Colts Under The Microscope: Jerry Hughes

INDIANAPOLIS - AUGUST 15: Jerry Hughes #92 of the Indianapolis Colts rushes the passer during a preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers at the Lucas Oil Stadium on August 15 2010 in Indianapolis Indiana. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

Let's just get this out of the way early: Jerry Hughes is a bust.

Unlike players like Anthony Gonzalez, Mike Pollak and even Tony Ugoh, there aren't many arguments about the bust status of Hughes at this point. It's easy to see why, considering Bill Polian labeled Hughes as the elusive "third rusher" the Colts badly needed in 2010, only to say eight months later that he made a mistake in drafting him.

Since then, his career hasn't gotten better. During his two years on the team, Hughes has played in 24 games with one start, compiling 21 tackles and a single sack. He's never made an impact on special teams either, being listed as inactive several times for other players who were simply better on the field than he was. And those players weren't first round draft picks.

Just for good measure, Hughes took his failures off the field as well last summer with a public intoxication arrest near a Dallas nightclub.

Sure, a lot of us have gone out and had a good night partying more than a few times in our lives, just like Hughes was probably doing that night. Unfortunately, unlike most of us, Hughes represents a multi-million dollar sports organization.

With all of this in mind, it's clear that throughout his two years in Indianapolis, both on and off the field, Hughes hasn't shown even once that he truly is fit to wear the horseshoe.

So as he enters his third year with the team, things are pretty bad for Hughes. He has to show something, anything, this summer to a new regime that has no allegiance to him, or he'll be cut.

That's where his bust status comes into play. Even if he might as well have the label stamped on his forehead, I'm a firm believer that any player can shed it at some point if he starts contributing enough to the team.

Hughes could be in a situation to do just that.

With the Colts' transition to a 3-4 defense, Hughes may surprise his doubters. In his new position at outside linebacker, there's little chance that he will suddenly become the player Colts fans always wanted to see. But it is possible that he can make the final roster and actually be useful this season.

To analyze whether or not Hughes can be effective as a 3-4 OLB, we have to first understand what exactly the responsibilities are for that position.

Pro Football Focus said this about prototypical 3-4 OLBs:

3-4 outside linebackers are the primary pass-rushers in that defensive scheme. They are essentially stand-up defensive ends, and so they also need to be able to read the play and defend the run by setting the edge, rather than just affect the play by charging up field. DeMarcus Ware is what a 3-4 outside linebacker should look like. At 6-foot-4 and 260 pounds, he has the length teams want at the position (height as well as arm length) in order to fight off offensive tackles, but he has the speed to get around the edge and wreak havoc.

Hughes is 6'2 and 254 pounds according to Colts.com, and while it's unfair to try and compare him to DeMarcus Ware, it's good to use the Dallas Cowboys pass rusher as the benchmark for near perfection.

The scary thing about this quote from PFF is that I've never seen any ball reaction skills from Hughes. His primary goal whenever he's been on the field has been to charge up field as fast as can and try to beat the opposing offensive tackle off the edge. He's most often eaten alive and pushed well out of the play in this scenario.

In order to become a more instinctive football player, which I'll go against popular opinion and say can be taught, Hughes and the new coaching staff will have to put in overtime over the next three months.

Now let's look at what scouting reports said about Hughes before the 2010 draft

Per Walter Football:

Hughes earns my first-round, 4-star grade as a 3-4 rush linebacker. His athleticism and motor is simply too much for me to not grade him out higher than everyone else. He is my No. 1 3-4 outside linebacker in the draft and I expect his stock to soar among the 3-4 teams in the league. He was simply too productive at TCU, and despite his lack of height we can see what Elvis Dumervil did last season with his exceptional first step and speed off the edge. Hughes is a projected late-first to second-round pick, but could end up going in the top 25 picks when it's all said and done, much like Larry English.

Per Draft Breakdown:

Hughes is an ideal fit to transition to a 3-4 rush linebacker spot at the next level. His pass rushing skills are among the best in the draft. High motor, high character and great work ethic make him a very well rounded player that any coach would love to have on their roster. Though he can get overpowered at times in the running game, he’s still effective against the rush and can still potentially play 4-3 DE in the NFL. Hughes needs to work on his coverage skills but that’s a common problem among college pass rushers. I have to drop his production/experience down a bit due to the competition he faced in the MWC, but he was very dominate in that conference. His stock may have dipped a bit when he decided not to participate in the Senior Bowl, and a closely ranked player, Brandon Graham, had a very dominate performance that week. Regardless, Hughes has been slightly overlooked by many and should be looked at as a late first round draft pick.

