Looking ahead (Part IV)…

What a difference a few days makes.  After my last post, the Colts made me a happy fan by releasing LaRon Landry.  I must admit, I was totally blindsided by this move; given the fact that he was a “Colts guy” and the dead money that the Colts have cutting him ($3.5m in 2015, $1.75m in 2016), I never imagined that Grigson would do it.  Color me happy to be wrong.  This move makes it even more imperative that Indy resign Sergio Brown, as I am still convinced that Mike Adams will not be the answer at free safety this season. Moreover, Indy now finds themselves in desperate need for another safety.  This move also makes it highly unlikely that the cure for the pass coverage disease that is Greg Toler will be found via free agency, nonetheless I will still address the CB position in this installment.

DISCLAIMER:

I feel that I must make something clear, I do not subscribe to the idea that teams can effectively be built via free agency.  Free agents are frequently under productive for the amount of money they are paid (see LaRon Landry.)  However, since the entire point of this series has been about how Indy can become a true Super Bowl contender starting in the 2015 season, there is no choice but to fill some of the holes with free agent signings.  Additionally, I am not saying that the Colts should sign all of these free agents I will be listing, these are just guys I believe Grigson should target if he intends to fill that particular hole with a free agent.  Finally, as I was researching available free agents, I discovered that I was remiss in not mentioning how important it would be to resign A.Q. Shipley in my last article.  Believe it or not, Shipley was the 14th ranked center(PFF +4.5) in 2014; in my opinion, A.Q. is still better suited to be a depth player, but he represents quality depth that needs to be retained.

NOSE TACKLE:

Nose tackle is a position that must be upgraded immediately for the Colts to be legitimate contenders.  According to nfl.com, Indianapolis was the 26th ranked defense against the run in 2014, and it was a glaring fault against New England in week 11 and the AFCC.  The 3-4 defense is predicated on defensive linemen occupying the offensive line, allowing the linebackers to stay clean and make the stop in the run game; this all starts with the nose tackle.  An effective nose tackle will consume two blockers and, at least, hold his ground. Indy’s nose tackles were unable to do this for the most part.  Their best nose tackle, by far, was Josh Chapman (PFF +2.1 against the run), but the rest of their tackles all had negative scores against in this category.  In pass defense, the nose tackle’s job is to collapse the middle of the pocket, taking away the opposing quarterback’s ability to step up into the protection and avoid the edge rush.  In 2014, none of the nose tackles scored better than a -0.1 in this category and that score does not belong to Chapman (-9.3).  Indy must build its defense on a foundation of a strong nose tackle that can produce against both the run and the pass if they wish to be a true contender.  Now, I have been involved in a lot of discussions about this and I’ve heard a lot of people saying the player Indy needs in Ndamukong Suh.  Please, don’t get me wrong, Suh is an absolute force of nature at the DT position, but this is a really bad idea for two reasons…first and foremost, Suh is a 4-3 defensive tackle.  Undoubtedly, he has the talent to be an effective 3-4 DT, but this would not take full advantage of the talents he possesses; simply put, Suh would not be the same player in Indy as he has been in Detroit.  Second, Suh is going to command a massive contract…the likes of which would cripple the Colts in regards to signing and/or retaining quality players at other positions, possibly even Andrew Luck.  Please, let’s not go there.  No, Indy needs look no further than Dan Williams from the Cardinals.  He’s the prototypical size for a 3-4 DT, standing 6′ 2″ and weighing in at 327 lbs.  His overall PFF grade was a +14.4, his PFF run defense score was a +13.7 and his pass rushing graded out to a +3.  Williams is quick and powerful off the snap and rarely gives up ground to the double team; additionally he is only 28 years old and could potentially be the anchor for the Colts defensive line for the next five to six years.

EDGE RUSHER:

It’s no secret that, without Robert Mathis, Indy had to employ an array of exotic blitzes to get to the quarterback in 2014.  This frequently left the middle of the field exposed to opposing tight ends, who torched the Colts defense frequently, it also lead to Toler just getting torched…frequently.  Mathis will be back in 2015, but at 34 years old and coming back from a torn achilles, it’s very unclear if he will be able to return to the form of 2013.  Jonathon Newsome was a pleasant surprise, but will he be able to continue to improve and become the replacement for Mathis?  Bjoern Werner is quickly starting to look like a bust and should not be counted on to fill this crucial role moving forward.  The free agent market for 3-4 OLB is not very promising this year; teams have their choice of players who are outstanding, but will command a high dollar contract or players who are one-dimensional pass rushers, still commanding a high dollar contract.  The obvious name that comes to mind is Justin Houston, but his stellar 2014 campaign will likely put him out of reach, money-wise, for Indy.  Jason Worilds is another option, but, unlike Houston, he is not strong against the run and will still cost quite a bit of money.  If Indy is looking to address this hole in free agency, I suggest that they look no further than Pernell McPhee from the Ravens.  At 26 years old, he is young enough to sign to a long-term contract; his PFF grades (+28.4 overall, +3.9 run def, +26.5 pass rush) are outstanding and his size (6′ 3″ 278 lbs) allow him to play standing up or with his hand in the dirt, perfect for a hybrid 3-4 like the Colts run.  McPhee still won’t come cheap, but he’s by far the best bang for the buck at this position in this offseason.

