The State of the Colts: Outside Linebackers

Jerry Langton takes a look at one of the most intriguing offseason spots on the Colts roster -- outside linebacker. With the departure of David Thornton, and a need for more depth, Jerry provides extensive analysis, projecting who the Colts may grab on draft weekend.

Current status
It's become a truism — when a Colts linebacker plays well and becomes a free agent, they let him go. This offseason, David Thornton joined Mike Peterson and Marcus Washington as guys who were drafted and groomed by the Colts and later put their signatures on big contracts for other teams.

While nobody doubts that Thorny (now a Titan) is a pretty good player, by my observation he graded out as the Colts third-best starter in 2005. The best was weakside man Cato June, a sixth-round pick in 2003 who played safety at Michigan. For the first two-thirds of the season, June played like a young Derrick Brooks, belying his small size and limited experience. But, as injuries and fatigue piled on him, he was brought back down to Earth. He should be ready to go and more prepared for the long run in 2006. He's a restricted free agent who has yet to sign, but he would cost any team a first rounder, the Colts have an opportunity to match any offer and he wouldn't fit as well in very many defenses outside of Indy.

The company favorite to replace Thornton is 2004 third-rounder Gilbert Gardner. Another undersized guy who's more quick than fast, Gardner was the top reserve and a spot starter last season. He did little to embarrass or establish himself. The problem isn't his talent, it's his durability. After an injury-plagued career at Purdue, Gardner has missed 10 games with various nicks in two seasons as a pro. He could be the answer, but banking on his health could be hazardous. There's not much behind him. Keith O'Neil tries hard, but may not have the strength at the point and the ability to shed to lay claim to a starter's role. He's better off on special teams. Jonathan Goddard is an end playing as a linebacker in the Colts system, and the Colts don't have the kind of defense that accommodates that well.

There are some dark horses, though. The Colts traded this season's seventh-round pick to the Titans for linebacker Rocky Calmus. A smart and emininently talented player and big-time hitter, he doesn't have the twitchy skinny frame of other Colts' linebackers, but that may be a good thing. He would have been a steal, if he played. In the 64 regular season games that have been played by his teams since he joined the NFL in 2002, he's been healthy enough to play just 27 and zero of 16 with the Colts. But it appears the Colts interest in him is waning based on comments this past week at Colts.com.

Last year the Colts drafted Cincinnati's Tyjuan Hagler with the fifth pick in the draft despite knowing that he could miss the entire season to injury. A tough and explosive little dynamo, Hagler has many of the requisite skills to succeed in the Colts' scheme, but stands a shade less than six feet and has very little experience facing up against tight ends. Perhaps because of this, most observers project him as the top reserve and heir apparent at middle linebacker, but it's too early to say he doesn't have a shot outside.

Kendyll Pope was a fourth-round pick in the same draft that yielded Gardner (clearly Polian was depending on at least one of them to develop) and has far more raw talent. But injuries and a substance-abuse policy suspension have limited him to just two games in as many seasons, making him as dependable an investment as a lottery ticket. He can apply for reinstatement in August.

The other, Nick Hannah, was a star at a Division II school and is starting in the NFL Europe and giving a steady performance. Still, he hasn't yet proven that he has the stuff to start in the NFL and would be better suited as an athletic reserve and special teamer.

What they'll do
The Colts will add at least one starting-quality outside linebacker in the draft and perhaps another later on. Bill Polian is as reluctant to pick linebackers high as he is to pay them. Last season's starters were a fourth rounder (Thornton), a sixth rounder (June) and an undrafted free agent (Brackett). In fact, the last linebacker he selected in the first round was Rob Morris, and we all saw how that turned out. I may be wrong, but prior to Morris, the last one I believe Polian picked in the first round was when he was in Buffalo and picked Shane Conlan back in 1987 -- 19 years ago.

Another thing to keep in mind about Polian's linebacker choice is that he tends to go against the grain. Many of his picks aren't popular. Gardner (drafted in the third) was thought by most to be a sixth-rounder at best. The same goes for Washington, who Polian tabbed in the second in 2000. Few thought much of Thornton (fourth) before the draft and fewer still had much respect for June (sixth). While Colts fans may be fond of a well-known, well-liked outside linebacker prospect, they can never be sure Polian is as well.

How about
While it may seem obvious to some that the Colts should spend their top pick on an outside linebacker prospect, they may not. If they do and don't trade up from the 30th pick, they can probably forget about Ohio State's AJ Hawk, Iowa's Chad Greenaway and perhaps at least one more top prospect. Still, there are plenty of great talents available.

Alabama's DeMeco Ryans (11.5 TFL, 5 sacks, 1 int.), Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter (10.5 TFL, 8 sacks), Florida State's Ernie Sims (9 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 ints.), UTEP's Thomas Howard (7.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 1 int.) and Miami's Rocky McIntosh (10 TFL, 5.5 sacks) are all potential starters with strengths and weaknesses of their own. Of them, Ryans and McIntosh probably fit the scheme best and both are high-character young men.

Two prospects, Stanford's Jon Alston (9.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 1 int.) and Virginia Tech's James Anderson (8.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 2 ints.) seem especially well-suited to the way the Colts play defense and could be available in later rounds.

There's an outside chance the Colts could grab a college inside linebacker like Iowa's Abdul Hodge (11 TFL, 1 sack) or Maryland's Q'Qwell Jackson (6.5 TFL, 4 sacks, 2 ints.) and move him inside, but with the wealth of outside prospects available, it seems a long shot.

Of course, the Colts are always players in post-draft action and will invite a number of unselected prospects to camp. Keep an eye on guys like Grambling's Dimitri Carr (16 TFL, 6 sacks), Hampton's Rudolph Foye (7.5 TFL, 5 sacks 1 int.), Eastern Kentucky's Derrick Sistrunk (6 TFL, 4.5 sacks, 2 ints.), Lafayette's Blake Costanzo (9 TFL, 6.5 sacks, 2 ints.) and Mississippi Valley State's Jarette Prout (14 TFL, 8 sacks).


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