Per Draft Board Insider:

Scouting Report: The 3-4 defense is becoming more and more of the norm in the league, and it's success hinges on having outside linebackers who can rush the quarterback. In this draft, Hughes is easily the best 3-4 rush OLB/DE hybrid in this draft. He's got ideal size, that allows his to be strong at the point of attack against the run, can engage a lineman, shed them and get to the ball carrier. But his strength is that first step as a pass rusher. Hand on the ground, no player in the country is as explosive as Hughes. He does a great job with his hands, keeps his pad level good and can get up and under larger players, split double teams, and blow past slower linemen. He plays with great leverage, and rarely loses a one on one. He's got a motor that doesn't quit, and you rarely see him take a play off. Where he'll need work is in run support, where he does get washed away at times, and in coverage, where he's going to have to learn much more about coverage and be much more fluid in his drops and be able to turn and run with tight ends and backs.

This all seems to indicate that most scouts and draft gurus agreed that Hughes had the following traits:

  • Definitely a 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL with a chance to become a 4-3 defensive end.
  • High motor, plays until the whistle is blown.
  • Explodes off the snap.
  • Great production out of TCU in the Mountain West Conference, racking up 28.5 sacks and 39 tackles for a loss.
  • Can get engulfed sometimes by bigger lineman.
  • Needs to work on run defense and dropping into coverage.
It's interesting to see so many different publications say Hughes was best suited as an OLB in a 3-4 defense. If you read the comments section of this story Brad posted right after Hughes was drafted, most fans seemed to be on board with him as a pick. No one showed any concern about whether or not he would struggle playing the same position he played in college. In looking over scouting reports now, that turned out to be a major oversight.

None of his strengths coming out of college have translated to his NFL career. His motor, effort and intensity have been questioned since he arrived, and his reaction to the snap is usually tentative and slow compared to Freeney, Mathis and sometimes even the defensive tackles.

So, with all of this negativity regarding Hughes' career amounting to anything other than a complete bust, why do I have hope for him? Well, I have Robert Mathis to thank for that.

Mathis is one of the best Colts players on Twitter when it comes to interacting with fans and answering any of their questions. He's brutally honest and doesn't hold anything back. My advice is to never try to engage in a tweet war with him. You probably aren't going to win.

Anyway, on a night when he was feeling rather chatty with a few fans, I decided to send him this question:

He responded back a few minutes later with this:

@andrewmishler im trying to keep him off my spot for as long as possible but i can def say this...OLB fits his skill set much more than DE.

— ROBERT MATHIS (@RobertMathis98) March 22, 2012

Robert is the type of guy who would never throw a teammate under the bus, no matter how bad he was playing or even if he didn't expect him to make it past training camp cuts. However, coming from a guy who's heard, "They're working really hard," from players over and over again when they don't know what to say about their own teammates, Mathis actually sounds genuine, especially in saying Hughes will fit better as an OLB.

Besides scouting reports and Robert Mathis, league is on Hughes' side as well. If you look at the spreadsheet in this article here, you'll see that almost all of the top 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL made the transition from college defensive end to a 3-4 OLB at the next level. Cameron Wake, James Harrison, LaMarr Woodley, Brian Orakpo. All played defensive end before they arrived in the NFL.

Perhaps the most interesting comparison to Hughes is Aaron Maybin, the 11th pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. As a college defensive end at Penn State, Maybin struggled to do much of anything in Buffalo as both a DE his rookie year and as a 3-4 OLB his second year. He recorded zero sacks in his first two years with the team and was eventually cut before the start of last season.

Then the Jets got their hands on him. Once they figured how to best utilize Maybin, he was turned loose and recorded six sacks by the end of the season to lead the team.

Hughes may not be heading to a new team right now, but he is playing under a new regime in Indianapolis. The hope is that Chuck Pagano and his staff can light a fire under Hughes and utilize his talents in the same way Rex Ryan and the Jets did with Maybin.

Final Analysis

Hughes will still have to fight with Mathis and Dwight Freeney for playing time, so if he's going to find any time on defense, he'll likely have to first earn it by playing well on special teams. If he makes it that far, then I think he'll be in line for snaps on defense to help blitz the quarterback. In that role, I expect him to be a decent third rusher and possibly earn a couple sacks this season.

But first, he'll have to make it past training camp cuts. If we see the same old Jerry Hughes, the one Indianapolis Star beat reporter Phillip B. Wilson once said "looks like a puppy that peed on the rug in the corner," then he'll be out of here. Again, Ryan Grigson and Pagano have no allegiance to Hughes, so cutting him for them would be as easy as cutting through string.

I'm a naturally optimistic person, so my expectation is that Hughes does stick around and makes a bigger impact on the field than he has in the past two seasons. He knows just like everyone knows that this is his last chance, and if he makes full use of it, he'll be house trained for the 2012 season.

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