The Indianapolis Colts sport the best pass rushing defensive end tandem in the league — multi-time Pro Bowl selections Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis. The team also added a first round prospect in the 2010 NFL Draft — Jerry Hughes — who projects to be the same kind of speedy edge rusher as his predecessors. While he did not have a meaningful impact last year, his development will play a major role in how the team will address the position in the near future.
Another player who could push for a roster spot in 2011 is practice squad veteran John Chick. The former Canadian Football League standout has had an entire season to get comfortable with the Colts, and showed enough in preseason to suggest that system familiarity could allow him to take over for departing free agent Keyunta Dawson. Chick may be joined by hybrid run down defensive ends like free agent Eric Foster — if his tender is honored by the new CBA — 2010 seventh round pick Ricardo Mathews, and starting under tackle Fili Moala.
This leaves Indianapolis with two areas of uncertainty. First, Mathis is entering his contract year and is unhappy with his current salary. This puts pressure on Hughes to impress the staff with his development. Second, Foster and Dawson were the primary run down defensive ends. If Foster and Dawson are gone, and if Chick does not project well to fill the run down role, the Colts could be looking for short yardage defensive ends to replace them. These potential needs will be the primary influence on how a stacked group of incoming defensive ends will rank on Indy’s draft board.
Round 1 – Pick 22
Aldon Smith – Missouri – Smith is another tenacious pass rush specialist that will have a big impact for whichever NFL team selects him. He is projected to go a little later than Quinn but he could go in the top 15. If he did fall all the way to the Colts at 22 overall, it would be incredibly difficult for some of the Colts scouting and personnel folks to pass him up. He has top 15 value. He plays the run better than Indy’s current roster. Moderate to high value.
Justin Houston – Georgia – Houston brings Robert Mathis to mind. His biggest and most powerful asset is pure edge speed. He is an inch taller than Mathis and heavier, which could help him contribute against the run when necessary. He should be available around the Colts first round pick and projects to be a powerful asset in the Colts system. Moderate value.
Robert Quinn – North Carolina – Quinn is a special athlete who should be a big-time pass rushing contributor to whichever team selects him in the top 10 picks of the 2011 NFL Draft. The Colts do not select that early and trading up that high to take a player like Quinn with Hughes already in development does not make much sense. Low to moderate value.
Ryan Kerrigan – Purdue – Kerrigan’s greatest asset as a pass rusher is his non-stop motor. A lot of players in the early rounds are described with this attribute, and it can set them apart from other talented athletes at the next level. What is hard to figure for Kerrigan and the Colts is his size makes him potentially small for a 3-4 defensive end and a bit big for the Colts at the position. Low to moderate value.
Round 2 – Pick 53
Brooks Reed – Arizona – Reed has a lot of similarities to Kyle Vanden Bosch. Both are very high-energy players who thrive on getting to the football. He has a tendency to create turnovers by stripping the football. A player like Reed is what makes the “value game” in the draft so difficult. He could drop into the high or mid second round. The difference between a player like him and a player like Houston is really hard to project. Moderate value.
Sam Acho – Texas – Acho may be taken by a team that wants to convert him to a 3-4 outside rush linebacker. If he drops to the Colts at 53 it may not be enough because his film shows that while he gets after the quarterback and pursues relentlessly, he may need some technique work to be ready to be a steady pass rushing contributor at end in a 4-3 defensive scheme. Low to moderate value.
Jabaal Sheard – Pittsburgh – Sheard has the size and speed to be an NFL defensive end but he is inconsistent in games and lacks pass rushing moves that he will likely need against NFL tackles. Low value.
Round 3 – Pick 87
Greg Romeus – Pittsburgh – Romeus could be the kind of defensive end the Colts have lacked. He has the height at 6-foot 5-inches tall and size at 264 pounds to be effective in both phases of the game. He was arguably one of the most dominant defensive ends in college football in 2009. What makes him slip to the third round on this draft board is that he missed the majority of the 2010 season in order to get back surgery. After undergoing such an invasive surgery, how well he will heal and bounce back is hard to foretell. If he did fall to pick 87 though, he would be a legitimate prospect for run downs and near the goal line. Moderate value.
Round 4 – Pick 119
Cliff Matthews – Carolina – Matthews is another pass rusher and not nearly as talented as the players in the higher rounds. He would be developmental and does not possess the on-field speed his competition enjoys. At 6-foot 4-inches tall and 268 pounds he may be asked to focus on developing his run defending technique if a team like the Colts were to pick him up. Low to moderate value.
Round 5 – Pick 152
Ricky Elmore – Arizona – Elmore started across from second round prospect Brooks Reed in his last two years at Arizona. He has the size and speed to be effective against both the pass and run. At 6-foot 5-inches tall and 256 pounds he is versatile and his play-style suggests that he could be an impact player on special teams as a rookie. Moderate to high value.
Ugo Chinasa – Oklahoma State – Chinasa is another tall defensive end prospect at 6-foot 5-inches. He is a bit raw and will need time to develop but his frame and athleticism give him a solid upside. Low to moderate value.
Round 6 – Pick 188
Ryan Winterswyk – Boise State – Winterswyk is the kind of hard working, high character player the Colts really like. What he lacks is some of the elite athleticism pass rushing defensive ends in the NFL require. In many ways, he projects to be some version of a Josh Thomas, assuming he can be as effective against the run as Thomas. At 6-foot 4-inches tall and 268 pounds, his size and work ethic could earn him a spot as a late round project pick. Moderate value.
Eddie Jones – Texas – Jones was one of the top recruited defensive ends in the nation coming out of high school. Unfortunately, his production at Texas does not support what would otherwise be a stellar reputation and projection for a professional career. His junior and senior seasons were his most productive years and showed that he has the kind of talent that could transition to the NFL. A history of suffering through minor injuries that slow him down might limit him. Low to moderate value.
Defensive end is unlike most positions in the 2011 NFL Draft. Most positions have a few stellar prospects at the top of the draft and a group of high value players in the middle to late rounds. Defensive end has a lot of high value players in the first two rounds and a mess of much lower talent in the rounds below. It also has a ton of players in the running for selections. The draft steal alert at the position could be Ricky Elmore from Arizona in the late rounds. With so many defensive ends not mentioned on this value board, readers should make a case for other players. I left many off because of scheme issues, but if they should be considered, please let readers know in the comments below.