Why Colts focused on defense early in draft, with offensive line way down the list

Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire

INDIANAPOLIS -- The likely choices at No. 21 for the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the draft last week were either an edge rusher or an offensive lineman, because those were two of their biggest needs on the roster.

They selected Michigan edge rusher Kwity Paye with their first pick.

That meant the Colts would use their second-round pick on an offensive tackle, right?

Wrong. Not even close.

The Colts selected another edge rusher at No. 54 in Vanderbilt’s Dayo Odeyingbo, who may not even play a snap this season due to a torn Achilles suffered in January.

In fact, the Colts used three of their first four draft picks on defensive players and didn't take an offensive lineman until their final pick (Will Fries with the 248th overall pick). So a year after being on the offensive side of things in the draft, general manager Chris Ballard flipped it around and put a focus on defense with the team's early picks.

Yes, there’s still uncertainty at left tackle, as all indications point to Sam Tevi, who played with the Chargers last season, getting the first shot at replacing the retired Anthony Castonzo. But what the draft also showed is that the Colts weren’t as high on the offensive tackles in the early rounds as they were on Paye and Odeyingbo.

“I think it’s two-fold,” Ballard said. “One, we knew we wanted to add some more young talent there. Then, that’s just kind of how it fell. When we took [Paye] with our first-round pick ... he was the best player on the board at the time and fit us not only from an athletic and performance standpoint, but from a character standpoint, which I think you all know that’s a premium for us, who we bring in the building."

The selection of Odeyingbo was all about the draft board.

"It’s hard to pass up a guy that you have that high, even with the circumstances with the injury, so it just kind of worked out that way,” Ballard said.

If there’s one person really excited about the additions of the first two picks it’s defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, even if he does have to wait a little longer before Odeyingbo gets on the field.

Eberflus has linebacker Darius Leonard and defensive lineman DeForest Buckner, two of the best at their respective positions, but the reality is the defensive coordinator needs more than two to work with, as the Colts lost Denico Autry in free agency and decided not to re-sign Justin Houston. That’s 15.5 sacks between the two that won’t be back this season.

"You have to bring pressure," owner Jim Irsay said. "And I think you have to remember we have other things in the works here, including (Kemoko) Turay, including blitzing Darius or Kenny (Moore II), including DeForest, of course, but adding these edge rushers, these types of guys -- and these guys are heavyweights," Irsay said about Paye and Odeyingbo. "I mean these guys are strong heavyweight guys with great athletic ability and speed."

Paye’s sack total during his four years at Michigan is not an exciting number -- 11.5 -- but he brings the characteristics that Eberflus likes in his defensive scheme.

Speed. Aggressiveness. Nonstop motor.

If a player has those attributes, Eberflus will do his best to make sure he’ll be effective in his ball-hawking defense.

“I mean, the guy plays 100 miles an hour all the time,” Colts scout Chad Henry said of Paye. “And the best thing is when you start to learn about the kid, that’s what really sealed the deal for us. I’m finishing up my 24th year in scouting, and there’s not five guys that I’ve scouted that have better character and makeup than this kid. He is unique. Really, really special in a lot of ways. Really fits the culture and what we’re trying to build with our team.”

The Colts' starting defensive line could include Paye and Turay on the edges and Buckner and Grover Stewart on the interior, with veterans such as Tyquan Lewis and Al-Quadin Muhammad as experienced backups up front.

That’s a very formidable group Eberflus will be able to work with and Buckner, who had 9.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss last season, should be even more dominant on the interior if the Colts can consistently generate pressure on the outside.

Why no mention of Odeyingbo?

The Colts aren’t putting a timetable on when he’ll return, because nobody knows for sure when it’ll happen.

Waiting to select Odeyingbo in the fourth round -- they didn't have a third-round pick -- wasn’t an option for the Colts, because they firmly believed he would have been long gone by the time their next pick rolled around. He had 5.5 sacks in eight games last season at Vanderbilt.

Odeyingbo’s selection was more about the long term than making an immediate impact for the Colts.

“We thought it was worth the risk,” Ballard said. “This kid is a unique, unique talent. We would have considered him in the first round if he hadn’t got injured and I think a lot of teams would have.”

The foundation of the offense is hopefully there for Indianapolis with the talented young offensive linemen, running backs and receivers to go with the addition of quarterback Carson Wentz.

And in Paye, Odeyingbo and safety Shawn Davis, who was selected in the fifth round, the team has added much-needed reinforcements to go with Leonard & Co. on defense.