Over the next few weeks, we will be looking position by position at the current talent on the Indianapolis Colts' roster and previewing the battles that may take place in training camp. Today we look at the defensive line.
Today we are going to take a look at the Colts defensive line. For years, the Colts played a base 4-3, meaning they had four defensive lineman. While the interior of the line was not always pretty (okay, it pretty much stunk), the line was a strength of the defense. The duo of ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis wreaked havoc on opposing quarterbacks. Since Mathis entered the league in 2003, the two have combined for 173 sacks and 73 forced fumbles. Those numbers are ridiculous, and the two highlighted the Colts defense for years. At least Colts fans could brag about the defensive ends, no matter how bad the secondary was. Not anymore.
Now, in just six months, Freeney and Mathis have been moved to linebacker and the Colts' defensive line no longer holds the best pass rush duo in the NFL. In fact, the number of players on the line has even changed. The defense is switching from a base 4-3 to a base 3-4, meaning the defensive line now has only three men up front.
What is the defensive line expected to do in a 3-4 defense? First off, they are not really expected to make tackles, but are expected to make sure that the offensive line does not open up any running lanes or get down the field to block linebackers. They really do the dirty work, and are not recognized unless things go bad. But they really are the key to success in a 3-4 defense.
The starting defensive line looks to be Cory Redding and Fili Moala at the ends and rookie Josh Chapman at nose tackle. Just as we did with the offensive line, we will look at the positions individually, starting with the defensive ends.
Cory Redding was signed as a free agent from Baltimore this offseason, following Chuck Pagano to Indianapolis. Drafted by the Lions, Redding spent six years in Detroit before being traded to Seattle. After one year with the Seahawks, he signed with the Ravens as a free agent. In his nine years, Redding has recorded 302 tackles and 25.5 sacks, along with one interception. He has scored one career touchdown, in a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Steelers following the 2010 season.
Fili Moala was drafted by the Colts in the second round of the 2009 draft out of USC. The 27 year old has made 54 tackles and 2 sacks in his short career.
The duo of Redding and Moala seems like nothing compared to the duo of Freeney and Mathis, but the defensive end position has changed for the Colts. No longer do they need speed pass rushers on the outside, as that will be handled by the outside linebackers (which, sure enough, are Freeney and Mathis). These defensive ends are basically defensive tackles. The signing of Redding was big for the Colts. He will really help make the transition to a 3-4 defense easier and could provide decent play.
Fili Moala is more of a question mark. While it looks like he will start, it is not set in stone (neither is Redding's spot, but it is much more secure than Moala's in my opinion). Drake Nevis could also make a push for a starting spot. Nevis was drafted by the Colts last year and recorded 19 tackles in his rookie campaign, but was often injured. He is smaller than both Redding and Moala, which certainly is a disadvantage. But he still has the chance to earn the spot in training camp.
Ricardo Matthews is another guy who could make a push for a prominent role. He was drafted by the Colts in the 7th round of the 2010 draft, and in limited playing time has made 15 tackles and 1 sack. Matthews' size could work to his advantage, but his skills may not.
Frankly, the defensive ends are a question mark. There will be guys fighting for a spot, and I do not think any of them are really the long term answer at the position. Obviously, I hope one of them is but I just do not think so. Redding can be a decent player, but at 31 years old he is not a guy the Colts can build around (his talent is not something to build around either). Moala needs to adjust to playing end, and while he was one of the better interior lineman for the Colts in recent years, I think that has more to do with who was behind him (Antonio Johnson, anyone?).
This position is really one to watch in training camp in preseason, and it is an important one to the success of the Colts' defense in 2012.
Sure, defensive ends are very important, but if any position on the defense will really make or break the unit, it will be the nose tackle spot. They have the interior of the defensive line, and they need to be forces up front to take on the offensive lineman.
In the fifth round of this year's draft, they may have found that force. In what I consider to easily be the biggest steal of the draft for the Colts, they drafted Alabama nose tackle Josh Chapman in the fifth round. Chapman is coming off of a torn ACL (he actually played through the injury last season) so he has missed offseason work. Chapman, unlike any of the defensive ends, has the potential to be the answer at the position for years to come. This year could be rough, however. He is coming off of surgery to repair his ACL (which his recovery seems to be going on schedule), and has missed offseason work and conditioning. Once he comes back, he could very well be overwhelmed early. I still think he would start, but he may not look as good and fans may be clamoring for a change. But I have high hopes for Josh Chapman, and I think that he could be the anchor in the middle of the Colts' defensive line that they have been looking a long time for.
Also in contention for the spot is Brandon McKinney. He certainly has a chance to open the season as the starter, as Chapman is injured. Undrafted, he signed with San Diego in 2006. He spent a little over two seasons with the Chargers, and then signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Ravens after his release. He played four years in Baltimore before following Chuck Pagano to Indy. In his career, he has made 60 tackles and forced one fumble. McKinney is huge, coming in at 6-foot-2 and 345 pounds, according to the Colts' official roster. He will almost certainly make the team, the only thing left to decide is whether he will begin the season as the starter or not.
Antonio Johnson was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in 2007, but after a year on injured reserve and eight more weeks on the practice squad, the Colts signed him off of the Titans' practice squad in 2008. In his career, he has made 94 tackles and 1.5 sacks. He will certainly be in contention for a roster spot, but for not much more than depth reasons.
Undrafted free agent Chigbo Anunoby is also a guy I think could make a push for the roster spot. The second largest defensive lineman (behind McKinney) at 6-foot-4 and 324 pounds, the Morehouse State project has a chance to make the roster. He would be one of the last ones on the roster, but could be a pretty decent project player. [For a full look at Chigbo Anunoby, check out Andrew Mishler's analysis here.]
The bottom line is that Josh Chapman is the starter, as long as he is healthy. Brandon McKinney is pretty much locked into the number two spot as of right now, and then I think Johnson and Anunoby will battle for a third spot (that is considering the Colts even keep three nose tackles).
I am much higher on the nose tackle position than the defensive end, mainly because I think Josh Chapman could potentially be a long term player at his position. I cannot say the same for any of the other lineman.
Chapman, Cory Redding, Fili Moala, Brandon McKinney, and Drake Nevis will likely all make the roster fairly easily. That means that Ricardo Matthews, Chigbo Anunoby, Antonio Johnson, and others are fighting for a roster spot.
In my opinion, Johnson will make the roster and then Matthews will as well. I like Anunoby's potential, but I think he will start the season on the practice squad.
The defensive line will be one of the most important and interesting to look at in training camp, as much of the Colts' success will ride on the men in the trenches.
PROJECTED STARTERS: Josh Chapman (tackle), Fili Moala (end), Cory Redding (end)
BATTLING FOR STARTING SPOT: Brandon McKinney (tackle), Drake Nevis (end)
BATTLING FOR A ROSTER SPOT: James Aiono (end), Chigbo Anunoby (tackle), Antonio Johnson (tackle), Ricardo Matthews (end), Ollie Ogbu (end)