Position Battle: Defensive Line

There are a lot of familiar faces returning to the Colts for 2008 and a lot of new faces working their way through their first offseason. Who will carry over from 2007 and what rookies will make the team? Brad Keller has the analysis here.

Assuming that Dwight Freeney is able to recover from his Lisfranc injury by the time the season starts, the opening day lineup appears to be set along the defensive line, with Robert Mathis as the starter at the other end position and Raheem Brock and Ed Johnson filling out the tackle slots.

Defensive end is shaping up to be a highly competitive battle, with the returning Josh Thomas — re-signed after testing the free agent waters this offseason — as the only man other than Freeney and Mathis that seems to have a roster spot locked up.

The Colts have, historically, kept four ends in the rotation — tackles Keyunta Dawson and Brock can both fill in there if necessary.  However, with the injury to Freeney last season, the lack of pressure created by Thomas in Freeney's stead, and the failed Simeon Rice experiment, Indianapolis would probably be wise to reserve another slot for the defensive line in general and the end position in particular.

With the new talent that has joined the team and carryovers from last season, and the fact that the team may struggle to fill the usual allotments of roster spots in the back seven, the Colts might keep ten defensive linemen — five ends and five tackles — instead of nine.

Georgia's Marcus Howard levels Hawaii quarterback Colt Brennan in the Sugar Bowl
Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Fifth-round selection Marcus Howard, tabbed by many as a Mathis clone, would seem to have the inside track on the fourth end roster spot and the top backup slot behind Mathis.  He is a very explosive player, has a quick first step, and a knack for authoring big plays in the backfield.

Howard needs to learn to anchor against the run more effectively and also could use a little more lower body strength for leverage purposes, but may need to look no further than Mathis, himself an undersized fifth-round pick coming out of Alabama A&M that needed to work on both areas to make and stay on the roster.

Howard may start in a Justin Tuck/Robert Mathis capacity, moving inside to tackle in known passing situations, but the Colts and Giants have certainly proved that you can never have too many gifted pass rushers on your roster.

Where things get interesting is when that possible fifth spot enters into the equation. Jeff Charleston, who played sparingly in 2007 but certainly looks the part, is facing off against rookie free agent Curtis Johnson.

Johnson had the double-edged draft sword of playing against a lower level of competition at Division II Clark Atlanta University and turning in disappointing workout numbers with a 4.78 time in the 40-yard dash.

What cannot be overlooked, though, is that he seemed to spend the bulk of his college career making plays behind the line of scrimmage as he averaged a sack and two tackles for loss per game over the course of four seasons.

With Johnson and Brock established as starters at tackle, Darrell Reid's contributions to special teams and the rotation, and Quinn Pitcock's ability to play either tackle position, the Colts are really just looking for a fifth body to add to that rotation and further fortify a position of strength.

Will Joe Bradley, entering his second season be able to keep undrafted rookies Eric Foster and Colin Ferrell off the roster? 

Eric Foster blocks a pass against Connecticut.
AP Photo/Mel Evans

Possibly, but given Foster's quick first step, ability to use his hands to create space, and leverage skills, he could very well be a perfect fit for the tackle rotation in the Colts Cover 2 defense.  He was certainly able to penetrate into the backfield and make game-changing plays in his limited starting time at Rutgers and, although Reid and Johnson are fine players, they do not possess the kind of natural pass rushing skill that Foster does.

He could step in as a backup for Brock — at 274 pounds, Brock is of similar weight, but is three inches taller at 6 feet, 4 inches — which would allow Reid to back up Johnson and keep the versatile Pitcock at the swing position.

Another player in the mix is Keyunta Dawson.  The Colts have him listed as a defensive end on the team website, but he actually started four regular season games at left defensive tackle as well as the Divisional round playoff game against the Chargers last season.

Indianapolis sees him as a Montae Reagor type of player; someone who played the end position in college, but can be moved inside in their scheme.  Dawson was drafted in the seventh round last year, so he teams up with Johnson and Pitcock in a very formidable young group that will be difficult to break into. 

Basically, if you open up competition and allow that Pitcock probably has to fight for his job, that still leaves five men — Pitcock, Foster, Bradley, Ferrell, and Dawson — fighting for two jobs.  If the Colts decide to keep four ends and six tackles — a possibility since Dawson and Brock can both play end if necessary — then that opens up another possible spot, but does not really make the coaching staff's decision any easier.

It has been stated before, but it warrants repeating: The Colts are stacked at defensive tackle and have a wealth of quality depth, even after jettisoning Anthony McFarland.

When the final cutdown to 53 happens right before the season opens, Bill Polian, Tony Dungy, and the rest of the coaching staff will be hoping that whoever does not make the final cut clears waivers and can be stashed on the practice squad.

Depth at tackle is a wonderful problem to have and, given the number of late round selections and undrafted free agents currently on the roster, everyone fighting for a spot can be assured that the best man will win, regardless of how he was rated coming into camp.

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