Parting Shots From NFL Scouting Combine: Colts, Rivers, Ballard, Prospects
Phillip B. Wilson
INDIANAPOLIS — On the first day of the NFL Scouting Combine this past week, three longtime NFL writers asked me the same question: “Are the Colts going to get quarterback Philip Rivers?”
By the time the annual workouts, interviews and medical check-ups had concluded on Saturday, there was no shortage of buzz pertaining to the Indianapolis Colts, be it about the level of interest in Rivers or free-agent pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney, possibly drafting a quarterback, maybe sticking with quarterback Jacoby Brissett, how this year’s draft class is strong at wide receiver, an obvious Colts need, and Colts general manager Chris Ballard reiterating core beliefs about building teams from inside out in the trenches and not forcing a decision at quarterback based on need.
Before offering gut hunches on the hot topics, keep important dates in mind. First, the clock now turns toward the NFL draft on April 23-25. Before that, NFL free agency begins March 18. The latter can dramatically impact the former, depending upon if the Colts make much of a splash in free agency — they’re second in salary cap space at $86.1 million.
Now onto the hot topics …
Rivers — A tweet in response to multiple reports that the Colts were interested in Rivers prompted nearly 40 responses ranging from anything is better than Brissett to Rivers’ gun-slinging mentality is what this team needs to he’s 38 and too old and no longer has the arm strength.
That the Colts would check him out makes sense, considering head coach Frank Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Siriani worked with Rivers when with the Chargers and have installed basically the same playbook in Indy, so the free agent could make an easier transition.
One respected, longtime writer who has worked with Rivers extensively swears by him, that he’s the ultimate competitor and would be the ideal guy to have in the locker room, a fighter who will always take shots and risk everything while rallying everyone around him.
My problem is remembering the Rivers who exited a playoff game at Indy injured and was trash talking with fans. One would think a leader would handle himself better than that, but to my colleague’s point, that also goes to show how he won’t back down from anyone.
All of that said, I’ll have to see the Colts sign Rivers before I can believe it. And that’s based on dollars that don’t make sense. Rivers will command $20-25 million for one season, and I’m told he’s looking to play two years before retiring. The Colts are already paying Brissett $21.5 million next season, the last year of a deal they gave him after Andrew Luck retired last August.
While it’s fair to say the Colts can afford to pay so much for the most important position, that kind of commitment just doesn’t make sense unless you’re convinced Rivers can push you over the top to make a Super Bowl run. And that seems unlikely. While you could argue the Colts, despite a 7-9 season last year, have potential because of some solid, young players on the roster, again, it’s too much of a reach to believe this team is that close to the NFL’s elite.
Another factor is the long-term plan. If you sign Rivers for a year or two, the position isn’t fixed for long. You’ll still need a quarterback in a year or two.
That brings us to another reason why the Colts won’t sign Rivers …
Ballard — The general manager enters his fourth year with the same philosophy that he’s reiterated time and time again: Teams are built in the trenches. He said that at the combine on Tuesday. While admitting this class is deep at wide receiver, which would be among my top preferences for what to do with the 13th overall pick, Ballard admitted he will always obsess about getting stronger by bolstering the offensive and defensive lines.
When the season ended, Ballard admitted the Colts needed to see more from Brissett, that the passer’s inconsistency and steep drop-off after a promising 5-2 start couldn’t have been more obvious. For the record, repeating again, I don’t think Brissett is a long-term solution. But Ballard also reiterated that he won’t force a decision at the position because it can set the franchise back. And he said that again at the combine, warning about the detriment of placing too much value on a young quarterback who isn’t worthy of being selected so high.
Like it or not, but I’m taking Ballard at his word on this. The Colts should draft either a defensive lineman, preferably one with pass-rush skills, or a wide receiver. The latter makes a lot of sense because Pro Bowl star T.Y. Hilton has been hurt each of the last two seasons and the Colts have faltered dramatically when he’s out of the lineup. Yes, there were other injuries, too, but the fact is the Colts are 1-9 when Hilton doesn’t play since he was drafted in 2012.
