Colts needs all about passing game

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Jan. 21—INDIANAPOLIS — While the evaluation of the quarterback position continues to dominate offseason storylines, the Indianapolis Colts have a much wider focus in seeking to diagnose the flaws that led to an epic collapse in the final two weeks of the regular season.

Carson Wentz's status with the organization will be a major talking point until that issue is resolved, but general manager Chris Ballard made it clear in his season-ending news conference last week quarterback isn't the only area where improvement is needed.

Much of the Colts' woes center around the passing game on both sides of the ball. They need to rush opposing quarterbacks more consistently, and they need better performance out of their own aerial attack.

How might they go about addressing those needs over the next few months? Let's take a look:

PASS RUSH

Indianapolis is high on rookies Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo.

Paye, the 21st overall pick out of Michigan, was the team's sack leader over the final nine weeks of the season and earned recognition on Pro Football Focus' All-Rookie team. It took him awhile to find his footing at the professional level, and he's still a long way from his ceiling, but the future is bright for the athletic defensive end.

"We think Kwity's going to be really good," Ballard said. "He's going to develop, and he's going to be good. I feel really good about the pick."

Odeyingbo played in just 10 games after rehabbing a torn Achilles' tendon and never was able to show his full ability. But there were glimpses of the possibilities ahead, including a strip of quarterback Trevor Lawrence to preserve a home victory against the Jacksonville Jaguars in November.

The presence of those two young edge rushers on the roster likely precludes the use of significant draft capital to add to the position. But this room seems to be screaming for a veteran leader.

Justin Houston and Denico Autry departed in free agency last offseason, and the absence of both men was felt. Ballard only dipped his toes in the free agent market a year ago — signing rotational piece Isaac Rochell — and chose instead to allow younger players at the position a chance to develop.

The strategy didn't pan out. The Colts finished with just 33 sacks and ranked 19th in third-down conversion percentage allowed (40.5%) and 25th in red-zone defense — surrendering a touchdown on 64.2% of opponents' trips inside the 20-yard line.

The latter two factors weigh heavily on a team that missed the postseason by one win and finished 2-5 in one-score games.

The addition of a veteran pass rusher to lead the youngsters and help alleviate the triple-teams defensive tackle DeForest Buckner faced on the interior could be a goal this offseason.

"We lost really two good vets in Justin and Denico, good players, good people, good fits," Ballard said. "Yeah, (signing a veteran will) be under consideration."

OFFENSIVE LINE

Even in seasons that failed to meet their own lofty standards, left guard Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelly again were voted into the Pro Bowl. Indianapolis can reasonably expect both men to be better next year in a (presumably) healthier campaign.

Right tackle Braden Smith remains criminally underrated, and the Colts have to choose a right guard between free agents Mark Glowinski and Chris Reed.

The real question mark — just as it was in last year's offseason — is at left tackle. Not picking until No. 47 overall could make it tough to find an immediate starter in the draft, and top-flight players at the position rarely make it to the free agent market.

That could leave the team counting on a rebound from veteran Eric Fisher. The 2013 No. 1 overall pick dominated at times in the running game, but his pass blocking showed the wear and tear of his recovery from a torn Achilles' tendon.

Fisher missed all of training camp and the first game of the regular season and still was back on the playing field ahead of schedule after being injured during last year's AFC Championship Game.

Ballard chose the 31-year-old last year over a healthy Charles Leno Jr., who was cut by the Chicago Bears and recently earned an extension with the Washington Football Team. A return engagement isn't out of the question for Fisher, who is scheduled to become a free agent in March.

"The left tackle is what the left tackle is," Ballard said. "We short-term fixed it. We still have to be looking for a long-term solution there. And if we have to short-term fix it again because the long-term solution doesn't show up, that's what we'll do."

WIDE RECEIVER

Only All-Pro running back Jonathan Taylor was a more important offensive piece in 2021 than breakout wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. The 24-year-old grew nicely into the No. 1 receiver role with 88 catches for 1,082 yards and six touchdowns.

But Indianapolis got little production from anyone else.

Zach Pascal finished second on the team with 384 receiving yards, and the next-highest wide receiver was veteran T.Y. Hilton — who had 331 yards in 10 games.

The news is no better at tight end where Mo Alie-Cox (24 catches, 316 yards, four touchdowns) is scheduled to become a free agent, and Jack Doyle (29-302-3) is mulling retirement.

Add in the possible retirement of Hilton, and the need to find a pass-catching complement to Pittman (or two) is obvious.

It's expected to be another deep draft for wide receivers, and the Colts could get some immediate help in the second round or later. There also should be reasonable options in free agency, and this is one area when Ballard could double dip with a signing and a draft pick.

But the GM continues to express confidence in a young receiver group that includes Ashton Dulin, Dezmon Patmon and Mike Strachan, and he isn't likely to make a panic move.

"I think every year we're trying to upgrade every position," Ballard said. "Would I like two or three dynamic (targets)? Absolutely. Absolutely. But I think we've got some good young players to work with, so I guess we'll see what happens here going forward."