Crowded at the Top: Defensive Line

The Colts suddenly have more bodies available than roster spots along the defensive line. Who will win out and who will be left out? Brad Keller takes an early look at the defensive line.

When it came time for the final cutdown to 53 players in September of 2008, Indianapolis kept 11 defensive lineman on the regular roster — five ends and six tackles.

Currently, the Colts have 14 defensive linemen on the roster, with four ends, nine tackles, and Pat Kuntz, who is ambiguously listed just as a defensive lineman.  There is no chance that the Colts will enter the season with all of these men on the payroll.  Here's a look at how the race might be won.

Mathis and Freeney, and the other ends, are probably assured roster spots
Andy Lyons/Getty

Ends Are Guaranteed:

With only four ends on the roster at this point, it is safe to assume that Indianapolis will keep all four players when they break camp and head into the regular season — although they may add a veteran such as Vonnie Holliday, Josh Thomas or Anthony Weaver. Thomas is familiar with the defense and was with the team from 2004 to 2008, so he would be the leading candidate, provided the Colts could clear the cap space, he is still available, and they want him back.

Barring an upset, though, it looks like Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Curtis Johnson, and Marcus Howard will enter the season as the only pure ends on the roster.

Sure Things:

Raheem Brock is a very versatile and talented player that can help this defense in a lot of ways.  He carries a large cap number with him, but, if he were going to be released, he would have been cut already.

Keyunta Dawson is equally versatile, with the ability to play both end and tackle in this scheme.  He has also proven himself to be a valued member of the defense since he was drafted in the seventh round in 2007, but will need to show his value in training camp and the preseason.

Fili Moala and Terrance Taylor were taken in the second and fourth rounds, respectively, of this year's draft.  With the value that the organization places on their draft picks, it would be a huge upset if either of these players were cut loose.

Moala has the speed and athleticism to play either tackle position in Larry Coyer's defense, so he is more indispensable than Taylor, but both players should feel as secure as NFL player can feel, provided they stay out of trouble and play to their potential.

On the Bubble:

One of the first orders of business of the new regime was to re-sign Ed Johnson.  Johnson was released early in the 2008 season for violating team policy.  As a returning player that started all 16 games in the 2007 season, he would appear to have the inside track on a roster spot.

However, he is facing a one-game suspension when the 2009 season opens and did not play for another team last season.

The questions that need to be asked in Johnson's case are whether he can stay out of trouble and what kind of shape he's in following such a long layoff.  Some players are known for needing to "play themselves into shape" and, given the fact that Johnson has been inactive for almost 11 months could mean that he is carrying some extra weight, has lost some of his feel for the game, or is simply not up to the grind of a long season.

Assuming that Johnson can stay within the bounds of team policy — a risky assumption, considering that he's already in "fool me twice" territory — and assuming that he is fit to play the position for the duration, then he would be a prohibitive favorite to make the cut.  But, as stated already, those are some pretty hefty assumptions.

The Field:

Following the assumption that Ed Johnson is reformed and ready to go, that leaves five players fight for two roster spots, at best.  It could be that the Colts keep ten linemen, which would not be out of character for them. Darrell Reid was retained last season primarily for his special teams acumen, although he was later thrust into a larger role.

Indianapolis could also sign another end, leaving only six spots open for defensive tackles.  But, provided that their are four ends and seven tackles on the opening day roster, here's how it breaks down.

As undrafted free agents, Pat Kuntz and Adrian Grady would appear to be the players on the outside looking in.  But, returning starter Eric Foster made the roster in 2008 as an undrafted free agent and Ed Johnson filled the void left behind when Anthony McFarland went down with an injury, and he was undrafted as well.

Johnson should be able to play his way back onto the roster
AP Photo/Darron Cummings

Grady and Kuntz give up a great deal of talent and experience, though, to Foster, Antonio Johnson, and Daniel Muir.  It will be incredibly difficult for either — or both — of these men to unseat the incumbents based purely on position drills and game tape.

What they need to do is take a page out of Reid's playbook and become stalwarts in the kicking game.  Since Indianapolis has an added emphasis in that area heading into this season, Kuntz and Grady need to shine on kickoff and punt coverage.

Foster started 11 games last season and surpassed expectations.  Antonio Johnson was signed during the course of the 2008 season — after Ed Johnson's release — and made strides throughout the year, but still wasn't quite what the Colts were looking for in an every down player.

Muir was signed last season, but battled injuries and failed to establish himself — even to the limited degree that Antonio Johnson did — when given the opportunity.

Antonio Johnson needs to build on what he learned last season.  He needs to show a broader understanding of the system and an improved ability to anchor against the run.

Foster needs to improve against the run, but, more importantly, he needs to flash some pass rushing ability.  If he can demonstrate a knack for getting to the quarterback, that would give him the opportunity to play either at the nose or at under tackle, which would make him too valuable to dispose of.

Muir needs ... in all honesty, Muir needs an injury to occur.  The Colts needed able bodies last year, which is why he was able to remain on the roster.  Now that they have added talent and youth across the board, he will be on the outside looking in.

The Prediction:

Freeney, Brock, Curtis Johnson, Howard, Brock, Dawson, Moala, and Taylor make the roster.  Ed Johnson shows enough to get a third chance.  Foster improves his pass rush game enough to stay on the roster.  Kuntz is too important to the rotation and the kicking game to let him go.

Antonio Johnson isn't able to compete with the rest of the big bodies on the roster — Moala, Johnson, and Taylor are all right around 300 pounds — and finds himself on the street.  The miracle doesn't come through for Muir.  Grady fights hard and, if he clears waivers, ends up on the practice squad.

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