Yesterday, Colts Authority took a look at the ongoing rebuild in Indianapolis by focusing on the major pieces and contributors the team has lost leading up to the 2012 season. The names were all very familiar and their contributions were all extremely significant to past Colts teams but, in most cases, drop-offs in production, injuries, age, and a more objective analysis of each individual's role and contributions hopefully provided some level of clarity for a fan base unsure about the team's future.
The most important line in yesterday's story is:
Are the Colts in a full-scale rebuild? The obvious answer is yes, but the ramifications of that rebuild may be different than what it has been for teams in the past.
One of the best ways to gauge where the Indianapolis Colts are as a franchise heading into the 2012 NFL Draft is to take a look at the players that remain from the 2011 team, their roles and how they fit into potential schemes the new coaching staff will likely employ, and the players that general manager Ryan Grigson and head coach Chuck Pagano have brought into the fray to replace departed pieces.
The defensive line will retain Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Antonio Johnson, Fili Moala, Drake Nevis, Jerry Hughes, Ollie Ogbu, and Ricardo Mathews. In the 2012 defensive system Chuch Pagano is working to implement, players like Freeney and Mathis should be on the field almost all of the time. Whether they put their hands down in a 4-3 look that will probably include defensive tackles like Nevis and Moala on the inside -- and potentially Hughes as a rush linebacker -- or stand up with a bigger defensive interior, they will get a lot of looks and have a lot of uses.
Fili Moala came onto the team having to make a transition from being more comfortable as a 3-4 defensive end to a 4-3 undertackle. There is a chance that the change to a 3-4 look will make a huge difference for his NFL future.
As already mentioned, Hughes is an undersized defensive end in a 4-3 scheme who former general manager Bill Polian hoped would develop into a Robert Mathis-like player. He has failed to succeed in the transition to a full-time hand in the dirt defensive end against NFL competition and will likely get a look as a rushing linebacker in Pagano's more agressive scheme. His days harassing quarterbacks could resume under such a change as his college success was in that role.
Johnson could fill as a backup nose tackle in a pinch and Nevis could create matchup problems as a roaming defensive lineman in hybrid looks -- he could play defensive end in the 3-4 but his lack of length could make that role challenging. Ogbu is in a very similar situation as Nevis and would likely be his primary backup. Mathews is another player with the size and measurables that suggest he could get a really close look as a 3-4 defensive end. At Cincinnati he was known for his quickness as a defensive tackle and at 6-foot 3-inches tall he has the right build to make a move possible.
Grigson and Pagano have added nose tackle Brandon McKinney and 3-4 defensive end Cory Redding to the roster via free agency. McKinney has played primarily in a backup role throughout his seven-year career but he is the only player on the roster that is built to be a true 3-4 nose tackle. During his career he has played behind some pretty tremendous players and there is little doubt that Pagano is familiar with what he brings to the table. A player that will be alongside him often when the Colts are in a 3-4 package is veteran end Redding. He will be able to help players like Moala and Mathews get comfortable in Pagano's scheme and should be an impact player.
In all, a defensive line that consists of regular contributions from players like Freeney, Mathis, Nevis, Redding, Moala, and McKinney is not far off from a solid hybrid defensive line rotation that keeps a lot of talent on the field no matter what formation or look Pagano wants to use. Improving at nose tackle and potentially replacing Moala at defensive end in the 3-4 scheme are the biggest likely need areas for the defensive line heading into the draft.
The linebacking corps will retain starters Pat Angerer and Kavell Conner. They will be joined by outside rush linebackers converted from defensive end in Freeney, Mathis, and likely Hughes. Other candidates for spots in the rotation include A.J. Edds, Mario Harvey, Jerrell Freeman, Justin Hickman, and Brandon Pegeuse. The outside candidates are primarily young or under-experienced.
The question with the linebackers will be how successful Freeney and Mathis are making the transition to outside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme and who will fill the inside linebacker spots. Angerer and Conner are both solid run defenders, while Angerer is decidedly superior to Conner defending against the pass. Finding another player out of what remains on the roster to fit in the inside linebacker rotation could be a key to the unit succeeding. One would expect that the Colts will try to target a linebacker in the draft at some point in the middle rounds -- unless a can't pass prospect is available at one of their early picks.
The Colts secondary will likely change in player type and temperament to facilitate a move to a more aggressive defensive style. Jerraud Powers, Terrence Johnson, Brandon King, Chris Rucker, and Kevin Thomas all remain at cornerback from 2011. Powers and one of Thomas and Rucker are the likely starters with this group. An emphasis on man-coverage will likely occur that players like Powers and Thomas should have the speed and athleticism to excel under. Finding another cornerback who can compete to start across from Powers will likely be on the Colts radar in the middle rounds of the upcoming draft.
