Colts Camp Preview: Linebacker

Can younger players prove they deserve snaps over aging pros?

In anticipation of the Indianapolis Colts reporting for training camp Tuesday at Anderson University, ColtsBlitz.com will offer a series of analytical outlooks on position groups.

This installment takes a look at linebacker.

LINEBACKERS ON ROSTER: Outside Robert Mathis (14th season), outside Trent Cole (12th season), inside D'Qwell Jackson (11th season), outside Erik Walden (ninth season), inside Nate Irving (sixth season), inside Sio Moore (fourth season), inside Josh McNary (third season), Junior Sylvestre (second season), inside Amarlo Herrera (first season), inside Edwin Jackson (first season), outside Earl Okine (first season), inside Antonio Morrison (rookie), outside Ron Thompson (rookie), outside Curt Maggitt (rookie), outside Trevor Bates (rookie).

LAST YEAR: Jackson was second in the NFL with 150 tackles and also had three sacks, 10 passes defended and an interception return for a touchdown. Jerrell Freeman finished with 112 total tackles in what would be his final Colts season. Mathis, the Colts’ all-time sack leader with 118, gradually regained his form in returning from a 2015 lost to a torn Achilles tendon and a four-game suspension. He finished with seven sacks and started in 10 of 15 games. Cole was a free-agent disappointment with just three sacks. The Colts expected more out of a veteran who arrived with 85.5 career sacks. Walden also had just three sacks, half of his career best the season before. But Walden is expected to set the edge against the run. The career sack year aside, he finished with three sacks in the other five most recent seasons. Second-year pro Jonathan Newsome was a disappointment with only one sack. He led the Colts with 6.5 as a rookie. The Colts tied with Chicago for 22nd in sacks with 35.

‘FREE’ AGENT: Freeman wanted a new contract before 2015 but was forced to accept a restricted free agent tender. Although the Colts reportedly had interest in re-signing him, he instead departed in free agency to sign with Chicago for three years and $12 million, including $6 million guaranteed. In 57 starts over four seasons, Freeman made 478 total tackles and had 12 sacks.

PAY CUT: The Colts didn’t get their money’s worth from Cole after signing him for two years and $14 million. They could have waived him in the offseason to free up $6.125 million in salary cap space, but instead offered him a restructured deal for his second season. His base salary of $4.25 million was reduced to $2 million. He has a $1 million guaranteed roster bonus and can earn more through various incentives, including $500,000 for nine sacks, $750,000 for 11 sacks and $1 million for 13 sacks. He pockets $250,000 if on the field for 50 percent of the snaps and $500,000 for playing 60 percent of the snaps. 

NEWSOME GONE: An offseason arrest for marijuana possession precipitated the Colts cutting their losses with Newsome, who appeared to have a bright future after one season but got lost in the shuffle in his second. Other NFL teams didn’t pick him up, so he signed with Saskatchewan of the Canadian Football League.

OUTLOOK: Jackson, 32, enters the third season of his four-year contract as the defensive leader. He’s a tackle machine but has trouble in coverage. Mathis, 35 and entering the final year of his contract, will be entrusted with leading a pass rush that didn’t add any significant bodies. The Colts appear to lack depth in edge rushers, which explains why Okine was switched from defensive end to outside linebacker. The late bloomer with pass-rush skills played in just three games last season, but is still classified as a first-year pro. Cole and Walden will be counted upon to edge rush opposite Mathis, which is to say that if they don’t get sacks they still need to put pressure on the pocket for the Colts’ 3-4 defense to work. 

Freeman’s departure opens up an inside starting spot presumably for either Irving or Moore, neither of whom put up consistent numbers in limited playing time a year ago. Irving was coming off knee surgery the previous year and now says he’s fully healed and ready to be the player he was in Denver as a full-time starter before the injury. Moore, acquired from Oakland last season after he fell out of favor with head coach Jack Del Rio, enters a make-or-break season if he’s going to stay with the Colts. Morrison was drafted in the fourth round because the Colts loved his intensity. He played hurt in his final season at Florida. Maggitt and Thompson were undrafted additions worth keeping an eye on in preseason. There’s certainly an opportunity to earn snaps if either or both shine to make the regular-season roster.

POSITIVE SPIN: Mathis looks more like the 2013 NFL sack champion than an older pass rusher trying to find his form after a serious injury. If Mathis makes plays, that benefits the other pass rushers dramatically. In his prime, Mathis drew double teams. If he can do that again, it’s one less body to block someone else. Jackson is as steady an NFL veteran as there is at the position, so another triple-digit tackle season and a few impact plays like last season would be the expectation. Cole and Walden boost their sack numbers and have consistent pressures to ensure the Colts have decent edge rushing on both sides. Irving and Moore each play well enough to force the Colts to alternate them inside and it keeps them fresh. Young players such as Morrison, Maggitt and Thompson prove they’re NFL ready and deserve the opportunity to play as reserves.

NEGATIVE SPIN: Father Time catches up with Mathis, Cole doesn’t improve and the Colts’ pass rush is an obvious issue for a defense incapable of getting off the field enough on third down. Walden is as advertised, effective against the run but not enough else. Neither Irving nor Moore are clear-cut choices to start after not impressing coaches in preseason, therefore both get snaps by default as the Colts also look for progress in younger players with futures. Okine, Morrison, Maggitt and Thompson, among others, show they’ve still got a lot to learn to be entrusted with more snaps. Jackson also shows some wear and tear from playing in the league for so long, which would make it painstakingly clear the Colts need a lot of defensive help in the next offseason.

Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.


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