SAFETY:

With Landry’s release and the horrible draft class available, I have little doubt that Ryan Grigson is looking to spend some serious money for a safety in the offseason.  The question is, who should he be looking at?  In my research, I found three players that would fit the bill.  The first and obvious choice is Devin McCourty from New England.  Many think of McCourty as mainly a ball hawking safety and his PFF numbers (+11.2 in coverage) bear this out, but his defense against the run (+4.7) is very solid; he actually ranks higher against the run than Seattle’s Kam Chancellor, largely regarded as one of the best run defending safeties in the NFL.  At 28 years old, he still has a good four of five years of gas left in the tank and would give Indy back the play making ability that was lost with the departure of Antone Bethea.  Unfortunately, his price tag may be out of reach for Indy, but if Grigson is going to spend big money here, this is one of, if not the, best choice.  Another player that Indy may be interested in, assuming they are looking to get an all around player at safety, is Will Hill from the Ravens; at 6′ 1″ and 207 lbs, he possesses the physical size to play strong against the run (PFF + 3.8), but he grades out (PFF +10) as effective against the pass, too.  Unfortunately, Hill is a restricted free agent, making it more difficult for Indy to pry him away from the Ravens.  If Indy wants to have an “enforcer” at strong safety to help against the run, they should take a long look at Da’Norris Searcy from Buffalo.  Searcy is a big safety (5′ 11″ 223 lbs) that is solid against the run (+5.6), but would still provide an upgrade at SS against the pass (+2.7) and he’s only 26 years old.  I think Indy should pursue McCourty as their first option with Hill and Searcy as plans B and C, respectively.

OFFENSIVE LINE:

The Colts offensive line has been much maligned this season, but, contrary to popular opinion, it’s not because they aren’t any good.  The fact is, this year’s line was decimated by injuries that made it almost impossible for the unit to play with a consistent lineup.  Upgrades at center and right guard are sorely needed as well as quality depth.  These positions are most likely to be found in the draft, as the lack of a deep free agent pool may cause bidding wars to break out, but if Grigson is intent on improving the line via free agency, here are a couple of players to look at.  Rodney Hudson, from the Chiefs, is a well-rounded free agent at the center position.  He doesn’t excel at either pass blocking (+4.7) or run blocking (+4.2), but he does both well; he is also a solid screen blocker (+2.5) that would allow Indy to make its screen game more effective, adding another dimension to their offensive attack.  He’s not a big guy, measuring 6′ 2″ 299 lbs, but his technical soundness allows him to play beyond his size.  Hudson is the only quality center I see in free agency, so it may be difficult for Grigson to land him without grossly overpaying, but if Indy can add him to the roster, that immediately adds strength to the middle of the line and gives the unit strong depth to draw upon if needed and, at only 26 years old, would give Luck a long-term man in the middle like Peyton had in Jeff Saturday.  Guard is a discussion that is dominated by one name…Mike Iupati.  This is good, because, with any luck, teams will pursue him and let some of the other members of the pool fly below the radar right into Indy’s arms.  I don’t care what anyone says about Iupati, his pass blocking (-7.5) is terrible.  Iupati gave up 7 sacks, 2 hits and 22 hurries in 2014…sorry, I’d rather sign talent for the O-line that won’t get Luck killed.  Instead, Grigson needs to look at Orlando Franklin from Denver; unfortunately, Franklin is pretty unlikely to be an under the radar player, but his level of play is astounding (+9.8 run blk, +9 pass blk, 1 sack, 2 hits and 8 hurries.)  Franklin is a massive guard, standing 6′ 5″ and weighing in at 316 lbs,; he is also only 27 years old, so he would give the Colts a very talented interior lineman for the next several years.  Franklin’s only problem is his penalties…he had ten of them in 2014, so there is the potential for a few drive killers there, but I think his upside helps to negate that somewhat.

CORNERBACK:

I don’t see Grigson pursuing any free agents here, but he must address this position long-term; if not with a free agent, then in the draft.  Quality free agent corners don’t come cheap in the NFL, but there are some talented prospects that Grigson may be able to land at a cap-friendly cost to play across from Vontae Davis.  As I said before, I really don’t think that Indy will pursue the CB position in free agency, so I’m not going to do an in-depth analysis, but here are the players I’d like to see Indy make an effort to sign:

Brandon Flowers (SD)
Sterling Moore (DAL)
Chris Culliver (SF)
Kareem Jackson (HOU)

Indy may have a realistic shot at Sterling Moore (PFF +3.7); he plays on an underrated Dallas defense, so he may get overlooked, especially when there are a lot of corners on the market this season.

RUNNING BACK:

Okay, we all know that running back is an area that Indy needs to address, but this year’s draft class is very deep, so there’s really no need to address this in free agency.  However, if they do, I’d advise Grigson to avoid the higher profile running backs and target either Miami’s Daniel Thomas or New Orleans’ Mark Ingram.  With the devaluation of the position, both players are likely to come fairly cheap and should be able to contribute something to the Indy ground game.  Frankly, I’d wait until the draft, though.

Well, that’s it for now.  There will be future installments in this series as we get closer to the draft.

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