In the Colts' 3-4 defense, the pass rush largely centers around the linebacking core - namely, the outside linebackers. Last season, the Colts converted two of the best pass rushers in the NFL, Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney, to 3-4 OLB.
Freeney played the weak side linebacker, which the Colts call the rush outside linebacker (ROLB). As the name suggests, his primary role was pass rushing. Mathis played strong side and was more involved in the defense as a whole, although he was still the best pass rusher on the team and for much of the season he carried it by himself.
Mathis had a very good 2012 season in which he recorded 8 sacks was named to his fifth straight pro bowl. Freeney, however, struggled in the adjustment and was slowed by injuries, all of which resulted in the lowest sack total of his career (5) and a disappointing season from one of the greatest Colts.
This season, general manager Ryan Grigson made the tough but right decision to not re-sign Freeney and go a different way in improving the outside linebacking core. It was going to be hard to find a player who would be worse than Freeney last year - but Grigson may have done just that in signing free agent Erik Walden as number 93's replacement (both position-wise and number-wise).
Thankfully, he also addressed the spot in the draft and landed Florida State pass rusher Bjoern Werner in the first round. In fact, five of the nine outside linebackers on the Colts roster are newcomers, and only one guy out of the nine has started a game for the Colts before (Mathis).
Obviously, the new player that fans are most excited to see is the team's first round draft pick, Bjoern Werner. As a defensive end at Florida State, Werner racked up 99 tackles, 23.5 career sacks, 35 tackles for loss, 3 forced fumbles, 3 fumble recoeries (taking one back for a score) along with 1 pick and 17 passes defended in just 3 years. In 2012, he was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, First Team All-ACC, unanimous First Team All-American, a finalist for the Bronko Nagurski Award (the nation's top defensive player) and a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award (the nation's top defensive end). The Colts were working Werner primarily at rush linebacker while helping him make the switch from 4-3 DE to 3-4 OLB.
Erik Walden is working at the spot opposite of Werner, at strong side outside linebacker. Walden is entering his 6th year in the league and has spent time with the Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, and Green Bay Packers before signing with Indy this offseason. In 68 career games, he has started 26 and recorded 154 tackles, 9 sacks, 7 pass deflections, 2 picks, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. He has notched 3 sacks each of the past few years, and was ranked by PFF as one of the worst pass rushers in the NFL. Matt Miller gave him the worst pass rush grade of any of the top 35 outside linebackers he ranked in his "NFL 1000" series. That said, he still made the top 35 list, so he isn't a train wreck at the position. Signed to play run defense and fill the more traditional outside linebacker role, there is hope that he can play well and be a solid defender for the Colts. And who knows, maybe he'll even get a sack or two as well. [For more on Walden, check out Josh Wilson's player profile on him here.]
Walden wasn't the only outside linebacker that the Colts signed on the first day of free agency, however, as they also added Lawrence Sidbury from the Atlanta Falcons. Drafted by the Falcons in the 4th round of the 2009 draft, he played in 48 games but never started one, making 17 tackles, 5 sacks, and forcing 1 fumble. In 2011 he really began to show his pass rushing potential, racking up 4, but in 2012 for whatever reason he wasn't given many chances. The Colts signed him hoping that he can continue to progress forward from that 2011 season and continue to become the player that the Falcons hoped he could be. He won't be starting, but the hope is that he can provide solid depth at the position. [For more on Sidbury, check out Josh Wilson's player profile on him here.]
Also signed this offseason was a 25-year old rookie from Army, Josh McNary. Upon graduating from Army, he spent 2011-2013 fulfilling his active duty commitment to the Army. The Colts signed him earlier this offseason and placed him on the Reserve/Military list. In 46 games at Army, he recorded 195 tackles while becoming the school's all-time leader in both sacks (28) and tackles for loss (49). He also batted down 9 passes, forced 5 fumbles and recovered 3. He set a school record with 12.5 sacks in his senior year (2010) and is the only player in Army history with 2 double digit sack seasons. In 2011, he was awarded the East-West Shrine Game Pat Tillman Award, awarded to the player who "best exemplifies character, intelligence, sportsmanship and service," according to his player bio page on Colts.com. He will be in excellent shape and ready to compete for a roster spot once training camp rolls around, so long as he is released by the Army in time. The hope was that McNary would report to the Colts in mid-May or early-June to participate in OTAs, but he never made it and has yet to be released by the Army. Once that happens, he will be good to go for training camp and preseason to fight for a roster spot. While he may be behind in learning the defense, he should be in excellent shape.
