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Replacing Robert Mathis: What do the Colts do Now?

With Robert Mathis tearing his Achilles tendon, what can the Colts do now?


The second worst Colts news any Colts fan could hear came to fruition yesterday: All-Pro OLB Robert Mathis is out for the year. The Colts and Ryan Grigson must determine how they can even come close to replacing his production with a team that has absolutely no proven pass rusher currently on the roster. All in all, the Colts have three basic options on how to replace Robert.

Option 1: Promote From Within

This seems like the most logical thing to do. That means this is probably the least likely of all the options to happen. As I already mentioned, there's no proven pass rusher currently on the roster, which complicates matters significantly. Looking at the current Colts roster, the most obvious choices to attempt to replace Mathis's production are Bjoern Werner, Cam Johnson or Jonathan Newsome.

Grigson had high hopes for Werner when he drafted him in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. However, Werner, as many bloggers noted, never played as a stand-up OLB in Florida State's defense. He excelled in a more traditional 4-3 DE position and continues to be at his best when he's allowed to put his hand in the dirt and get after the passer. As a 3-4 pass rush OLB, he's been underwhelming to say the least. He as shown an inability to beat an OT one on one, which is what Mathis did on a regular basis. Werner, in my opinion, projects better as a 4-3 DE or a 3-4 strong side OLB, the position currently held by free agent bust Erik Walden. Watching the tape thus far, it makes me think more and more that Werner isn't the guy Grigson thought he'd be.

Johnson and Newsome are basically the same style of player. Both are 6'3" and weigh about 260 lbs and 251 lbs, respectively. Both show flashes of solid pass rushing skills not nothing close to the seasoned Mathis. Johnson has had far more opportunity to prove he can replace Mathis but cannot seem to fight the injury bug off. Newsome was drafted and described as a Robert Mathis clone. Watching film on him, I don't see it. He's a hustle guy who never quits but didn't show the elite ability that Mathis did even early in his tenure. Maybe in time Newsome can become Mathis-lite, which would be a coup, but as for this year, don't expect much.

Another less obvious player, the Colts may consider is LB Josh McNary. McNary has just made plays when he's been on the field and deserves a closer look in replacing Mathis. He's consistent against the run and can maneuver through traffic. He's also very adept at timing his blitzes.

Speaking of blitzes, if Grigson decides to stay within the friendly confines of the current roster, that's my guess as to how the Colts will replace Robert's production. Blitzing. For all the heat Pagano and Manusky get on social media, one thing they do extremely well is design blitz packages to allow for a free rusher. That's how Werner has gotten most of his QB pressures.  The problem with blitzing is that against a good QB, i.e., Peyton Manning, the offense will destroy the defense on hot routes if the DBs are not in press-man coverage to disrupt the timing. The soft man the Colts have played behind blitzers will continually cause the team issues as the cushion allows for WRs to get into their routes too easily and QBs too much time to find the open man.

It was interesting to note Ryan Grigson did not sign a pass rushing OLB to the Practice Squad, despite knowing Mathis would miss the first four games and the injury history involved with Cam Johnson.

Option 2: Sign a Free Agent

This has been discussed on social media quite often since yesterday's announcement of Mathis's injury. I'll be frank, free agents, especially veteran free agents, are free agents for a reason. The best OLB available as a veteran FA is James Harrison, who is not a pass rusher but at least has experience in the 3-4, which could work in his favor, and is incredibly old.

The other free agent options include the likes of James Anderson, Ernie Sims and Michael Boley. All of these guys are older vets, 29 years old and older, who have significant holes in their game and wouldn't constitute an upgrade over what the Colts currently have on the roster.

Another less obvious option is to pillage a practice squad or two in search of a diamond in the rough, something Grigson has shown quite the propensity to do. Here are five practice squad players to consider: John Simon (BAL), Keith Pough (CLE), Julian Stanford (DET), Ja'Gared Davis (NE) and Howard Jones (PIT).

Simon played OLB at Ohio State and received high praise from Head Coach Urban Meyer for being the heart of the Ohio State team. He's got enough athleticism to pressure the QB from a two-point stance and is has a high motor that Pagano and Grigson love. He'd be an excellent addition to the Colts roster as a whole and has shown the ability to help with the pass rush.

Pough is a leaner OLB who, like Simon, is a hight motor, high intensity player. Pough has the speed to get around OTs but doesn't have the strength to disengage once an OL is locked on. He is productive in coverage and can weave through traffic if necessary. He may have some issues bringing down NFL ball carriers though due to his smaller physique.

Stanford was a bit of an unknown coming out of Wagner but started a few games for the Jaguars before going to Detroit. He's similar to Pough in that he's explosive and plays hard but lacks the size to be an every down OLB in the NFL.

