The Indianapolis Colts are entering year two of the Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky defense, and it figures to be much improved this year. Fans are excited about the rookie Bjoern Werner at linebacker, Greg Toler at cornerback, and LaRon Landry at safety. But what about all those guys the Colts brought in along the defensive line? They certainly addressed the spot this offseason, bringing in Ricky Jean Francois and Aubrayo Franklin in free agency and drafting Montori Hughes in the fifth round of the draft from Tennessee-Martin.
All of that said, however, I say with certainty that none of those guys are the player we all look forward to most making their debut in a Colts jersey along the defensive line. Not even close.
No, that guy is Josh Chapman, who spent all of last season rehabbing from a torn ACL he suffered at Alabama. But will he be starting to start off the year? What can we expect from him if he does? And what about the rest of the defensive line? Who will be starting, and what should we expect from them? We'll look into all of those questions and figure out who starts, who makes the roster, and what to expect from the defensive line this year.
Let me just start off by clarifying something that often confuses people - there is a difference between the defensive ends and defensive tackles on the Colts roster. While not much is made of who plays where, the Colts (and most teams) help us out by clarifying who plays defensive end and who plays defensive tackle.
Defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme are the 5-tech defensive ends, and they are usually responsible for playing on the strong side and stopping the run game that is usually coming to their side. They also are most of the time the team's best pass rusher on the d-line. Defensive tackles are the 3-tech defensive ends in a 3-4 scheme, and they usually seal the backside against runs and keep the edge.
With that in mind, let's look at the three defensive ends the Colts list on their roster, and this actually is the easiest position along the line to sort through. The spot currently has Lawrence Guy, Fili Moala, and Cory Redding.
Lawrence Guy was signed by the Colts in October of 2012 off of the Packers practice squad, the team who had drafted him in 2011 (he spent his rookie season on IR). After the Colts signed him last year, he appeared in 9 games (starting 2) and recorded 18 tackles, and a sack. He recorded 8 tackles in the game against the Chiefs alone.
Fili Moala was drafted by Bill Polian and the Colts in the 2nd round of the 2009 draft and has started 39 career games for the team while appearing in 48 total. He started all 16 games in 2010 and for his career has recorded 69 tackles, 2 sacks, 2 pass deflections, and recovered a fumble. In 2012, he started 8 games before being placed on season-ending injured reserve and notched 14 tackles and a pass deflection.
Cory Redding brings the veteran presence to this position, as he is entering his 11th year in the league. He was drafted by the Lions in 2003 and spent 6 seasons there before being traded to the Seahawks prior to the 2009 season. After that, he signed with the Baltimore Ravens and played 2 seasons there and then he followed Chuck Pagano to Indianapolis last offseason. He has started 115 career games (playing in 145) and has made 342 tackles, 27.5 sacks, 1 safety, 16 pass deflections, 1 interception, forced 4 fumbles and recovered 10. For the Colts in 2012 he started 14 games and recorded 36 tackles, 2 sacks, 4 pass deflections and recovered a fumble.
I'll go out on a limb and say that Cory Redding retains his starting spot this year. He is clearly the best player at defensive end for the Colts, the best pass rusher, a team-leader and veteran presence, and someone very familiar with Chuck Pagano.
Fili Moala is on the edge of making the 53-man roster and getting cut. He was really starting to show signs of improvement last year but had his season cut short due to injury. Many didn't think the Colts would re-sign him, but they did and that may indicate that they think he can be a real productive player for the team. While he isn't a lock by any means, I think that he will make the 53-man roster - that is, if he's healthy. If not, he might start off the year on the PUP list, or get cut altogether if he can't compete in training camp.
And Lawrence Guy? Well, unless Cory Redding sucks in training camp and preseason (won't happen) and Fili Moala isn't healthy, he won't make the roster. He's the third guy, and I'm still not sold the team keeps two.
Week One Starter: Cory Redding; Backup: Fili Moala; Cut: Lawrence Guy
Kellen Heard, Montori Hughes, Ricky Jean Francois, Ricardo Matthews, and Drake Nevis currently are the Colts' defensive tackles. At this point, the biggest battle seems to be who the starters will be, but let's take a look at each of the players on the team right now.
Kellen Heard is a 6-6, 341 pound guy entering his third year in the league, having spent time with the Raiders, Bills, and Rams before being signed by the Colts off of the Rams practice squad last year in November. He appeared in 3 games for the Colts last year, recording 1 tackle. He was inactive for the team's wild card game against the Ravens.
Montori Hughes was drafted in the 5th round by the Colts this year, a pick they traded to get. In college (at both the University of Tennessee and Tennessee-Martin) he played in 47 games (starting 23) and made 109 tackles, 5 sacks, 5 pass deflections, forced 3 fumbles and recovered 1 fumble. He was dismissed from the Tennessee team for academic and character reasons, thus the reason for the transfer to Tennessee-Martin for his last two years. That was also the reason he was picked in the 5th round, as talent-wise he was impressive.
Ricky Jean Francois was signed by the Colts in free agency this year after spending the previous four seasons with the 49ers (where he played briefly for Greg Manusky). He has played in 51 games in his career (though starting only 5) and has made 49 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 pass deflections, and forced a fumble. Last year, he played in all 16 games and started 3 while recording 22 tackles and 2 sacks. As with Donald Thomas along the offensive line, however, don't regard him as a backup-caliber player. He was playing behind one of the best in the league in Justin Smith, and when Smith went down with an injury last year RJF stepped in and played well.
Ricardo Matthews was drafted by the Colts in the 7th round of the 2010 draft and has played in 36 career games (starting 5) and recording 33 tackles and a sack with 3 pass deflections. All 5 of his career starts came last season (as he appeared in every game) and he made 13 tackles and 1 pass deflection.
Drake Nevis was the 3rd round choice in Bill Polian's last draft in Indy (2011). He has played in 14 games (starting 3) with 35 tackles, a sack, and 1 pass deflection, and he too saw all of his career starts come in 2012. He started 3 games (playing in 9) and recored 16 tackles and a sack before being placed on injured reserve.
Just looking at the 5 players here, I identify 3 guys who I think will make the roster to start the season: RJF, Hughes, and Nevis. Out of those guys, Jean Francois seems to be the starter and that's probably what will happen as well. Montori Hughes is more of a project it seems and has a lot of talent, but he needs to work a bit with the coaching staff and learn from the other players and hopefully he will become a very good player for the team going forward and one that can step in and help this year as well. Lastly, Drake Nevis was probably the team's best run defender along the d-line last year and that will likely help him earn a spot on the 53-man roster. He can also step in and play nicely when need be, but at this point all indications seem to be RJF starting at defensive tackle.
Week One Starter: Ricky Jean Francois; Backups: Drake Nevis, Montori Hughes (R); Cut: Kellen Heard, Ricardo Matthews
There is no position more important on the defensive line, and perhaps to the entire defense, as the nose tackle for a team running a 3-4 defense. Last year Antonio "Mookie" Johnson played there and, while he always worked hard and never quit, he just isn't a nose tackle. But he was thrust into the situation because the 2 true nose tackles both were injured and both missed the entire season. This year, they both return, with a new free agent signing and another player who played nicely last season.
Aubrayo Franklin was signed by the Colts this offseason and is entering his 11th season in the league, having spent time with the Ravens, 49ers, Saints, and Chargers. He really made a name for himself in his 4 years in San Francisco (with Greg Manusky). In his career (with the bulk of the production coming with the 49ers) he has played in 126 games (starting 79) and has made 224 tackles, 4 sacks, 8 pass deflections, 1 interception, forced 3 fumbles, and recovered 1 fumble. He played in 12 games for the Chargers last year (starting 9) and made 20 tackles. Prior to the season finale he was placed on injured reserve, but he is fine and ready to go for this year. here
Martin Tevaseu was a guy who placed nicely for the Colts when asked to in 2012. He is a guy in his 3rd year in the league, but saw an overwhelming majority of his career playing time come last year with the Colts. He played in 13 games (starting 2) and made 12 tackles and a pass deflection. He showed potential, but he may not get a chance to really continue to develop that as the Colts are looking to win now.
Brandon McKinney in entering his 8th season in the league, having spent time with the Chargers (2006-2008) and the Ravens (2008-2011). He too, like Cory Redding, followed Chuck Pagano from Baltimore to Indianapolis. He has appeared in 61 career games (starting 6) and has made 60 tackles, 2 pass deflections, forced a fumble and recovered one as well. He was signed to provide a veteran presence at the spot and also be the starter until Josh Chapman was ready to go, but after only 3 preseason games last year McKinney was placed on season-ending IR.
Lastly, we get to Josh Chapman himself. The 6-0, 340 pound guy is entering his second season with the Colts after being drafted in the 5th round last year, but he has yet to take the field in blue and white. He tore his ACL during his senior season at Alabama (where he anchored the defensive line of the best defense in the country and won two national championships) and played on it until the season was over and he was a national champ for the second time. Because of his injury, however, he slipped a bit in the draft and started the year on the PUP. He tried to play after that but was eventually placed on season-ending IR.
If you listen to Chuck Pagano talk about this guy for just 2 minutes, you can tell why fans are so excited about him. I am too, don't get me wrong (I gave the pick an A at the time) and I expect big things from the big man. But I think that the year off has caused fans to have an unrealistic expectation of him, like he will be the missing piece on the way to the Super Bowl or something. Let me tell you - I don't care how good Josh Chapman plays, if this Colts team makes the Super Bowl this year it will be because of 1) Andrew Luck, 2) Andrew Luck, and 3) Andrew Luck. While Chapman could very well anchor this defensive line for years to come, fans have been placing super high expectations on him, whether they realize it or not.
Well, now that I got that little rant done I'll just say that I absolutely expect Chapman to be the starter when healthy and I fully expect him to be able to handle the nose tackle job nicely and think he can become an anchor there. I do. So I think that he will be the starter there this year, and for good reason, as he is the best player at the spot.
Aubrayo Franklin will likely make the team as a veteran guy who can step in, and that's the same reason why I think Brandon McKinney will make the team too. I expect McKinney would probably be the guy who would step in if Chapman got injured, but there is also the question of how healthy McKinney is. Would Franklin have been signed if McKinney was healthy? I don't know, but his healthy is something to keep an eye on.
That leaves Martin Tevaseu off the roster, and while I like the guy and liked what he did last year, the Colts just can't keep four nose tackles and the other three bring more to the roster than Tevaseu does at the moment.
The way we judge this position at the end of the year will come down to Josh Chapman. Can he really live up to the expectations set for him? Will he become the anchor that we all think he can be? If those answers are both yes, the Colts will not only have a real good defensive line this year, but for years to come as well.
Week One Starter: Josh Chapman; Backups: Brandon McKinney, Aubrayo Franklin; Cut: Martin Tevaseu
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts’ roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson’s other position previews: