INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – In his two excursions into the NFL’s free-agent market, Chris Ballard answered a pair of questions that so many of us shared.
Do the Indianapolis Colts need high-end help at pass rusher?
Are they interested in reinforcing T.Y. Hilton’s supporting cast?
Yes: Justin Houston.
Yes: Devin Funchess.
But with the NFL Draft looming – April 25-27 – does the arrival of Houston and Funchess take those two areas of need off the board? Do they allow Ballard and his personnel staff to focus their attention, and nine draft picks, including the 26th overall and three of the top 59, elsewhere?
We think not.
Houston represents the first legitimate, singular pass-rush threat since Robert Mathis piled up a franchise-record 19.5 sacks in 2013. He generated 78.5 sacks and 96 tackles for loss during an eight-year career with the Kansas City Chiefs, including 11 sacks in 14 games (including the playoffs) last season.
“Justin’s going to be a really good piece to the puzzle for us,” Ballard said at last month’s owners meetings. “Justin’s got really unique physical skill set. I don’t want to equate it to Julius (Peppers), but when we signed Peppers in Chicago . . . Julius was 30 years old and had 81 sacks. Justin’s 30 years old and has 78 sacks.
“I think the scheme where he can get off the ball and really disrupt and rush the passer is going to be good.”
But Houston arrived in Indy with a two-year, $23 million contract. He’s essentially a short-term fix, albeit one that should offer significant impact.
When Ballard was formulating his free-agent battle plan, he gave Frank Reich a list of receiver prospects. Funchess’ name was included, and immediately caught Reich’s attention.
“I watched Devin’s tape and I’m like, ‘Oh my goodness,”’ Reich said. “I was like, ‘Please, let’s get this guy.’
“That was the guy we really wanted to get.”
Funchess checked off most of the pertinent boxes. He’s 6-4, 225 pounds. He’s 24. He’s averaged 13.9 yards on 161 career receptions, and has 21 touchdown catches, including eight in 2017.
On the downside, Funchess has had issues with drops and consistency. He’s had more than 44 catches and 549 yards just once in four seasons with the Panthers.
“I’m so excited about Devin,” Reich said. “I mean, when I watch his tape, what I see is a big man who is really athletic. I like to talk about having route-running skill: this combination of having good feet, good instincts and good body control, and then what sometimes we refer to as body quickness.
“Devin has all of that. I remember watching his tape coming out of college thinking, ‘This guy is a monster physically, and look at his feet. Watch the way this guy runs routes.’ He’s a big man, so the catch radius is massive.”
More to our point, Funchess relocated to Indy with a one-year, $10 million contract that could max out at $13 million if he hits various incentives. Again, he’s a short-term fix.
And that’s why we believe the addition of Houston and Funchess shouldn’t alter Ballard’s approach to the draft in terms of addressing issues at edge rusher and wideout. He’s ensured those areas have been addressed for 2019, and 2020 when it comes to Houston, but his job involves balancing short-term concerns with long-term views.
A quick look at how the Colts stack up on the defensive line and at wideout heading into the draft:
The cast: Justin Houston, Jabaal Sheard, Denico Autry, Margus Hunt, Kemoko Turay, Tyquan Lewis, Grover Stewart, Hassan Ridgeway, Jihad Ward, Al-Quadin Muhammad.
The concern: This is a solid group, top to bottom. But who’s the long-term answer as the primary edge rusher? Ideally, it’s Turay, but the jury still is out. His rookie season consisted of 4 sacks and 13 quarterback hits in 16 games, including the postseason. The Colts need for Turay to experience a big leap from year 1 to year 2.
Possible draft targets: Dexter Lawrence, Clemson; Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame; Jeffery Simmons, Mississippi State; Clelin Ferrell, Clemson; D’Andre Walker, Georgia; Montez Sweat, Mississippi State; Jaylon Ferguson, Louisiana Tech; Jachai Polite, Florida.
The cast: T.Y. Hilton, Devin Funchess, Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal, Deon Cain, Reece Fountain, Marcus Johnson, Steve Ishmael, Krishawn Hogan, James Wright, Jordan Veasy.
The concern: At some level we’re convinced we’ve put a higher level of concern on this position than the Colts. Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni did a masterful job of maximizing the receiving talent at their disposal last season, and that task was magnified as Hilton dealt with a high ankle sprain down the stretch. Still, we believe Hilton needs a viable sidekick.
Besides, it’s about time to start planning for life after T.Y. He’s under contract through 2020, and there’s a good chance he’ll be extended. But who’s his eventual successor? In 2001, Marvin Harrison was heading into sixth season and then-GM Bill Polian invested a first-round pick in Reggie Wayne. Yes, it was to further strengthen the offense and give Peyton Manning a terrific one-two punch. But it also was to prepare for life after Marvin.
Possible draft targets: A.J. Brown, Mississippi; Marquise Brown, Oklahoma; Parris Campbell, Ohio State; D.K. Metcalf, Mississippi; N’Keal Henry, Arizona State; Hakeem Butler, Iowa State; Miles Boykin, Notre Dame.