INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – At a time when there’s an ample supply of league-wide misinformation and a glaring lack of agreement on which player(s) Chris Ballard should target with his nine-selection bounty in this month’s NFL Draft, there’s little dispute over which three areas of his roster demand attention.
Defensive line. More specifically, a pass rusher if the football gods see fit.
We consider adding a pass-rush threat or inside presence on the defensive line and top-tier wideout top priorities even after Ballard dipped into the free-agent pool and came away with Justin Houston and Devin Funchess. Each must be considered short-term answers.
However, a few pending personnel issues might have Ballard and his personnel staff looking at two other positions in the April 25-27 draft, even in the first couple of rounds. Remember, the Indianapolis Colts possess four picks in the first three rounds, including three of the top 59 overall.
How about left tackle?
How about tight end?
In the short term, there’s no issue with either position. Anthony Castonzo remains one of the NFL’s more reliable left tackles. Is he top 5? No. But we’d argue he’s top 10, and the 2011 first-round draft pick is coming off two of the best seasons of his eight-year career. At the top of the tight end depth chart, there’s Eric Ebron, a 2018 Pro Bowl selection, and Jack Doyle, a ’17 Pro Bowler who’s coming off an injury-marred season.
The issue: Castonzo, Ebron and Doyle headline a long list of players – significant players – whose contracts expire after this season. Unrestricted free agency lurks for that trio, along with Adam Vinatieri, Rigoberto Sanchez, Jabaal Sheard, Jacoby Brissett, Clayton Geathers, Kenny Moore II and others.
A linchpin of Ballard’s roster-building template is rewarding and retaining his own. In the last two months, he’s taken steps to keep more than a dozen of his own including Vinatieri, Mark Glowinski, Margus Hunt, Pierre Desir and Geathers.
One of the first decisions Ballard made after settling into his general manager’s chair in January 2017 was signing Doyle to a three-year, $19 million extension.
“This is something that we want to be able to do,” Ballard said at last month’s owners meetings in Arizona. “We want to be able to extend our own guys and go get them early, especially guys who are performing and they’re doing everything right.
“Being able to take care of those guys early, and it’s got to make sense for both sides. Those will be after the draft when we start getting into May, June, July and August.”
We would argue the most the most pressing issue facing the Colts is determining how to move forward with Castonzo. The Ebron-Doyle situation is a notch behind. They’re non-draft storylines that most assuredly could impact the upcoming draft.
Is Castonzo the Colts’ long-term answer at left tackle? And by long-term, we’re talking about for the next three or four seasons. He turns 31 in August. Although Castonzo missed five games last year with a hamstring injury, he’s been incredibly durable. He’s missed just 12 of a possible 136 starts, including the postseason.
The Rams’ Andrew Whitworth, 38, announced he’s returning for a 14th season. All four of his Pro Bowl appearances have occurred since he turned 31. Philadelphia’s Jason Peters is 37 and earned four Pro Bowl nods after turning 31. San Francisco’s Joe Staley is 34 and was a Pro Bowler at 33.
Extending Castonzo answers the immediate left-tackle issue. But there’s no assurance that’s on the Colts’ “to do” list, or they will be able to meet his financial demands.
“Look, we like Anthony and I think Anthony knows our feelings. Me and him have talked,” Ballard said. “We have a big group of them that are up next year. The one thing you don’t want to have happen is a certain select few get done and then other certain select few don’t get done.
“You can’t extend every player. You just can’t do it. You’ve got to be able to pick and choose for the long term how you’re building your team.”
And that’s the point, especially with Castonzo.
When it comes to prioritizing by position, it’s quarterback, left tackle, pass rusher. Or quarterback, pass rusher, left tackle.
Castonzo is entering the final year of a four-year, $43.8 million contract. His $10.95 million average ranks 16th among left tackles. It’s realistic to expect an extension to push Castonzo’s average into the $13-14 million neighborhood.
Remember, left tackles get paid on the open market. In 2018, Nate Solder relocated from New England to the New York Giants with a four-year, $62 million contract that included $34.8 million in guarantees. He was 30. Last month, Trent Brown, 26, left the Patriots for Oakland and a four-year, $66 million deal that included $36 million in guarantees.
If Castonzo isn’t in the Colts’ plans beyond 2019, now is the time to bring in his successor. Then the issue becomes whether they are able to find his replacement with the 26th overall pick in the draft. Top tackle prospects include Florida’s Jawaan Taylor, Alabama’s Jonah Williams and Washington State’s Andre Dillard.
The same argument holds at tight end. The top four are signed only through this season: Ebron, Doyle, Mo Alie-Cox and Ross Travis.
Ebron enjoyed a breakout season in ’18, but do you trust him enough to give him extension before seeing his encore? Doyle is the prototypical Colt in Ballard’s eyes, but he’s coming off hip surgery.
No one should be surprised if the Colts come away from the draft with a tight end prospect considering how Frank Reich values the position his offense. How quickly he’s added probably hinges on Ballard’s long-term view of Ebron and/or Doyle.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.
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