The safety group returns Antoine Bethea, Joe Lefeged, David Caldwell, and Mike Newton. Lefeged and Caldwell are both young players who play with similar hard-nosed styles. They will be joined by former Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski to compete for the starting spot at strong safety. Not unlike the 2011 draft, this class of strong safety prospects is not particularly attractive. Look for Zbikowski to train his teammates and potentially open the season as a starter.
Although there are some weak spots on the defensive side of the ball, the players already on the Colts roster offer a pretty dynamic group for a hybrid defensive scheme. A potential starting group prior to the draft is as follows:
DT - Brandon McKinney
DE - Cory Redding, Fili Moala
LB - Dwight Freeney, Pat Angerer, Kavell Conner, Robert Mathis
CB - Jerraud Powers, Kevin Thomas
S - Antoine Bethea, Tom Zbikowski
Again, the biggest weaknesses on that list is room for improvement or at least some additional security at nose tackle, defensive end, inside linebacker, strong safety, and cornerback. However, the group taking the field without a promising draft pick or any further free agent additions would likely be a decent group.
The 4-3 hybrid lineup would likely be as follows:
DT - Fili Moala, Drake Nevis
DE - Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis
LB - Pat Angerer, Kavell Conner, Jerry Hughes?
CB - Jerraud Powers, Chris Rucker
S - Antoine Bethea, Joe Lefeged
The 2012 Indianapolis Colts defense will likely not have all of the pieces it needs to be the unit head coach Chuck Pagano envisions but it won't be drastically far off from having the talent and personnel to be effective. The defensive monster will probably start to show its teeth more in 2013 but even this group should be talented enough to be competitive -- so long as the players successfully make the transition into Pagano's new defensive scheme.
Could this group be awful? Sure. Could it be better than most expect? Yes. As the title of this story suggests, "don't be surprised."
Monday we'll take a look at the offensive side of the ball.
Is anyone else concerned about this McKinney guy? I see a jouneyman backup who should make the team but may not. McKinney may start, but I can see a scenario where Mookie Johnson is the best of some bad options at NT backed up by McKinney.
The bottom line is that NT hasn't been solved at all. It's cliche--but the McKinney acquisition was the band aid on the gushing chest wound that is NT. The importance of this position in the draft hasn't diminished at all.
Furthermore, the OLB position scares the hell out of me. We are so thin are this position anyone could start.
Freeney is a pass rusher that has always played DE. According to the rumor mill, he has no interest in moving to OLB. Who can blame him? He's had a storied career at the DE position. Freeney is extremely fast for a DE, but he's also 270 pounds. I'm not sure he's cut out for covering routes in pass coverage. Freeney's move to OLB is not set, particularly considering Mathis is almost certain moving to OLB in the 3-4.
Both Freeney and Mathis are premier pass rushers, and I expect that is how the will be used most of the time. If not, the coaching staff is seriously wasting their talents. If Freeney is the other OLB in the 3-4, that leaves two ILBs (Angerer and Conner) who are mediocre at best in pass coverage and a very weak secondary to cover the pass.
If Freeney doesn't go to OLB, then Hughes is the next logical option. In two years, Hughes hasn't proven he can contribute in any meaningful way...even on special teams where a bigger, athletic guy should excel. (I know...he had a decent game at the end of last season, but that's only one game in two years.) Furthermore, Hughes' college success was as a pass rusher. He was supposed to be a replacement for Freeney or Mathis. In many ways he suffers from the same problem as putting Freeney as an OLB.
Past Hughes, the options get real thin. Who's after Hughes? Freeman? Peguese? Addison? Does anyone actually know these people. We could spend a higher draft pick on a OLB, but with needs at QB, WR, TE, NT, CB, and SS, that doesn't seem very likely.
Next year's defense is going to live and die on the pass rush. They are going to have to rush five routinely...maybe even the vast majority of the time. If they can get to the QB and limit the time the weakest pass coverage team in NFL has to actually defend the receivers, then there is a good chance. If not, every QB they face next year will look like a Pro Bowler.
