If there is a position that surprisingly has depth and more talent than expected on the Colts roster entering training camp, then it's the defensive line position. The Colts signed Arthur Jones in free agency to help the line and that will be an immediate boost, and then with guys like Cory Redding and Ricky Jean Francois returning and with high hopes for Josh Chapman, this unit could actually be a strength for the Colts after the past few years have just been "meh."
Like we did with the offensive linemen earlier this week, we'll break this down by position, and I'll be using the listings on the Colts official roster to group guys into either end, tackle, or nose tackle, but I'll explain throughout when I think that's not the best or most accurate assessment.
Headlining the group of defensive ends and the defensive line as a whole is veteran Cory Redding. The 33-year old entering his 12th season in the league has played the past two years with Chuck Pagano in Indianapolis and has started and played in 29 of 32 possible games, making 72 tackles, 6.5 sacks, 6 pass deflections, and recovering 2 fumbles. In 2013 he finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks and tied for first on the team with 6 tackles for loss. In his career, he has started 131 games and played in 160, notching 377 tackles, 32 sacks, 18 pass deflections, a pick, recovered 11 fumbles and forced 4. In addition to being the best and most consistent defensive lineman for the Colts over the past two seasons, he has also brought tremendous leadership and emotion to the team. He's entering the final year of his contract and considering the fact that he'll turn 34 during the season there are some question marks about his future with the team after this year, but all that really matters is that Redding is under contract for this year and will be a great contributor to a defensive line and a defensive unit that hopes to be greatly improved.
The other guy that really stands out at defensive end for the Colts is the guy they signed this offseason, Arthur Jones. Like Redding, Jones is coming to Indianapolis from the Baltimore Ravens, where he played for Chuck Pagano. Jones is entering his 5th year in the league and has played in 46 career games (starting 20), making 120 tackles, 8.5 sacks, and forcing a fumble. Most of his production to the Ravens defense has come in the past two years, with Jones notching 47 tackles and 4.5 sacks in 2012 while winning a Super Bowl with Baltimore and then following that up with a 53 tackle, 4 sack season a year ago. One of the biggest things Jones brings to the Colts, in addition to a good lineman, is the ability to play multiple spots along the defensive line, and while his most natural position and the one he is listed at is defensive end, don't be surprised whatsoever to see him get significant time at nose tackle and perhaps even wind up as the starter in the middle of the line. That largely depends on how Josh Chapman plays, but make no mistake about it - Arthur Jones will get a lot of playing time for the Colts this year along the defensive line, wherever that may be, and wherever it may be, Jones will bring much needed help as a run defender (he can rush the passer as well, but his biggest strength is run defense).
There are four other guys listed on the Colts roster as defensive ends, and they all are rookies. I wrote about Tyler Hoover and Nnamdi Obukwelu in my look at the Colts undrafted free agents, which I'll post below:
Tyler Hoover, DE, Michigan State
Hoover has great size at 6-7, 290 pounds, and he enjoyed a successful career at Michigan State. In 43 career games (21 starts), he racked up 93 tackles (9 tackles for loss), 7.5 sacks, 6 passes defended, 3 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. He started 11 games in 2013 and was named the Michigan State's recipient of the Big Ten Sportsmanship Award.
Outlook: Hoover projects as an end in the Colts 3-4 defense, and that means he'll be going up against guys like Cory Redding, Arthur Jones, and Fili Moala for a roster spot. That's not to discredit Hoover as a player, just instead to highlight that it won't be an easy task for him to make the roster. If he impresses enough, the Colts would certainly have room to keep him, but they don't have to have him as a defensive end and I think best case for Hoover is that he makes it onto the practice squad to continue to get some work. Also, he'll be wearing number 63 for the Colts, which will take some getting used to.
Nnamdi Obukwelu, DE, Harvard
Obukwelu appeared in 39 games at Harvard over his career and racked up 109 tackles (21 for loss), 9 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 1 fumble recovery. In his senior season in 2013, the 6-3, 275 pound lineman was named to the first team All-Ivy League team. He also won the George "Bulger" Lowe Award, given annually to the best defensive player in New England. In 2013 Harvard's defense finished seventh in the nation in rush yards allowed, giving up an average of just 97.3 yards on the ground per game. His coach, Tim Murphy, said that, "He controlled he line of scrimmage. He made the linebackers at times look tremendous because he was gobbling up double teams non-stop. He had an impact, a tremendous, dominant year, which is what we had eventually expected was the type of player he would be.''
Outlook: As I wrote earlier about Tyler Hoover, it will be hard for any defensive ends to come in and make the roster due to Cory Redding, Arthur Jones, and Fili Moala already being at the spot, but if a guy is impressive enough he could stick around as a fourth, especially if the Colts intend to play Jones at nose tackle quite a bit. If the Colts were to keep four defensive ends, I think it would be because one of the undrafted guys played really well in preseason and training camp, and while I'm not sure either of them will make the roster, I do like Obukwelu's chances at doing so better than Hoover.
As for Gannon Conway, he was the guy signed to replace Fili Moala on the active roster. Moala would have likely made the roster and provided great depth for the Colts, but he tore his ACL this offseason and is lost for the season. To replace his roster spot, the Colts signed Conway, who was initially signed as an undrafted free agent by the Miami Dolphins but was subsequently released. In 30 career games played at Arizona State, Conway started 14 and notched 51 tackles (9 for loss), 5.5 sacks, and 2 pass deflections while earning Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 honors in 2013. Conway is a long shot to make the Colts roster.
