.
Kicker: Rodrigo Blankenship.
Backup kicker: Jake Verity.
Longsnapper: Luke Rhodes.
Outlook: This is going to be a very interesting offseason/training camp. Blankenship is the incumbent kicker – sorta – but once will again have to earn his roster spot. It’s not as if he hasn’t had success in two seasons. He set team rookie records in 2020 with 139 points, 32 made field goals and 53 successful PATs and converted 11-of-14 field-goal attempts last season before suffering a hip injury during pregame warm-ups at Baltimore. That injury, as you remember, was costly and contributed to Blankenship pulling a game-winning 47-yard attempt at the end of regulation in the 31-25 overtime loss to the Ravens. He wouldn’t kick again in ’21, yielding to Michael Badgley, who finished 18-of-21 on field-goal attempts.
Badgley hasn’t been re-signed and questions continue to swirl around Blankenship because of leg strength. He’s 44-of-53 (83%) on his career, including the postseason, but is 3-of-8 on kicks of 45 or longer and just 1-of-4 on 50-plus yard attempts.
Draft concern: Low.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.