Perhaps the most concerning thing that we saw in preseason action from the Colts was their lack of pass rush. But really, there's not many people there to contribute to the pass rush in the first place, so it shouldn't really have come as a surprise.
Sure, there's Robert Mathis, who is one of the league's best pass rushers. But after him? You have Erik Walden - a free agent brought in to be a run defender and who is a bad pass rusher. You have Lawrence Sidbury, the other free agent linebacker signed to be a pass rusher, but he's on injured reserve now after not doing much at all in camp or preseason. You have Caesar Rayford, who led the team and NFL with 5 sacks this preseason and forced 2 fumbles - although, they don't have him anymore after trading him to the Cowboys earlier this week. Is there anyone else? Anyone?
Well, there is another guy, but he's a rookie. Bjoern Werner, the Colts' first round pick, is going to have to step up and generate some pass rush, because the team absolutely cannot leave it up to Mathis alone. As good as he is, teams will be keying in on him. The team needs someone else to step up and rush the passer alongside Mathis. And the most likely (and perhaps only?) candidate to do that is Werner. Because of that, fans have high expectations for him. I think they have been tempered a bit after watching him in preseason, but still, they are expecting him to contribute a lot this year. People are saying that perhaps he's not as good as we once thought, but let me offer a counter point of view that is much more accurate: the expectations were too high for him in the first place.
Shortly after the draft, Nate Dunlevy at Colts Authority looked at expectations for the rookies this year based on past players, and this is what he found regarding pass rushers:
"Since 2000, there have been 28 defensive ends/linebackers taken between picks 14 and 34 in the draft. Players like Tamba Hali, Luis Castillo and Kyle Vanden Bosch are among the notables.
"Measuring these players in terms of games played and started, it's clear that a player drafted in this slot should play immediately. 23 of the 28 players played at least 14 games, and 18 played all 18 games. Just under half of them started at least 9 games on the season, and a quarter of them started 15 games or more.
"These kinds of pass rushers were fairly productive right way. Ten of the 28 picked up at least 4.0 sacks in their rookie year. 24 posted at least 1.0 sacks. In terms of tackles, 30 or more would be in the top 10, while 20-30 would be the middle tier.
"Seven of the 28 players taken in this range ended up having a season with at least 10 sacks in their career. Three went to Pro Bowls. Of the seven 10-sack players, five of them were in the top-10 in rookie year production, though Vanden Bosch never blossomed until his fourth year the league."
Dunlevy then concludes, based on past players and such, that 4 sacks and 30 tackles is a fair expectation for Werner, and that those numbers should be the ones that we base his season off of. Above? Then it was a success. Below? It was a bad year one.
I don't care whether you agree with those exact numbers or not, all I want to point out is that Nate is definitely in the ballpark. Did you realize that Dwight Freeney had 5 sacks last year? Yet his season was considered a big letdown. Why? Because of expectations once again. He has consistently been such a dynamic pass rusher that more was expected of him.
There's a reason why I'm doing this article now at the beginning of the season. It's because I don't want people characterizing Werner's season as a bust when in fact it was just the high expectations on him that caused that perception.
The Colts definitely need Werner, no doubt. I ranked him number 8 on my list of the 13 most important Colts to the team's success in 2013. They need him to contribute. But need doesn't mean that production will increase more than it normally would be, and in Werner's case as a rookie pass rusher transitioning from a 4-3 defense to Chuck Pagano's hybrid 3-4, it probably won't.
Werner still will be a good player this year and he absolutely should get some pressure on opposing quarterbacks. But expecting an outside linebacker to realistically provide the caliber of rush that the team needs may not happen, and that wouldn't necessarily mean a bad season for Werner.
I hope just as much as every person reading this that Werner's rookie season turns out to be like Dwight Freeney's, who notched 13 sacks in his first year. But I also want to caution people against setting too high of expectations for Werner, because if that happens then our analysis of his season will be skewed as well.