Season in Review: Linebackers

The injury bug that plagued the entire Colts team didn't spare the linebackers in 2007, as several players missed time with injury. But younger players also stepped up and helped the Colts become the league's top defense. But what can the linebacking corps do to get even better in the offseason?

Starters: MLB Gary Brackett, OLB Rob Morris, OLB Freddy Keiaho.

Backups: OLB Tyjuan Hagler, OLB Rocky Boiman, MLB Brandon Archer, OLB Clint Session, OLB Ramon Guzman, LB Victor Worsley.

Season in Review:

Brackett played at a near-Pro Bowl level in 2007, leading the team in total tackles (149) from his middle linebacker slot. The fifth-year player also tied safety Antoine Bethea for the team lead in interceptions with four and was one of just two defensive starters to play in every game.


Gary Brackett and Tyjuan Hagler tackle Atlanta's Ike Hilliard
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Brackett had six double-digit tackle games, with his season high of 16 coming against Carolina on Oct. 28. Brackett intercepted two passes against Baltimore on Dec. 9.

Keiaho replaced departed free agent Cato June at the weak-side linebacker position and had a solid first season in the starting lineup, finishing fifth on the team in tackles (101) despite missing five games with injuries.

Keiaho wasn't the only linebacker to miss time in 2007. Morris, the strong-side starter, played in just two games before being placed on injured reserve after the Denver game on Sept. 30.

That opened the door for Hagler, but the second-year player out of Cincinnati missed four games with injuries as well. Still, Hagler did record 60 total tackles, good for 10th-best on the team.

Boiman, who filled in at both outside positions, finished seventh on the team in total tackles with 64 and was second on the team in special-teams tackles with 15. He also intercepted two passes.

Session, a rookie from Pittsburgh, saw action at linebacker in nine games and made 23 tackles. He also recorded a pair of interceptions in his only start, on Nov. 11 at San Diego.

Archer and Guzman saw extremely limited action, with Archer totaling 15 tackles and Guzman posting five. Worsley, a rookie, played in just one game and recorded three special-teams tackles against New England on Nov. 4.

Strengths:

As a whole, the Colts linebackers are a fast, athletic group that's well-suited for the Cover 2 defense taught by Tony Dungy and Ron Meeks.

The linebacking corps was excellent in coverage, in particular, racking up nine total interceptions for the season. They also helped a defense that was the worst in the league against the run in 2006 improve to 15th in the league in 2007.

The unit also showed its depth and versatility, and when one player went down with injury, another stepped up and the defense continued to play at a high level. The young players, like Hagler and Session, showed that the team has a solid base of talent as Brackett and Morris head into the latter part of their respective careers.

Needs Improvement:

Although the team did jump 17 spots in the NFL rankings against the run, there is still certainly room for the team to improve in this area. The Colts gave up 107 yards per game in 2007, while the best team against the run, the Minnesota Vikings, allowed just 79. Only one playoff team — the San Diego Chargers — allowed more yards per game on the ground than the Colts.

The return of a healthy Morris, who bolstered the team's defense in the latter half of the 2006 season and the Super Bowl run in early 2007, should help against the run next season.

And although blitzing linebackers is not a big part of the Colts' defense, the linebackers — and the defense as a whole — needs to up its number of quarterback takedowns. Indianapolis recorded just 28 sacks in 2007, tied for 26th in the league. The linebackers accounted for just two of that total.

What's Next?

If this unit is able to stay healthy, it should be in pretty good shape for 2008, with essentially four starters — Brackett, Morris, Keiaho and Hagler — for three positions.


Rocky Boiman makes a tackle against Houston
Bob Levey/Getty Images

Boiman is an unrestricted free agent, and the Colts could lose the solid backup and special-teams stalwart if another team makes an attractive offer.

However, team president Bill Polian isn't one to stand pat, and the possibility always exists that he'll look to add depth, or a possible replacement, through the draft or free agency.

The Colts were spotted talking to a pair of linebacking prospects, USC's Keith Rivers and Georgia Tech's Philip Wheeler. However, Rivers isn't likely to be around when the Colts make their first pick.

Wheeler could be an attractive choice if he's still available in the draft's second round or later. Wheeler, at 6 feet, 2 inches and 235 pounds, fits into the Colts mold of current linebackers.

The free-agent market isn't particularly strong for linebackers this season. The best player out there is Chicago's Lance Briggs, but the Colts aren't going to pony up the money for a player who's been a divisive presence in Chicago for the past year.

The best of the rest include Atlanta's Demorrio Williams and Detroit's Boss Bailey. Bailey, despite an injury history, can play both inside and outside linebacker and could step in if Morris isn't able to come back from free agency.

It's probably unlikely the team will be too active in the free-agent market at this position, but they could possibly add another young player through the draft.


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