Last offseason, one of the first moves that the Colts new general manager Ryan Grigson made was to sign linebacker Jerrell Freeman from the Canadian Football League. Two years later, that move has turned out to be one of the best ones that Grigson has made as GM of the Colts.
Freeman led the Colts in 2013 with 126 tackles (5 for loss), recorded 5.5 sacks (second most on the team), deflected 6 passes, picked off 2 passes, forced 6 fumbles, and recovered 2. He took significant strides forward from his 2012 season in which he also led the team in tackles with 145. Freeman is one of the best players on the Colts and is really emerging into a star in the middle of the defense. He should hold down one of the inside linebacker spots for a while.
The position of who is alongside Jerrell Freeman, however, is up in the air. This year, Pat Angerer and Kelvin Sheppard both started a significant number of games at the other inside linebacker position and then Josh McNary and Kavell Conner backed them up. Angerer started 9 games and played in 11, recording 63 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 2 pass deflections, and 1 interception (off of Peyton Manning). Sheppard started 7 games, playing in 15, and notched 46 tackles and 1 pass deflection.
Angerer had a good year but showed limitations. The biggest limitation that he showed was in pass coverage, which has been a big weakness of his for a while. While some of the blame should go on the coaching staff for continuing to put him in situations where he needed to be in pass coverage, it also needs to be pointed out that in this defense the linebackers will have to cover at times and that if a player cannot do so, it means he is a bit of a liability. He was solid against the run, however - but ultimately, another injury resulted in him ending another season on injured reserve. He will become a free agent on March 11 and his injury history (it's significant) and the fact that Angerer is replaceable should mean that we've seen the last of him in Indianapolis. You won't find a guy who fought through more injuries, complained less, or worked harder than Angerer, but that alone does not secure him a new contract.
Sheppard is an interesting player because early on in the season he was terrible. Ryan Grigson traded Jerry Hughes to the Buffalo Bills in exchange for Kelvin Sheppard, and while Hughes recorded 10 sacks and 2 forced fumbles for the Bills, Sheppard wasn't near as spectacular. Let me note that I firmly believe that Hughes would not have been nearly as good if he was still on the Colts in 2013 and I believe that the change of scenery really helped him, but still - Sheppard wasn't great. As the season went on, however, he actually played well and wasn't hurting the defense like he was early in the year. It was a mixed bag for Sheppard in 2013, but he ended it better than anyone could have expected after seeing him early on.
One of the most interesting aspects of the defense in the 2013 season was the use (or lack thereof) of inside linebacker Kavell Conner. Just two years removed from a 100+ tackle season in 2011 and one year after he started 12 games for Chuck Pagano's defense in 2012, Conner started 0 games in 10 games played and recorded only 21 tackles with 1 pass deflection. He was a healthy scratch at times on game day and even when he was active he did not play much. Early in the season when Sheppard was playing terribly, Angerer was recovering from an injury, and Josh McNary was still on the practice squad, it made perfect sense to me to play Conner more - but the Colts didn't. For whatever reason, the coaching staff just didn't play Conner much and I cannot figure out exactly why. Either way, Conner is a talented player who is also due to become a free agent, and there wasn't much indication in 2013 that the Colts will keep him. Again, the whole situation with him this year was puzzling to me, to say the least.
Lastly, Josh McNary was activated toward the end of the season and played in 5 games, making 14 tackles. McNary, if you recall, was signed by the Colts this offseason but had to finish his military commitment before joining the Colts in training camp. He did, and he really impressed me in the limited time I watched him in camp. Then he suffered an injury (I was watching him closely on the play he was injured on and it was impressive - unfortunately he was injured). Because of that, he didn't appear in the preseason so most fans couldn't see him play, and he started the season on the practice squad. I figured he would just stay there all year and then make the team next year, but they promoted him to the active roster and he saw increased playing time as the season drew to a close, eventually seeing the second most snaps among inside linebackers, behind only Jerrell Freeman. I was very impressed with McNary when he played and while there is still room for him to improve he has a lot of potential. I liked what I saw in camp, I liked what I saw in the season, and the feel I get from the Colts is that they really did too. I'm not going to pencil him in for the starting inside linebacker spot alongside Freeman just yet, but he will absolutely get his chances. I like his potential. The Colts do too. Keep an eye on him.
The other inside linebackers on the roster - Mario Harvey and Scott Lutrus - both ended the season on injured reserve. Lutras was placed on injured reserve before even playing a game. I wouldn't expect him to be back next year, and if he is I wouldn't count on him making an impact at all. Mario Harvey, on the other hand, played in 12 games before being placed on injured reserve, and he played really well on special teams. He could be back as a special teams guy and inside linebacker depth next year.
Overall, there were a lot of positives from this group. The Colts have a very good one entrenched at one of the spots and need to improve at the other, but they have a guy there who could potentially provide that in Josh McNary. I would expect the Colts to add an inside linebacker this offseason to compete with McNary (and Sheppard - and Angerer and Conner if they're back), but I also don't think they should spend a lot of money at the position. I was pleased with the group overall in 2013, but there is no doubt that there is still room for improvement - even though there was noticeable improvement this year as well.
INSIDE LINEBACKERS GRADE: B
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2013 season by position, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews: