The good news about what the Indianapolis Colts have done so far in free agency is general manager Ryan Grigson can concentrate now on building a defense.
The bad news is that’s not going to be easy. And he’s got some holes to fill.
Yeah, it’s been fun to watch the Colts address needs. The Colts should be an offensive juggernaut in 2015. But as the past three playoffs remind, offense isn’t enough. The Colts lost by double digits at New England each of the past two Januarys and by double digits at Baltimore the year before that.
As fate would have it, they lost to the eventual Super Bowl champions in two of those years. A 45-7 loss at New England in January’s AFC title game is enough of a reminder of how the Colts need to construct a defense that won’t get run over in the playoffs.
Grigson probably needs to shave some salaries to spend free-agent dollars on more defenders, considering the team is about $7 million under the cap after this week’s splurge. Running back Trent Richardson’s $3.18 million quickly comes to mind. I’ve read that because T-Rich is suspended, the Colts can save all of that money against the cap if/when they release him. I’ve been told by a source that he’s gone.
But I’ve also read that we can expect the NFLPA to file a grievance on Richardson’s behalf, so that could get a bit messy and drag out for a while. Offensive guard Donald Thomas ($3.25 million savings) and outside linebacker Erik Walden ($3.75 million) are also considerations, although I’d understand if Grigson kept Walden because the Colts value his ability to set the edge in the 3-4 defense. The Colts could decide to use Walden against the run for Mathis and Cole at times.
There’s also the possibility of freeing up space by re-working deals or going the new contract route with other players. While this week’s tendency has been to front-weight contracts to provide cap flexibility later, the Colts could back-weight a contract or two to reduce the cap hit this next season.
The hunch is that if Grigson spends on any particular areas of need, it will be at nose tackle, safety and depth at defensive end and tackle.
The Colts still have nose tackle Josh Chapman, who isn’t bad but not great, either. He’s not Vince Wilfork anyway, should the Colts look to add another guy from the “U.” The recently released Patriots run stopper assured on Twitter he’s got plenty of football life left in his 350-pound-plus body (sorry, not buying that 325-pound listing as anything but outdated).
There are other options at nose tackle out there, so I won’t be surprised if the Colts address that in free agency. Same with safety. The Colts re-signed safety Mike Adams, a 12th-year pro coming off his first Pro Bowl. But he’s the only returning starter. LaRon Landry got cut (not soon enough) and former special-teams standout Sergio Brown was allowed to become a free agent and signed with Jacksonville.
What the Colts do have are pass rushers as well as two reliable inside linebackers in D’Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman (presuming another team won’t part with a second-round pick to make the restricted free agent an offer). Adding outside linebacker Trent Cole should give the Colts a great pass-rushing tandem with 2013 sack champion and franchise all-time-leading sack master Robert Mathis. While Mathis is coming off an Achilles injury, the Colts are counting on their high-motor team leader to return to his relentless form. The 3-4 defense starts with getting pressure on quarterbacks.
Second-year outside linebacker Jonathan Newsome led the team with 6.5 sacks as a rookie, so he can get to the quarterback, too. You’ll remember he had the strip-sack of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning for a turnover in the AFC Divisional playoff victory. Walden also had a career-high six sacks last season, so if he sticks, he’s a reliable option when spelling Mathis and Cole.
Former first-round selection Bjoern Werner has yet to prove he can make the transition from a 4-3 college defensive end to a 3-4 NFL outside linebacker in terms of rushing the passer. He’s been decent against the run at times, so perhaps the Colts shift him to defensive end. Giving up on him doesn’t make sense because it would mean dead money toward the cap.
Adding defensive end Kendall Langford will help. The 6-6, 313-pound lineman is capable of playing end or tackle and everything I’ve read about him assures he’s still disruptive inside. Defensive tackle Arthur Jones, a free-agent addition last offseason, just needs to stay healthy. When he was on the field last season, teams often had to double him.
It’s ideal to have six guys up front who can rotate and stay fresh. Those guys are vital because if they do their job well, it keeps Jackson and Freeman free to run down ballcarriers. If the guys up front aren’t disruptive, that makes the inside linebacker’s jobs more difficult, and at times, impossible. In today’s pass-happy NFL, defenses can cheat by bringing a safety into the box only so many times before it gets you burned.
So now we’ll sit and wait to see who Grigson brings in to bolster the defensive line and safety positions. While I won’t be surprised if he uses a pick on an offensive lineman and even a running back, most of those selections should be on defenders.
Even then, the Colts don’t want to start several defensive rookies this season. This defense needs tough guys with experience, and that’s going to cost some more.
Without that and we’re all going to experience deja vu, not just from recent years but the Manning glory years, when the offense scored a ton of points but the defense didn’t get it done enough to produce more than one Super Bowl title.
Head coach Chuck Pagano said from day one his goal was to build a defense that would first stop the run. They were 18th in run defense at 113.4 yards allowed in 2014. While the Colts were better at it in stretches last regular season, that run defense didn’t hold up in January.
The Colts don’t need to be reminded of this. Or that the Patriots ran for 177 yards and three scores in that AFC title game. Or that the Patriots ran for 234 yards and six TDs in an AFC Divisional blowout the postseason before.
The Colts ranked 19th in points allowed at 23.1 per game last year. That number needs to be smaller, too. The Patriots ranked eighth at 19.6 points allowed per game. Their Super Bowl opponent, the Seattle Seahawks, were No. 1 at 15.9 points allowed per game.
It will be interesting to see how the Colts’ defense takes shape in the coming months.
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.