Colts training camp preview: Defensive line

Indianapolis Colts

DeForest Buckner #99 of the Indianapolis Colts at Nissan Stadium on November 12, 2020 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – There was a stern message affixed to Chris Ballard’s actions from the early portion of the April NFL draft.

It was directed at the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive line and driven home with historic context. For just the second time in the common draft era (since 1970), the franchise used its first two picks on defensive linemen.

Round 1: Michigan edge pass rusher Kwity Paye.

Round 2: Vanderbilt edge pass rusher Dayo Odeyingbo.

“Look, I’m not stupid, I know what it told the room: ‘C’mon, let’s go!’’’ Ballard said.

He’s never disguised his roster-building principles. Be strong and deep on the offensive and defensive lines.

“The two areas that are the hardest to find – other than quarterback – is o-line, d-line during the course of the season,’’ Ballard said. “You just can’t go pluck those guys.

“We can’t have enough of ‘em.’’

When the Colts report to training camp next Tuesday at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, their defensive line room will require 15 chairs. All-Pro tackle DeForest Buckner and interior sidekick Grover Stewart should be given prominent seating, but their supporting cast is deep and experienced.

Ten of the 15 d-linemen have appeared in at least 21 career games. Four have started at least 10. Buckner, Stewart, Tyquan Lewis, Al-Quadin Muhammad and Taylor Stallworth were key components in coordinator Matt Eberflus’ rotation last season on a defense that ranked No. 8 in fewest yards allowed and No. 2 against the run. Kemoko Turay joined them after spending the first half of 2020 recovering from a serious ankle injury.

Eberflus and Ballard spent time during the offseason assessing the various personnel moves: drafting Paye and Odeyingbo, re-signing Muhammad, signing veteran free agents Isaac Rochell and Antwaun Woods. Along with those additions were a pair of subtractions. Denico Autry signed with the Tennessee Titans and Justin Houston remains unsigned.

“We’ve never had this depth before,’’ Eberflus said. “The competition is all the way through the depth chart, which is outstanding and we’re just looking for it to play out.

“It’s an exciting thing because if you look at for example, nose tackle. We have Grover Stewart, but we have guys behind (him). Who is going to be the backup behind Grover Stewart and potentially push Grover? You have Stally, you have Woods, you have Chris Williams.

“To me, competition brings out the best in people and breeds excellence. The guys know that there’s no free lunch here. Everything is based on what you do on the field.’’

Ballard’s commitment to defensive line excellence has been evident from his first season as general manager in 2017.

He’s invested more than $90 million in the free-agent market for Houston, Autry, Jabaal Sheard, Al Woods, Margus Hunt and Johnathan Hankins.

In five drafts, Ballard has used six picks in the first three rounds to reinforce the position: Paye (round 1 in 2021), Odeyingbo (round 2 in ’21), Banogu (round 2 in ’19), Turay (round 2 in ’18), Lewis (round 2 in ’18) and Tarell Basham (round 3 in ’17).

And let’s not forget the March 2020 trade with the San Francisco 49ers that inserted Buckner into the heart of Eberflus’ defense. It not only cost Ballard the 13th overall pick in the draft, but was followed with a four-year, $84 million extension.

Last October, Ballard signed Stewart to a three-year, $30.75 million extension that included $20 million in guarantees.

Here’s a look at the position:

Starters: T DeForest Buckner, T Grover Stewart, E Kwity Paye, E Tyquan Lewis.

Backups: E Kemoko Turay, E Al-Quadin Muhammad, E Dayo Odeyingbo, E Isaac Rochell, E Ben Banogu, E Kameron Cline, T Taylor Stallworth, T Antwaun Woods, T Rob Windsor, T Chris Williams, T Andrew Brown.

DeFo on the rise: Eberflus was quick to support Ballard when discussions turned to the possibility of trading for Buckner, and now we know why. The guy’s a stud.

“He’s getting to show just the man that he is,’’ Eberflus said of Buckner. “He is a special person and that’s why he’s here.’’

In his first season as a Colt, Buckner was a start-to-finish force at wreaking havoc from the interior. He led the team with a 9.5 sacks, a franchise record for a tackle, and was just the third Colt defensive tackle to be named first team All-Pro, joining Art Donovan (1954-57) and Gene Lipscomb (1958-59). There were 10 tackles for loss, a team-high 26 quarterback hits, three batted-down passes and two forced fumbles. He added a safety in week 2 against Minnesota.

It’s worth reminding everyone Buckner turned 27 in March and is entering his sixth season. The best should be yet to come. Pro Football Focus ranked Buckner as the league’s fifth-best defensive tackle, trailing the Rams’ Aaron Donald, Kansas City’s Chris Jones, Pittsburgh’s Cam Heyward and Atlanta’s Grady Jarrett.

With the departure of Houston and Autry, Buckner should assume a stronger leadership role.

“Not having Nico and Justin in the room, definitely,’’ he said. “When we didn’t sign them back I was looking and it was me and Grove in the room with the most experience.

“It’s crazy because I’ve been in that position before. In San Francisco, we had a fairly young room. We had some veteran guys come in here and there and play for us, but I kinda took on a leadership role a while back. It’s nothing new for me.’’

Rookies on the radar: Kwity Paye has been inserted as the right-side starter and Dayo Odeyingbo is being projected as the left-side end. Paye’s impact needs to be immediate. Odeyingbo’s might be delayed as he completes his rehab after tearing an Achilles tendon in late January. No one should be surprised if the Vandy standout opens the season on the physically unable to perform list.

Again, Paye must step up sooner, not later. Houston and Autry combined for 15.5 of the defense’s 40 sacks last season.

“We thought he was going to end up being a perfect Colt once we got our hands on him,’’ Ballard said. “That’s what made the decision so easy on draft day. We think he is versatile. The guy’s 268 pounds and he’s got a short, compact build, but he’s got really quick feet and really good get-off. And then he’s just relentless.’’

Turay’s time?: High expectations will follow Kemoko Turay into his fourth season, just as they have since Ballard selected him with the 52nd overall pick in the 2018 draft.

“Expectations don’t change,’’ Turay said. “Every year you’ve got to go hard like it’s your last. Mindset is still the same. Trying to go out there and be that defensive end just trying to get 100% healthy and able to play alongside D-Buck and Grove and Tyquan and the rest of the guys.’’

Staying on the field has been a persistent issue for Turay. After appearing in 14 games as a rookie, he’s been available for just 11 the past two seasons. Turay’s 2020 season was limited to seven games after sustaining a severely dislocated right ankle in the Colts’ week 5 upset of the Kansas City Chiefs. His rehab spilled into the first half of last year.

In fact, Turay never was 100%. He underwent surgery in February to repair the posterior tendon in the right ankle.

When he’s been on the field, Turay’s pass-rush skills have been evident. In 25 games, he’s had 6.5 sacks and 21 quarterback hits.

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