The final player listed on the Colts roster as a defensive end is Jonathan Newsome, the Colts 5th round pick out of Ball State in this year's draft. We're not going to talk about him here, however, as (despite what the roster might say) he projects best as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme and we will therefore look at him when we take a look at the outside linebackers next week.
Unlike the defensive end position, which has newcomers and guys that fans may not recognize, the defensive tackle position features guys who were around last year and who should be recognized, at least to some degree. Of course, Ricky Jean Francois came to Indianapolis last offseason and saw significant playing time for the Colts last season, starting 10 games and making 19 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and 2 pass deflections. In his career, he has started 15 games (playing in 61) and has notched 46 career tackles, 5.5 sacks, 4 pass deflections, and a forced fumble. In 2013 he failed to really impress many Colts fans and he wasn't the force that many hoped he would be. It's important not to just look at statistics, as for a 3-4 defensive lineman the main priority often isn't demonstrated in the stats, but RJF got pushed around too much to have a whole lot of confidence entering this season. He's an average player and you can win with him in the lineup, but he's not a great player and will need help around him - which the Colts hopefully have this year. RJF will likely start, though I think the Colts will see it as a higher priority to get Cory Redding and Arthur Jones playing time than Jean Francois, which could limit the playing time a bit - though, bottom line, the defensive line is a rotation and RJF will factor heavily into it.
Montori Hughes was drafted by the Colts in the 5th round last year and played in just 4 games in 2013, making 6 tackles. He was placed on IR near the end of the season. Hughes showed talent last year when he got it, but that wasn't often and he didn't show nearly enough to be guaranteed a roster spot this year or anything close to that, and he'll be battling it out just like the rest of the guys. Jeris Pendleton played in just one game for the Colts last year, though he impressed in the very limited time he played. He's a guy who, like Hughes, will have to compete with the others for a spot on the roster, but don't rule either of them out, because they are both talented enough and hard working that I think they might end up making it.
Our assessment of the depth and caliber of the Colts defensive line might very well come down to one player, and that is Josh Chapman. If Chapman is finally able to live up to the high expectations set by the team and fans, then the unit should be a very good one. As we already noted, Arthur Jones will play some nose tackle as well and I think he likely could wind up starting there, but that's depending on how Josh Chapman does. He didn't play at all in 2012 while recovering from a torn ACL, but in 2013 he appeared in 13 games and made 15 tackles. He played well when he was in, but the big thing the Colts need is for him to play more and play at a consistently good level. He absolutely has the talent to be able to do it, but this year will be a big year for him and the Colts are hoping that he can be the force in the middle of the defensive line that they know he can be. If he is, then not only will he provide the defensive line with great depth, he very likely could provide the defensive line with a good starter.
Zach Kerr, NT, Delaware
Kerr, 6-2 and 310 pounds, started every game for Delaware each of the past two seasons after transferring from Maryland after being ruled academically ineligible for the 2011 season. In 2013, Kerr notched 57 tackles (5.5 for loss), 3.5 sacks, 4 passes defended, and 2 forced fumbles. He could fit in either a 4-3 or a 3-4 defense but is a better fit in the 3-4 as a nose tackle, which is exactly where he'll play with the Colts. Kyle Posey of Bolts from the Blue looked at Kerr pre-draft and said of him that, "He's a versatile player that could turn out to be a true gem in this draft. I expect him to go sometime on Day 3, likely the 5th or 6th round, but he's far more talented than that."
Outlook: Kerr is a talented nose tackle who should provide some great competition. The question might end up coming down to two things: 1) how much the Colts plan to or want to play Arthur Jones at nose tackle and 2) how confident the team is in Josh Chapman. I think that Kerr is talented enough to stick around as a depth nose tackle, but it could ultimately come down to the Colts' plans at the position.
While I stand by what I wrote about Kerr as a player, the Colts made a move that brought Kerr's already not-great chances at making the roster down much lower when they brought back Brandon McKinney a few weeks ago - a guy who could be the wild card to watch in camp at the position. McKinney followed Chuck Pagano from the Ravens to the Colts just like Cory Redding and Tom Zbikowski did in 2012 and McKinney had a very good likelihood of being the team's starting nose tackle that year, though McKinney tore his ACL in August of that year. He missed the 2012 season and then last year still wasn't ready to go after the injury, so he was released with an injury settlement. The Colts brought him back for their mandatory minicamp, and if he is indeed healthy then he has a good chance at making the team as depth as well and could factor into a rotation with Arthur Jones and Josh Chapman. It remains to be seen how healthy Brandon McKinney is and how good he can do despite not playing for the past two years, but he definitely is a guy to keep an eye on in training camp.
Again, as I stated previously, the Colts defensive line looks to hopefully (*crosses fingers*) have good depth entering the 2014 season and the unit should be a pretty good one. Cory Redding, Arthur Jones, and Ricky Jean Francois will undoubtedly see major playing time and then the hope is that Josh Chapman can as well. If all of that goes as planned, then the defensive line should be a good unit that is improved and helping the Colts address their obvious need of stopping the run. In addition, if guys like Montori Hughes, Jeris Pendleton, Brandon McKinney, or others can find ways to contribute, that will be an added plus to the depth of the group. In short, from what it looks like right now on paper, I think the defensive line is coming together nicely, and that's certainly the hope as we enter training camp.
Week One Starters: Cory Redding (DE), Arthur Jones (NT), Ricky Jean Francois (DT); Backups: Montori Hughes, Josh Chapman, Jeris Pendleton; Cut: Gannon Conway, Tyler Hoover, Nnamdi Obukwelu, Zach Kerr, Brandon McKinney
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson's other position previews: