Over the next few weeks, we will be looking position by position at the current talent on the Indianapolis Colts' roster and previewing the battles that may take place in training camp. Today we look at the outside linebackers.
That, however, is the reality.
With the implementation of Chuck Pagano's base 3-4 defense, the two spectacular defensive ends have been moved to linebacker. And with them come many questions.
How will they adjust to being linebackers, and how quickly? What are they going to be doing at linebacker? If they cannot adjust quickly enough, what should the Colts do? Is it a good decision to move them? Why is everyone concerned about Dwight Freeney?
Along with the questions about Freeney and Mathis, there are also the questions about who will back them up. Can Jerry Hughes turn his career around? Who else do the Colts even have at outside linebacker?
Bottom line: this position is a big question mark, and it starts with the duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
For years, they made up the best pass rush duo in the National Football League. Freeneyin his career (149 games) has notched a franchise record 102.5 sacks and forced 42 fumbles. Mathis has recorded 83.5 sacks (in 135 games played) and forced 39 fumbles. They worked together so well. Remember the game in Cleveland in 2008? Peyton Manning's offense scored zero points, but in the fourth quarter Dwight Freeney drove Joe Thomas into quarterback Derek Anderson, forcing a fumble. Mathis scooped it up and took it 37 yards for the winning score.
Or what about the game against the Steelers last year? With the offense led the underwhelming talents of Kerry Collins and Curtis Painter, the duo raised their games and almost pulled off the win for the Colts on Sunday Night Football. Freeney and Mathis are two of the best in the league in pass rushing.
So why move them to linebacker?
The answer is because the position of defensive end has changed. Freeney and Mathis are a bit undersized, extremely athletic 4-3 defensive ends. In a 3-4, the defensive ends are basically defensive tackles. They are big guys whose only job is to account for the offensive line. Playing Freeney and Mathis there would, first of all be a mismatch in favor of the opponent, and secondly be wasting their ability. They are pass rushers, and in a 3-4 defense the pass rush comes from the linebackers. The Colts are trying to maximize the potential of guys who are fit for a 4-3 defense. The question is how much potential that is.
Robert Mathis will likely make the transition much better than Freeney. The type of player he is fits a 3-4 more than Freeney does. This is also the defense that Mathis has wanted to play in for a long time, as you could tell if you follow him on twitter. But why are people so down on Freeney being able to adjust? For starters, he has played with his hand on the ground for his entire career, and has always played from the same side. He has mastered the pass rush from a defensive end standpoint. Now, he will be standing up, and moving around. Everything is new for Freeney, and his pass rush skills have been molded to fit a 4-3 scheme perfectly.
However, as Kyle Winslow noted for Football Outsiders in this excellent piece on Freeney and Mathis' transition, Freeney's role may not actually be as changed as we think. Freeney will likely be playing the role that Terrell Suggs plays for the Ravens, and Winslow took a look at what that role is.
If Freeney is designated as the Suggs of the Colts' defense, then his transition shouldn't be extremely difficult. Rushing the passer is Freeney's expertise. Suggs rushed the passer in 17 of the 18 plays that I reviewed, and 13 of those 18 times it was from the right defensive end position, which is Freeney's natural position.
Moving him away from the right side on occasion will be an option for Pagano. The Ravens didn't have an elite pass rusher playing opposite Suggs. Rather, they rotated between Paul Kruger and Jarret Johnson, and moved their standout pass rusher around to target weaknesses in opposing offensive lines. That may be unnecessary for Indianapolis since they have an additional Pro Bowl-caliber pass rusher in Mathis.
Suggs lined up on the line of scrimmage in every play. It is doubtful that Freeney will be roaming around and actually "backing" the line. He will probably only be asked to drop back into coverage after feigning a pass rush, as Suggs did in the only play I reviewed where he didn't rush the quarterback.
If Freeney will in reality fill a role very similar to Suggs' role, then this transition may work. I have my doubts, but I hope that Winslow is right.
I feel I should mention here that the Colts will not be running only a 3-4 defense. What they are running is a hybrid 3-4 and 4-3 defense, so the defense at times will look very similar to the one from last season. That is why I call it a base 3-4, because that is their base defense but they will be running a hybrid. How much they will run a 4-3, I honestly don't know. Dwight Freeney has been spending time with both the defensive lineman and the linebackers. But I do know that the best defenses in the league run a 3-4 defense. San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore all run a 3-4. This defense is the one that confuses offenses the most. Colts fans surely remember all the struggles that even the great Peyton Manning had against 3-4 defenses in his career.
Regardless of how they transition, however, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will be the starting outside linebackers for the Colts. The only question in terms of the depth chart will be who backs them up. Jerry Brown was signed by the Colts this offseason from the Arena Football League, where he played 10 games and made 34 tackles and 5 sacks. Justin Hickman spent the last three years in the Canadian Football League before being signed by the Colts this offseason. In those three years, he recorded 144 tackles and 27 sacks. Last year he was named a CFL All-Star as he was tied for the league lead with 13 sacks. Mario Addison spent time last year with the Chicago Bears, but was released midseason and promptly signed by the Colts. He appeared in three games for Indy last year, making 5 tackles. Tim Fugger was drafted in the seventh round of the 2012 draft by the Colts out of Vanderbilt. Just because he was drafted, however, does not guarantee him a roster spot.
And lastly, there is Jerry Hughes. His career has been well-documented among Colts fans. The first round pick in 2010 is in every sense of the word a bust. If Bill Polian had been kept around this year, Hughes would in all likelihood not be a Colt right now. But the new management has given him one more shot, and he is now trying to prove his worth as an outside linebacker. Hughes has played in 24 games in his two seasons and made 21 tackles with one sack. So often it seemed like Hughes was not even a factor at all in the game. In fact, it nearly always seemed like that. Can he revive his career as a linebacker? Maybe. I think he will be a better linebacker than defensive end, but that is not saying much.
Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis will make the roster, obviously. I think Jerry Hughes will also make the roster, and I think it will come down to Tim Fugger and Justin Hickman for the fourth outside linebacker spot.
For a position with no battle at all for a starting spot, the outside linebacker position provide many questions. It will be one of the most interesting to watch in preseason as well. The unit features familiar faces, but familiarity does not always equate to success. Only time will tell whether Freeney and Mathis can adjust to playing as outside linebackers.
PROJECTED STARTERS: Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis
BATTLING FOR STARTING SPOT: --
BATTLING FOR A ROSTER SPOT: Jerry Brown, Justin Hickman, Mario Addison, Tim Fugger, Jerry Hughes