In a 3-4 defense like the one that the Colts run, the run defense is often left up to the inside linebackers, primarily. The defensive line is primarily there to engage the offensive linemen and take them out of the play so that the linebackers can make the plays. We already looked at the outside linebackers and how Erik Walden and others will need to do a better job at setting the edge, because last year, the run defense wasn't that good. The Colts also attempted to improve their inside linebacker position for that very reason, and the hope is that the linebackers can become the core of the Colts defense.
That's off to a good start with Jerrell Freeman in the middle of the defense, as Freeman has put together back-to-back impressive seasons for the Colts. Starting every game over the past two years, Freeman has racked up 271 total tackles, 7.5 sacks, 8 pass deflections, 3 picks (1 TD), 7 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries. That's a heck of a stat line for a guy who's entering his third season in the league. He's a terrific tackler and is a force for the Colts, and he's a very good pass rusher too for what the Colts ask him to do. He does a good job in coverage though he's only an average player in that respect. The main area that Freeman needs to improve on is his run defense - it isn't bad, and his tackling often helps to make up for it, but he needs to get stronger to truly become the force against the run that he can be. Don't get me wrong, however - Freeman is one of the best defensive players the Colts have and has put together two great seasons in a row, and hopefully he'll continue to improve.
Joining Freeman at inside linebacker this year will be veteran newcomer D'Qwell Jackson. Jackson is entering his ninth season in the league, having spent the previous eight with the Cleveland Browns. Playing in 97 games (starting 96), Jackson has made 824 career tackles, 11.5 sacks, 28 pass deflections, 8 picks (1 TD), 5 forced fumbles and 7 fumble recoveries. In each of the past three seasons, Jackson started all 16 games and racked up over 100 tackles. In other words, in the past five seasons that the Colts two starting inside linebackers have played, they haven't missed a single game and have topped 100 tackles in each of them - that's not a bad group to have. Jackson's strength, much like Freeman, is in his tackling, where Jackson excels. He's pretty good in coverage and can manage as a pass rusher if needed, but the one area that Jackson isn't that strong at is in his run defense. He can tackle the ball-carrier when he gets to him, but it's the getting to him part that Jackson sometimes struggles with, as he doesn't always make the best reads and can get blocked out of a play too easily. It's unlikely that at 30 years old he'll improve greatly in this area so the Colts just have to accept Jackson for what he is - a good inside linebacker who will absolutely help the Colts but who won't be the force against the run that they need.
Enter Andrew Jackson. Perhaps that was the reason behind drafting Jackson in the sixth round, as Jackson is a terrific run defender. In 37 career games at Western Kentucky, he racked up 326 tackles (43 for loss), 6.5 sacks, 1 pick, 4 pass deflections, 5 forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. He had off-the-field issues in college and struggles a bit in coverage, but against the run, he's a good player. While we can't expect a sixth round pick to play a big role or to play well in it, at the same time I think Jackson has the ability to fill a need the Colts have and to be a rotational player for the team at inside linebacker. Because they have two good starters, Jackson won't need to start, but neither starter takes his strength in run defense, and that's where Jackson is at his best. The Colts might use Jackson as a situational player when they really need run defense, and hopefully he can continue to improve and see more playing time. It's a lot to ask of him, but I think he'll get a shot - for sure in training camp and preseason, and probably a bit of playing time in the regular season as well.
While Jackson might be used as a situational player, if the Colts need to make a change at starter due to injury or something like that, it will be Josh McNary who likely steps in. Signed last year after he served his commitment to the U.S. Army, McNary looked very impressive in training camp and even looked to perhaps steal a starting spot before going down with an injury. He saw increased playing time as the season went on and played in 5 games, making 14 tackles. It was a relatively small sample size, though we all saw enough to be impressed by McNary and the Colts clearly like him as well. He won't be starting because the Colts have Freeman and Jackson, but McNary will likely play a significant role in the defense and see significant playing time. Especially now that Robert Mathis will miss the first four games of the season, McNary could be shifted over to outside linebacker at times as well to help out. He's listed on the roster only as a "linebacker," and while the Colts have him inside and they obviously like him a lot there, I expect him to get some time outside as well. He'll be a valuable player for the Colts in 2014.
Kelvin Sheppard was acquired from the Bills in the Jerry Hughes trade, and last year for the Colts he played in 15 games (starting 7), making 46 tackles, a sack, and a pass deflection. Sheppard was a very interesting player because early on in the season he was terrible, but as the season went on he looked much better and ended up being a contributor. I'm still not quite sure what to make of Sheppard because he was really bad early on last season but as it went on he looked better. He never looked great, but he ended up being a good depth guy. He's definitely on the bubble this year in terms of making the roster, and he'll need an impressive showing in training camp and preseason to show that he's worth keeping around for this season.
The final player at the position is another one listed on the roster as simply a "linebacker," but he too will likely be playing inside. Henoc Muamba had several callers after his play in the CFL last year, but the Colts were his first and GM Ryan Grigson personally made the call, both of which impressed Muamba enough to sign with the Colts. In 3 years in the CFL, Muamba 171 tackles, 53 special teams tackles, 4 sacks, an interception, and a fumble recovery (for a touchdown). He was named a CFL all-star in 2013 and was awarded the best player in the East Division. The 6-0, 242 pound, 25-year old rookie is following in the footsteps of Jerrell Freeman, who himself was a CFL standout at linebacker signed by Ryan Grigson. Freeman has done a tremendous job in Indianapolis and the hope is that Muamba can do so as well. We've really yet to see Muamba play and so camp and preseason will tell us a lot about him and he's definitely not guaranteed a roster spot, though he's a very intriguing player and a guy to definitely watch.
Ultimately, I think the Colts will probably keep five guys at the position based on the talent they have and the importance of the linebacker position in the 3-4 defense. Jerrell Freeman and D'Qwell Jackson will be the starters, and Josh McNary will absolutely play a significant role in the defense as well. Hopefully Andrew Jackson can provide help in the run defense, and that leaves Henoc Muamba and Kelvin Sheppard. Without seeing them play in camp or preseason it's really hard to tell, but I think Muamba has the potential and should show it enough in camp to win the spot. The inside linebacker position for the Colts is looking good and hopefully in year three of Chuck Pagano's program they can really make the strides necessary to become the force in the middle of the defense.
Week One Starters: Jerrell Freeman, D'Qwell Jackson; Backups: Josh McNary, Andrew Jackson, Henoc Muamba; Cut: Kelvin Sheppard
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson's other position previews: