The outside linebacker position for the Colts was one that has been a question mark for this entire offseason, as we have wondered how Erik Walden will do this year, how much playing time he will get this upcoming season, and how much playing time Bjoern Werner will get in addition to how improved Werner will be. Those questions only intensified after it was announced that Robert Mathis, arguably the team's best player in 2013 and undoubtedly the best player on the defense, is suspended for the first four games of the regular season due to violating the league's prohibited substances policy - for trying to have a baby with his wife.
Regardless of your thoughts on the NFL suspending him for that, the fact of the matter is that the Colts will be without Mathis for the first four games of the season, and that is definitely not good. A few months back I looked at how the Colts will try to "replace" Mathis, and you can read my thoughts here. They'll need to do so quickly, as the Colts open the season with back-to-back primetime games against two playoff teams from a year ago against two Pro Bowl quarterbacks from a year ago - who combined (in both regular season and playoffs) completed 63% of their passes for 9,403 yards, 89 touchdowns, 15 interceptions, and a passer rating of 110 (of course, we're talking about Peyton Manning and Nick Foles).
A huge part of stopping the pass is with pass rush, and Mathis made up nearly half of the Colts pass rush last year. I compiled a chart of some of the sack leaders from last year and looked at their percentage of their respective team's stats, and Mathis blew away the competition by accounting for 46.43% of his team's sacks - that's an insane number.
We know Mathis is going to come back after week four, and he'll definitely be motivated to produce. He had his best career season last year and was more disruptive than he's ever been. While expecting him to repeat his performance last year of 19.5 sacks (even before the four-game suspension) was an incredibly tall task and an unrealistic expectation, Mathis has historically produced year in and year out and he should do so again this year. He'll be the team's starting outside linebacker the instant he is reinstated and there aren't many worries whatsoever about Mathis the player - even despite the fact that he most likely won't repeat the production of last year (though he'll still likely be very good).
Who will step up for Mathis in weeks one through four, however? Who will start at the other outside linebacker position? And who will be the depth players that the Colts keep around? Let's take a look.
The other outside linebacker position will be manned by Erik Walden - at least to start off with. Walden was signed before the 2013 season and, though a solid player, was overpaid. If you can get over his contract, he actually did ok in 2013. He wasn't anything great and the Colts could still upgrade the position, although he wasn't the train-wreck some feared he might be. His job is to set the edge for the run defense, however, and he didn't do that too effectively, as evidenced by the Colts horrible run defense yet again (though, at the same time, I must make the point that using team success/failure to determine an individual's is the wrong way to go, Walden's presence wasn't felt enough to make an impact in trying to change that result. While he wasn't the sole cause of the poor run defense, he didn't help it, either).
Bjoern Werner is the one who will be thrust into the limelight to fill in for the league's best pass rusher in weeks one through four, and after an ok rookie season he will need to be much improved. He managed only 2.5 sacks and missed some time due to injury last year, though anyone watching the Colts season could tell that he made significant strides of improvement as the season wore on and as he got healthy again. It's much too early to call him a bust, but he will need to step it up this season in a big way, both filling in for Mathis to start off the season and then as key role player after Mathis returns. The Colts need big improvement out of Werner, but even if not they don't really have much choice but to put him out there. I expect him to be improved significantly, but he has huge shoes to fill in for.
A guy who, like Werner, was a rookie last year and who fans hope for big improvement from is Daniel Adongo. Easily a fan-favorite among those on this site and throughout Colts Nation, Adongo said a few months ago that he is up to 282 pounds to go along with his 6-5 frame. In other words, he's freaking huge. Adongo was the definition of project player last year as the Colts basically spent the year teaching him. He made it up to the active roster toward the end of the season but didn't play much. The hope is that he can play more this year, whether it's on special teams or with the defensive unit - given his size and athleticism he should be able to do well, but we'll have to see and undoubtedly he'll be one of the guys we watch the closest in camp.
Cam Johnson played in 12 games with the Colts last year after a trade with the 49ers, and Johnson didn't play a whole lot, nor did he produce that much. He made just 5 tackles on the year and especially as the season went on saw his playing time continue to decrease, though it was never that great.
Aaron Morgan was signed to a reserve-futures contract by the Colts at the end of last season, and in his three year career (with both the Jaguars and Buccaneers) he has played in 18 career games and made 6 tackles. He is listed on the Colts roster simply as a linebacker, though he'll be playing outside linebacker, and his chances at making the roster appear slim - though an impressive performance in camp and preseason can definitely change that.
Andy Studebaker played in 11 games for the Colts last year, making 12 tackles and a pass deflection. In five years with the Chiefs he played in 70 games, starting 8, and notched 83 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 4 pass deflections, 2 picks, a forced fumble, and 2 fumble recoveries. He has produced, though with the Colts he really stood out on special teams, where he played very well. The thing they'll have to decide is whether keeping him around for those special teams purposes is worth it, and that will likely come down to whether he is worth keeping around as a backup linebacker, which will likely be decided in camp and preseason.
Finally, Jonathan Newsome will be competing for a spot at outside linebacker. The Colts roster lists him as a defensive end, but all indications suggest that he will be playing outside linebacker, which is why I've included him in his position preview. Newsome went to Ball State (after transferring from Ohio State), where he played in 23 gamse over two years for the Cardinals, making 116 tackles (24 tackles for loss), 16.5 sacks, a pick, and 2 forced fumbles. Some have compared him to Robert Mathis, and Newsome certainly does have great pass rush skills. He's raw in areas such as setting the edge and could gain to get stronger as well as continue to mature after some questions early on in his collegiate career, but he was a good value pick in the fifth round and one that could help the Colts. It remains to be seen how much he will play this year, but if he has an impressive camp then there's a chance that he could step in as an occasional and situational pass rusher this year.
The bottom line is this: Robert Mathis is really good - hopefully the other players are too. There are a lot of question marks that have only been increased with Mathis's suspension. The Colts have the players at the position to succeed, they just need to see improvement out of those players. If so, then the position will become a strength and a backbone of a defense that is hopefully improved in 2014. If not, then it will be a long season for the position, especially for the first four weeks. What is clear is that the Colts need people to step up at outside linebacker. What remains to be seen is who will.
Week One Starters: Bjoern Werner, Erik Walden; Backups: Daniel Adongo, Jonathan Newsome; Cut: Cam Johnson, Andy Studebaker, Aaron Morgan [Also making team but suspended for first four games: Robert Mathis]
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson's other position previews: