I cannot say enough good things about Stampede Blue's Andrew Mishler. He really is setting the standard for how bloggers should cover training camp. If you haven't read any of his camp reports, stop reading my boring crap and go check them out.
When you are done, finish reading this series, which will focus on Colts players who have looked great in camp so far and other Colts players who... well, who haven't.
This article covers the defensive players who have stood out in a very good way.
Bjoern Werner, OLB
The rookie was taken in the first round of the draft this year by the Colts, and so far he's looked like a first round pick. For those of you who have been reading Stampede Blue for a while, contrast Werner's rave reviews at camp with the secretive nonsense that surrounded another one-time Colts first round pick, Jerry Hughes. Unlike Hughes in 2010, who looked so bad Bill Polian ran to Peter King and started offering up lame excuses, Werner has looked fantastic.
Bjoern Werner had an excellent practice this afternoon. Won most of his 1-1's... Strong bull rush and active hands. #Colts— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) July 30, 2013
In fact, he's looked so good it's prompted more than a few observers to ask, Why isn't he starting?
Per Phil B. Wilson of IndyStar.com, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky has made it clear that Werner is backing up Robert Mathis at the "rush linebacker" position. The starter at the other OLB spot is Erik Walden, the overpaid free agent signee this past offseason. Werner has outplayed Walden on the practice field, displaying more playmaking and pass rushing ability. Werner has also showcased some good coverage skills and and a bit of toughness as an "edge-setter" along the defensive front.
Remember folks, pretty much the sole reason Erik Walden was signed was because he "sets the edge," which is coach speak for "he isn't a wuss against the run." If Werner shows that he is solid at setting the edge, there's little to no reason for playing Walden because Walden isn't a good pass rusher.
Like, at all.
At some point, Manusky is going to have to make the logical decision and give more first team reps to Werner, relegating Walden to second team. In fact, if Werner continues to develop, it makes little sense to play Walden at all with the starters unless Werner needs a breather. Yes, it's early in the sense that we're only a week into camp, but Werner's rise means that Walden becomes less and less useful as a starting outside backer for the Colts.
And please, don't buy into this "rotational players" crap, people. Rotating Walden in on run downs doesn't make sense unless Werner is Hughes-like when tackling running backs. The best players should be on the field working with their fellow starters, period. Right now, Werner looks better than Walden. That is a good thing. In fact, when you hear positive buzz of any kind from a rookie in camp, that is often a VERY good thing. If you hear nothing, or if you hear general managers making excuses, you should be a little concerned.
I'm going to lump Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, Darius Butler, and Cassius Vaughn together here because all four have looked impressive. Of all the areas that needed improvement on this roster, corner just about ranks up near offensive line. Thus, it should excite fans to know that all four of the team's primary corners have displayed a consistent knack of disrupting receivers and making life tough for them in practice.
In fact, the overall sense in camp is that the defense has outplayed the offense, and the corners are a big reason why. That has never happened in any Colts training camp I've covered or attended, and I've been doing this for seven years.
Vaughn had a pick-6 at the first camp practice. Butler had two picks in two days, and both Toler and Vaughn have consistently knocked down balls intended for receivers. Most recently, Vaughn picked off Andrew Luck during a red zone drill yesterday.
I haven't done a count, but my instincts say there have been more picks in one week of this year's camp than in the last three years of Colts camp combined.
Improved corner play is critical for this team in 2013 because, pretty much for the last six years or so, the corners haven't been all that good. Want a telling quote from second-year general manager Ryan Grigson on the current state of the Colts corners and what he thought about the group he inherited last season? Here's a quote from Grigson on the subject, via CBS Sports' Jason La Confara:
"We don't have a corner on our roster who was in our camp last year, if that tells you anything."
Translation: The guys I inherited from the Polian Regime sucked.
Personally, I concur with Grigson. They did suck. Now, they're gone, and the guys replacing them are able to cover receivers one-on-one and make plays on the football. It's been a long time since fans have seen corners like that in Indianapolis.
It's especially encouraging to see Davis, Butler, and Vaughn continuing to develop, Vaughn in particular. All three were maddenly inconsistent last year, but when they were "on" they were playmakers. If they can find some consistency, this secondary has the makings of a special group.
Josh Chapman, NT
All great 3-4 defenses require a "War Daddy" in the middle; a nose tackle who can swallow offensive linemen and make life hell for an opposing quarterback. The Colts drafted Chapman last year with the hope he'd develop into such a player, and they signed veteran Aubrayo Franklin this offseason just in case that didn't happen.
This year, Chapman is back from missing all of 2012 while recovering from a torn ACL he suffered in college, and he's practicing like a man on fire.
The one-time 310 pound tackle has now bulked up to 340, and good god does he look the part of "War Daddy!" In padded practices, Chapman has absolutely stood out, not just for his size but his play. Offensive linemen have not been able to effectively block or control the former 5th round pick in 2012.
Pagano on Josh Chapman: "It's like sticking a 900-pound safe in the middle."— Andrew Mishler (@andrewmishler) August 2, 2013
Chapman has also looked good in pass rushing drills. Yep, that's right. A 340 pound pass rusher. I'll hold off on my excitement until I see some rush ability in an actual game, but it is very encouraging to hear that Chapman is making a strong impression in camp so far.
For a team that, last year, was forced to resort to using Antonio Johnson at nose tackle, the addition of a healthy Chapman is a huge boost to the defensive line. The Colts are already thinner at the position, placing Brandon McKinney on IR for the second year in a row. The coaches also have the before-mentioned Franklin, fellow veteran Martin Tevaseu, and rookie Montori Hughes slotted at play nose tackle this preseason as well.