2013 Colts Positional Preview: Inside Linebackers

Thomas J. Russo-US PRESSWIRE

Stampede Blue’s Josh Wilson takes a look at each position, looking at the talent they have and at how the final roster might play out. Today we look at the inside linebackers.

Last season, there was a certain young linebacker that nobody was talking about that I thought had potential and wanted to write about.

And there wasn't even a picture of him to put with the article. I had to use one of Chuck Pagano instead.

Of course, the player I'm talking about is Jerrell Freeman. Freeman was an unheard of player coming into last year, who general manager Ryan Grigson signed out of the Canadian Football League. Of course, he wasn't unheard of for long. He got his chance to step into the starting lineup when Pat Angerer went down in the pre-season with a foot injury, and Freeman never relinquished it. He was the Colts' best defender in 2012 and made an already good inside linebacking core even better. Can we expect the same level of production from Freeman in 2012? And who are the other linebackers on the roster, and what can we expect from them?

Today we wrap up our look at the Colts' defensive front seven by answering those questions and more as we look at the inside linebacker position.

The player with the most job security at this position is indeed Jerrell Freeman. He started all 16 games for the Colts last year, recording a team high 145 tackles (fifth in the league and just 4 tackles away from second), 2 sacks, 2 pass deflections, an interception (that he took back for a score for the Colts' first touchdown of the season) and he forced a fumble. In 13 out of 16 games last year, Freeman led the Colts in tackles. The WILL linebacker played at a pro bowl caliber level in 2012 and there is no reason to think that he won't in 2013 as well.

The guy who started alongside Freeman for most of last year, Kavell Conner, played well but isn't even close to being guaranteed the spot again this year. Conner started 12 games and played in 14 while racking up 54 tackless, a sack, and 4 pass deflections. The fourth year MIKE linebacker was at his best in 2011, when he started 15 games (playing in all 16) and recording 104 tackles, 2 pass deflections, 1 forced fumble and 1 recovered fumble. He played well in 2012 too and the duo of Conner and Freeman seemed to work out nicely.

It's not just Conner fighting for that spot, though. There's another guy from the Colts 2010 draft class who had an even better 2011 season who looks to take a starting spot back. Pat Angerer burst onto the scene in 2011 with 146 tackles (4th in the NFL), 1 sack, 1 pick, 2 forced fumbles, 1 recovered fumble, and 3 pass deflections. In 2012, however, he was injured in pre-season and missed the first five regular season games before coming back to play in the last 11, starting 3. He made 57 tackles, forced a fumble, and batted down a pass. He wasn't the same player he was in 2011, but it was in large part due to his injury. He never was truly healthy and his foot bothered him all season. He's also a better fit as a 4-3 inside linebacker rather than a 3-4 ILB, but with more work I think he could become a solid player in either one. The bottom line is that if he comes back healthy in 2013, he should be the frontrunner for the starting spot because of his talent, his past success, and the fact that the coaching staff really likes him.

Those three guys (Freeman, Conner, and Angerer) will likely get the majority of the attention at inside linebacker, and deservedly so. But there's another guy who we can't rule out as a major player in the starting push. That guy is Kelvin Sheppard. Sheppard was drafted by the Buffalo Bills in the 4th round of the 2011 draft and played the past two seasons there, but the Colts acquired him in a trade this offseason - the same trade that allowed the team to get rid of Jerry Hughes. In 32 career games, Sheppard has started 24 and recorded 150 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 safety, 2 pass deflections, and recovered a fumble. In 2012 he started all but one game (playing in all 16) and notched 80 tackles, 2 sacks, and a pass deflection. A 3-year starter at LSU before coming into the NFL in 2011, Sheppard is nothing special at linebacker but is a solid player and is a guy that, believe it or not, could actually wind up starting at inside linebacker for the Colts.

But before we discuss who exactly I think will end up starting, let's look at the three other linebackers all fighting for a roster spot.

Mario Harvey was originally signed as an undrafted free agent by the Steelers in 2011, but was cut before the start of the regular season. The Colts signed him in 2012 and he wound up playing in 13 games for the team. He recorded 12 tackles, 7 of them coming on special teams.

Scott Lutrus was signed as an UDFA in 2011 by the Jaguars but, like Harvey, was cut before the start of the regular season and he then wound up on the Rams' practice squad. The Colts signed him on November 28, 2011 and he finished out the 2011 season by playing in 4 games for the Colts and making 7 special teams tackles (along with one defensive stop). In 2012, he was injured in the first preseason game against the Rams and was placed on season-ending injured reserve.

C.O. Prime is an undrafted rookie out of Wagner College signed by the Colts to compete for a spot on the roster. He appeared in 45 games for Wagner and started 38, making 297 career tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 5 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, 7 pass deflections, and 2 picks. He started all 13 games as a senior and led the team with 98 tackles.

First off, do any of those three guys (Harvey, Lutrus, and Prime) stand a shot at the roster? Yeah, they do. If one of them can stand out and contribute on special teams, they have a shot. But it will be a real uphill battle for each of them, as I don't see them replacing any of the first four linebackers mentioned. That means to make the roster, I think they would need to impress the coaching staff enough to keep five inside linebackers, and while it isn't an outrageous thing to consider, it also isn't very likely. The Colts kept five inside linebackers last season, but that was in large part due to Pat Angerer's injury in camp. I don't think any of the these three players make the roster, and that says more about the first four guys than about the last three.

Ok, so we've narrowed it down to the four guys who are likely to make the week one roster: Jerrell Freeman, Kavell Conner, Pat Angerer, and Kelvin Sheppard. Freeman will be starting, no doubt. He's got that locked down. But who starts alongside him?

It will very likely be Pat Angerer - as long as he is healthy and playing like it. There's really no way of telling that until he gets on the field, but a healthy Angerer holds the advantage over Conner and Sheppard. If he's not fully healthy, however (which is what we saw from him last season), then the competition is absolutely wide open.

I wrote earlier this year about how Sheppard may very well start if Angerer is still injured. I think that the correct decision would be to start Conner instead of Sheppard, but the early word out of OTAs would seem to indicate that the team thinks otherwise. I think that Sheppard is more suited for a backup role, and he could provide great depth and the ability to step in and start when needed. The same could be said of Kavell Conner, but I think that Conner is a better option to start than Sheppard.

Hopefully, however, the discussion of Conner or Sheppard is a moot point, as Pat Angerer should fill the starting spot alongside Jerrell Freeman as long as he is healthy.

That's something we'll have to wait and see until camp, but the team and fans are optimistic.

One thing that we don't have to wait and see about - the inside linebacker position will be a strong one for the Colts, both at the starting spots and the depth. And the position is headlined by Jerrell Freeman, who this year has plenty of pictures to choose from for this article. That's a good thing, too, because before long he might become the face of this defense.

And that's kinda hard to do without a single picture, which is where he was just a year ago.

Just another reminder how quickly things can change in the NFL and how there are always players in camp that can succeed when given the opportunity. That's what makes camp so intriguing. And the good thing is, it's just two weeks away.

Week One Starters: Jerrell Freeman, Pat Angerer; Backups: Kavell Conner, Kelvin Sheppard; Cut: Mario Harvey, Scott Lutrus, C.O. Prime (R)

For more in-depth analysis of the Colts’ roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson’s other position previews:

| QB | RB/FB | WR | TE | OL | DL | OLB | ILB | CB | S | S/T |

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