Colts picks — It’s worth remembering that the Colts have three picks in the first 44 selections. After 13, they go early in the second round at 34, thanks to trading out of the first round last year, as well as 44. Don’t be surprised if Ballard trades down again because he loves to stockpile picks while still selecting the player he wants early. That said, the Colts can address wide receiver, defensive line and, yes, even quarterback with those three picks. If they take a QB in the second round, he’s likely a rookie who will need time to learn. That means another year of shaking your head at Brissett, but at least the bridge has been established and a plan is in place. You hope that Ballard gets the right guy, or they could be in the market for another QB in 2021.
Clowney — While it’s easy to say the Colts should spend every last dime to make a splash with impact players such as this immensely talented pass rusher, keep in mind the Texans traded him because he was inconsistent and injury prone and thinking he deserved to be paid top dollar. Colts offensive linemen can attest that he’s a beast to block — anybody forget how he rocked Colts rookie offensive guard Quenton Nelson on an inside stunt two years ago? Not many can do that to “Q.” The hunch is nobody can now that Nelson has learned and established himself as one of the game’s best at his position as a two-time All-Pro.
The Colts should pass on Clowney. It makes more sense to develop young players, which sticks with Ballard’s M.O., and the Colts started making those investments in the past two drafts. Kemoko Turay was starting to emerge as a top-line pass rusher when he broke his ankle at K.C. last year. The team still has one more year with double-digit sack man Justin Houston, who could prove himself worthy of another contract. It just doesn’t make sense to break the bank on a guy like Clowney, who didn’t have the impact that Seattle expected when they acquired him.
Prospects — Let’s consider this close as a few random thoughts on players about to become millionaires in April. First off, concerning a few players that the Colts won’t be able to select unless they shock everyone by trading up.
Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah will be a better pro than his college teammate, pass rusher Chase Young, although most mocks have Young going No. 2 to the Washington Redskins. Showing a bit of bias here, coming from Ohio and following the Buckeyes closely, but most teams just stopped testing Okudah because it was futile. Cover corners with his ability are so rare, hence, somebody is going to be really happy with drafting him in the top five.
Why is Okudah more favorable? What impressed at the combine was that he wanted to work out and show what he’s about. While others avoided workouts for fear of impacting their draft stock, Okudah spoke of how he has combine workout data of past cornerbacks on his white board at home, how he’s studied what they did, how he wanted to show what he could do to prove himself worthy. He didn’t just show up and say he’s the best cornerback in the draft. He didn’t need to. Several wide receivers in this class said that about him. And Okudah ran down the list of top-drafting teams and their needs, showing how much work he’s done to evaluate how he would fit with each prospective employer. That was quite impressive.
Young gets a lot of hype because he’s such a dynamic pass rusher. NFL teams saw Joey and Nick Bosa come through Ohio State and are thinking this guy could be just as good. But the fact is, Young still had games where he took too many plays off in his first two seasons. And last year, in the final three games against Michigan, Wisconsin and Clemson, Young didn’t make impact plays. A pressure now and then, but that was it. Yet he showed up at the combine and proclaimed himself the best player available in this draft. Confidence is one thing, but it also can be construed as needing to sell yourself too much and being disrespectful to so many other talented players in the class.
While we’re on the position, a couple of guys who are undeniably intriguing for the Colts at 13 are South Carolina defensive end Javon Kinlaw and Iowa defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
Kinlaw’s back story is one of the most unusual in history. He was homeless as a child, took a bus trip by himself at 11 from Washington, D.C., to S.C., worked his way to get to college just because he wanted to have a roof over his head, and then emerged as one of college’s most dominant defensive players. It’s difficult to imagine anyone who wants this more than this guy.
What’s striking about Epenesa is his size, 6-6 and 280, and the inevitable comparisons to two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt. Epenesa has studied Watt and been inspired by how the bigger pass rusher still has the blend of speed and power to become one of the game’s best.
When asked about why his numbers increased toward the end of last season, Epenesa said it took time to adjust to constant double teams, which shows the respect Big Ten teams were forced to give him. He’s of Samoan ethnicity, the Polynesian son of a former Hawkeyes player, so he grew up with football in his blood. He also has tunnel vision. When asked what he knew about certain NFL teams, Epenesa admitted he didn’t pay close attention to the NFL last year and couldn’t comment on certain teams. He was focused on how he could get better for when his time would come.