I won't be suprised if the Colts D is good next year. I'll be shocked. I just don't see it. I really don't think I'm being negative either. I'd call it realistic. Don't get me wrong, I like the coaching staff and I think they've done a good job bringing in who they can so far. Let's be honest. We have Redding and a couple backups from Baltimore. If Redding can play like Redding for at least 3 years that would really help the transition. He's a bright spot. McKinney is a decent pickup because of team need, but is only a stopgap. He's been a backup for 7 years in the league for a reason. The Colts still need a true NT. Nevis has a ton of talent, but is a terrible fit it in a 3-4. He will be reduced to a rotational 4-3 guy with the new Colts. I wouldn't run out and buy a Nevis jersey. The two best players over the last several years are switching positions. Frathis is not a lock to succeed at OLB in a 3-4. And we expect them to play OLB then stay on the field to play end in the 4-3? I hate to underestimate Frathis, but they very likely could struggle. Almost everyone thinks Freeney is gone after this year, but at the same time acts like Mathis is a lock to be great in a 3-4. Angerer and Conner are not ILB for a 3-4. These guys do not look like any 3-4 ILB in the league. Look at Ryans in Houston. Great player, didn't fit. Take a serious look at that 3-4 lineup. That group would be horrific against the pass. What's better? Sending Frathis and leaving Conner and Angerer to defend the middle, with Powers and Thomas on islands on the outside? Or drop on or both in coverage and ask them to cover TEs and RBs? What do you do when Frathis is asked to drop back? Send Conner or Angerer? Oooowwww! That's an OLs nightmare there. That group would get torched. Most of the guys on the team were hand picked for a small speedy 4-3. Even if the D has limited success running a hybrid, that is not the end goal. The end goal is a 3-4, and you can expect a high turnover next offseason as well. The coaches will do the best with what they have. Any strides the unit makes this year will be almost irrelevent by the next offseason, because in year two the coaches will be looking to make the full switch to the 3-4. So even if they are average this year, I would expect them to be average in 2013, because they will ditch the hybrid and switch to a 3-4 with alot of new players. Coach Pagano didn't make the Ravens D great. Ray Lewis, Suggs, Ngata, Reed, and others make them great. It's going to take some time to find a few guys like that.
You know what I'm suddenly terrified of? A stunning lack of depth, the likes of which even Indy fans haven't seen before. Especially at Linebacker. After Angerer and Conner... who the hell else is there?
I'll be the first to admit I don't know the exact responsibilties of a 3-4... but with Freeney and Mathis both on the field as "linebackers" it sure would seem they would be very vulnerable to the pass.
Terrence Johnson seems like a big hitter. What are the chances that makes a move inside to safety? Polian had the same hopes for Brandon King when he was drafted, if I'm not mistaken.
@Peyton for President 1) Conner and Angerer are the same size as the Steelers ILB. They do suck in coverage though2) Frathis will do just fine at OLB. Freeney is going to have his hand on the ground more often than not and Mathis won't be asked to do much in coverage. The only issue I see with Freeney is possibly a lack of motivation because he sees himself switching systems and teams after this year if not offered an extension.3) Nevis is definitely better suited for a 4-3 DT, but he can easily succeed at 3-4 DE. He's almost exactly the same size the the starting DEs for the Chargers (Liuget -- former college DT and Castillo -- former college DT)
@ManiacallySteve Good point. ILB is very thin. OLB has a little depth, with Mathis, Hughes, Feeney, and the the ragtags: Hickman, Peguese. They could find a gem in one of those two, but I doubt it. ILB depth is just Edds, Harvey, and Freeman. I like Freeman a lot, but he's kind of small. But, he's fast, and hits hard.
@DougEngland Freeney and Mathis will be rushing the passer, or having very limited assignments in coverage, such as very shallow zones. That's what I expect anyway. It will be more hybrid than 3-4 when both are on the field.
@Payton It's not just about size with Conner and Angerer. It's about fit, and as you said yourself, their lack of coverage ability. With blitzing OLBs your ILBs better be able to cover. Ours can't. If you help cover the inside with safety help, the DBs are all alone. I like Powers but he is always hurt, and is more of a #2. Our secondary is not very good at all. And Frathis is not a lock to do great. Not by a long shot. They've been coached a certain way for a long time. Awfully expensive gamble to take, expecially with Freeney. You can't tell me either guy looks like they could cover anyone, or that learning a new system won't slow them down a step. Freeney and Mathis have covered holes in the secondary for years. That's only because the Colts only had to bring 4 to get to the QB. Standing them up and moving them around isn't going to confuse anyone but Frathis. The OL will still know who's coming. How many times in the last ten years do you think either guy has practiced standing up and rushing of dropping back in coverage? Nevis wasn't drafted until the 3rd round for a reason, and it wasn't because he lacked talent. Certain teams don't draft guys like Nevis. Those teams all run a 3-4. He's too small to anchor inside, and not long enough to play outside. Might he play a small role. Sure, but the coaches aren't going to bend what they do long term to accommodate players who don't fit their scheme.