Davis is best suited as a pass rush specialist who, like Pough and Stanford, is a bit smaller stature. He'd be a guy that pins his ears back and just goes after the QB.

Jones was one of my favorite late round to UDFA prospects. He's an explosive edge rusher who is relentless when given the opportunity to just go get the QB. Jones closes fast and would likely be a great signing from the PIT practice squad. He is limited though by his lack of size and potential liability at the point of attack.

Signing a practice squad player would be much more beneficial to the Colts in the long run than signing a veteran who doesn't offer near the upside as the practice squad players do. Ideally, Grigson would target Simon, Jones or Pough, if he does decide to go that route.

Option 3: Trade

I cringe even mentioning this possibility but with Ryan Grigson, it is always something that needs to be considered. Grigson loves to trade. He's like me in my fantasy football league, except his trades actually mean something to a lot more people. The trading options terrify me. Most importantly, anything involving a Round 4 pick or higher should immediately be vetoed by Kalen Irsay.  Grigson is likely to target a young OLB prospect that has under-produced for their current team. Another important thing is that any trade involving a Round 4 or higher pick should be vetoed immediately.

The trade market though is very similar to the veteran free agency issue. These players are on the trading block for a reason.

The most obvious potential trade target that has been discussed on social media is for MIA OLB Dion Jordan. He doesn't fit the scheme in MIA and is currently serving a four game suspension for violating the NFL substance abuse policy. This may actually work in Grigson's favor by lowering the value of Jordan but it would still likely be a fairly substantial cost to acquire him. My bet is it'd take at least a Round 3 pick to pull him away, which as I mentioned earlier, should be vetoed immediately. Another interesting thing I've brought up before is trading Coby Fleener to MIA for Dion Jordan straight up. It'd actually help both team immensely and allow the Colts to place Cam Johnson on IR and sign Weslye Saunders to the active roster. As a side, I still have no idea why the Colts keep a FB on the roster. Makes no sense to me at all.

Another possible option that was again discussed on social media involves Washington OLB Brian Orakpo. I'll make this quick. That's never going to happen unless Grigson wants to give up another Round 1 pick and if he tries to do that, the deal should be vetoed immediately. Dan Snyder seemingly loves Orakpo and wants to make him a Washington player for life. On top of that, his salary is massive at the moment, as he got the franchise tag, and there is no guarantee of a new deal so Grigson could literally pay him a ton of money and lose a high draft pick, only to have him walk. This can't be good for the franchise.

The last two names I'll mention here is Eagles OLB Brandon Graham and Chiefs OLB Tamba Hali.

Graham actually makes the most sense out of the names mentioned so far and would cost the least, not to mention I'm not sure Grigson has met his yearly quota of trades for Eagles players yet. He's on the last year of his rookie contract, is only 26 years old and was graded as the 16th best OLB in the NFL last season by Pro Football Focus. Since he may not re-sign, and his contract voids prior to the time the franchise tag can be applied, it drives down his value even more. He's not a pure pass rusher but is relentless in pressuring the QB and uses his hand effectively to disengage blockers. If Grigson trades for a veteran player, this is the guy he should target.

Hali has a proven record of being a high quality pass rusher, as we all know how effective the Chiefs pass rush was last year in the playoffs after Hali went out, but he'd cost about $8 million against the cap this year and next. He's also an older player who is on the wrong side of 30. After drafting Dee Ford in last year's draft, the Chiefs likely don't plan to re-sign Hali, which would lower his trade value. However, the Chiefs are likely to ask for at least a Round 4 pick for Hali. As I mentioned before, any trade involving picks Round 4 or higher should be vetoed immediately. One of the more concerning things for me regarding Hali is that he showed up to training camp 20 lbs overweight, even after knowing the Chiefs drafted Dee Ford to push him for playing time. Quite honestly, I'd rather have a guy that works his butt off to show he's not going to be replaced anytime soon than one who takes time off and seemingly lets himself go. As Grigson and Pagano like to say, iron sharpens iron and Hali is more like butter at the moment.

Needless to say, there are several options to help compensate for the loss of Robert Mathis. The one I'd go with is signing a practice squad player like Simon, Jones or Pough and place Cam Johnson on IR or release Mario Harvey. The second best option is to just promote from within and manufacture pressure through blitzes. The option that is arguably the worst for the Colts, but could be the most likely to happen, is Grigson trades a high round pick for an OLB and overreacts to losing Mathis, like he overreacted to losing Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw last season.

No matter what happens, the Colts pass rush is in quite the conundrum. Here's hoping they can fix it.

Get well soon Robert! You're already missed.