The other new addition to the roster is Caesar Rayford, who Ryan Grigson unsurprisingly signed from the Arena Football League. Rayford, a 6-7, 267 pound, 27 year old rookie, spent the 2010-2012 seasons with the Utah Blaze, and in those three years he made 68 tackles, 22.5 sacks, 16 pass deflections, 7 forced fumbles, 7 fumble recoveries, and 2 interceptions that he took back for scores. Rayford also blocked 6 kicks, including an AFL record 5 in 2011. He started all 18 games in 2012 and all but one in 2011 and in 2012 was named to the All-Arena Fist Team.
Monte Simmons was signed to the Colts' practice squad last October and was signed to a reserve/futures contract in January. He was originally signed by the San Francisco 49ers in 2011 and has also spent time with the Eagles.
Quinton Spears was originally signed by the Dolphins in 2011 but was shortly released before being signed by the Browns. He appeared in 13 games for the Browns in 2011, recording 8 special teams tackles.
Justin Hickman was signed by the Redskins in 2007 but was then cut, and later signed with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the Canadian Football League and spent the 2009-2011 seasons with them (recording 144 tackles, 27 sacks, and 3 fumble recoveries). The Colts signed him last year and he spent 2012 with them, appearing in 12 games and making 12 tackles (3 of them special teams) before being placed on season-ending injured reserve.
Lastly, the biggest name at the outside linebacker position is Robert Mathis. A team captain and one of the all-time great Colts, Mathis has recorded 91.5 sacks and a league-leading 40 forced fumbles since being drafted by the Colts in 2003. His 91.5 sacks rank second in team history behind Dwight Freeney's 107.5 (Mathis is actually only 16 sacks from Freeney's record). He has been named to five consecutive pro bowls (2008-2012) and has had four seasons with double digit sacks. With Freeney moving on and signing with the San Diego Chargers, Mathis is sliding over to the rush linebacker spot, meaning that he will hopefully be even more of a force in the passing game.
Honestly, for all of that, it's not hard to see who is going to make the roster. Of course Robert Mathis, Erik Walden, and Bjoern Werner (though currently unsigned, it's nothing to worry about) will all make the 53-man roster, leaving what is likely only one spot for the others to fight for. And it would seem that Lawrence Sidbury has quite an advantage there. I won't call him a lock by any means, but it would be a pretty big surprise if he doesn't make it. If there is anyone who would challenge him, however, I would keep my eyes on Caesar Rayford. Rayford has the potential to make the roster as a backup linebacker and special teamer, and he could eventually play a bigger role for the team if they stick with him and continue to let him develop. He is one of the guys to keep an eye on this year at training camp. That said, I say with confidence that the four outside linebackers on the Colts week one roster will be Robert Mathis, Erik Walden, Bjoern Werner, and Lawrence Sidbury.
The real question is who will start opposite of Robert Mathis - Walden or Werner? Brad Wells wrote about that very topic a while back and reached the conclusion that Werner very well could end up as the starter. I think that Walden will be starting week one when the Oakland Raiders come to town and that Werner will be eased into the defense in pass rushing situations. The hope is that as the year goes on, Werner can continue to see increased playing time and eventually become a player who can be the full-time starter. I don't know if we'll see that happen this year, however, as I think that he and Walden will split the reps. But by the end of the year, I wouldn't be surprised if Werner had taken the role of starter from Walden. In fact, I absolutely expect it.
Robert Mathis will be fine and he will be a force for opponents to try to block. The real key is giving him help in the pass rush, and Bjoern Werner was drafted to do just that. If Walden can then contribute with solid run defense, this outside linebacking core could end up being pretty good.
Week One Starters: Robert Mathis (ROLB), Erik Walden; Backups: Bjoern Werner, Lawrence Sidbury; Cut: Caesar Rayford, Monte Simmons, Quinton Spears, Justin Hickman, Josh McNary
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts’ roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson’s other position previews:
| QB | RB/FB | WR | TE | OL | DL | OLB | ILB | CB | S | S/T |