There's a common refrain in football about how games are won in the trenches. Certainly, the men up front are guys who don't always get a lot of credit but they can have a huge impact on a game. In our series of Colts' positional reviews, we recently took a look at the offensive line, and today it's time to look at the defensive line.
Simply put, it's a need for the Colts entering this offseason. But let's first take a look back at the season, then take a look forward to what needs to improve.
The defensive line was a mixed bag this year, just like the offensive line. There were some impressive team performances and individual performances, but overall it wasn't great. The leader of the defensive line, as has been the case for each of the last three seasons, was Cory Redding, and the veteran also was once again the best player among the unit. Redding was fantastic this year, notching 35 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and a pass deflection at a position where stats don't tell the whole story. Especially at the beginning of the season, Redding was great. He's 34-years old and it's uncertain whether he will return for a 13th NFL season, but it's clear that in each of the last three seasons Redding has been the Colts' best defensive lineman and a leader, which was certainly true of the 2014 season as well.
Defensive end Ricky Jean Francois quietly had a better year this season than he did a year ago, when he was a clear free agent bust. He didn't enter the season as a starter but rather a role player and depth guy, but he ended up starting 13 games this season along the line, playing well when called upon. He recorded 28 tackles and 3 sacks with six pass deflections and a fumble recovery. Credit to RJF for improving upon a very bad 2013 season to a 2014 season in which he was a very solid player and a valuable guy to have around for the unit. This offseason, however, the Colts could save $4.875 million by cutting him, and that's likely to happen unless the two sides agree to restructure.
Nose tackle Josh Chapman provided plenty of reason for optimism entering the season behind an impressive training camp and preseason, but all of the positives seemed to disappear when the actual games started. He was the team's starting nose tackle in 15 of 16 regular season games, but he didn't have the impact many hoped he would have. He racked up 21 tackles and a forced fumble, but again the defensive line is a position that can't really be judged by stats - and it was clear that Chapman's impact was minimal. He was pushed around too often and he doesn't give the Colts a ton of snaps. While he could still have a spot as a role player for the Colts' defensive line unit, nose tackle is a need this offseason as well.
Also listed on the roster as a nose tackle was versatile undrafted rookie Zach Kerr, who made the team out of camp and preseason and saw notable playing time, appearing in 12 games on the season. He recorded 16 tackles, 3 sacks, a pass deflection, and a forced fumble in rather limited time, and he absolutely did enough good things to be encouraged by him. At the same time, however, he was inactive in a number of games as well and there's a reason for that. It's important to realize that, as an undrafted rookie, Kerr still has work to do. His first season was encouraging, though, and he should have a fit as a valuable, versatile depth guy who can fill in when need be and play some snaps.
For much of the season it seemed like it was either Kerr who was inactive for a game or Montori Hughes, as the Colts seemed to use them somewhat interchangeably. Both are versatile linemen who can provide solid depth play and some snaps. Hughes played in 12 games this season, starting one, and recorded 11 tackles, a pass deflection, and a fumble recovery. I actually thought that Hughes played better than Kerr did this season, though it was pretty close - close enough that I didn't mind the Colts alternating at times between the two. I think that, moving forward, Hughes could have a similar role to that of Kerr next season as well. He could be a spot starter who gives the Colts solid play as a depth guy.
As for Arthur Jones, it was a rough season for the defensive tackle who was signed to a big contract by the Colts last season. That was largely due to injury, however, as he played in just nine regular season games and started just three of them while dealing with injuries for much of the season. He did manage to record 23 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and a forced fumble, but he really never got going enough to get into a rhythm. He's still a talented player and there's still plenty of reason to be encouraged about him and his presence against the run game, but he has to be on the field first. That was his biggest problem in 2014, and his entire season was a disappointment because of the injuries - that either kept him out of the game or prevented him from getting into a rhythm for a couple of games in a row.
The last name we need to mention here is Kelcy Quarles, who ended the season on the practice squad and is currently signed to a reserve/futures contract but who appeared in two games with the Colts this season, making one tackle. His impact was very minimal, however.
Ultimately, there were some encouraging things this year from the defensive line: Cory Redding had a great year, Ricky Jean Francois improved and was solid, and Zach Kerr was a good find as an undrafted free agent. But there's also a lot of need along the defensive line, especially if Redding decides to retire and/or the Colts decide to part ways with RJF. The nose tackle spot already needs upgrading, and it's possible that another spot along the defensive line will need to be addressed as well.
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2014 season, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews: