The Indianapolis Colts lost to the New England Patriots 45-7 in the AFC Championship game and enter the offseason clearly in need of more pieces to build to reach their ultimate goal of the Super Bowl. They have a number of needs on the team, though some are greater needs than others, and we'll be taking a look at some of those needs over the next week or two. Today, we continue our series by looking at the inside linebackers - and, again, note that this series is not ranking the needs but rather exploring them one by one, regardless of how big of a need that particular position is.
In 2014, the Colts' two starting inside linebackers were Jerrell Freeman and D'Qwell Jackson. Over the last three seasons (including two seasons of Jackson with the Browns), they have accounted for 92 games started, 765 tackles, 18 sacks, 29 passes defensed, 6 interceptions, 12 forced fumbles, 9 fumble recoveries, and scored 3 touchdowns. That's impressive production over a three-year span - so why is the position considered such a huge need for the Colts this offseason?
That's the question that we will explore more in this article, because while the statistical production is impressive, it's the position that I put right at the top of the list of offseason needs and one that a number of people have predicted the Colts to address in the first round of the NFL Draft. Why is that?
What the Colts lacked in 2014 was a playmaker at the position. Both are solid players, but neither are special players. When it comes to run defense, can make plays when in a confined space inside. That is, when plays are run inside and they are playing within a box, so to speak, then they can make the tackles necessary. But when the play gets out in space, that's where some of the struggles against the run come. As you may have guessed, most of the time things aren't as cut and dry as having things right in the middle. Even when that happens, however, Freeman and Jackson can be beat. The perfect example of this are the games against the Patriots. They continually pound the football at the Colts and they actually target the team's inside linebackers in the run game, because the Patriots realize that they can beat them. So if you're continually saying that you're embarrassed by what happened against the Patriots, you should start by looking at the inside linebacker position. Now, this isn't to excuse the other nine guys on defense, who did not play great against New England either, but often the Patriots would run right at the Colts' inside linebackers.
In pass coverage, the two are quite different. This is actually an area in which Freeman excels but an area in which Jackson is awful. The differences in the two are very apparent, and Jackson's struggles to cover in the passing game led to some of the failures we saw this year to defend the opposing team's tight ends.
Altogether, I think that Jerrell Freeman and D'Qwell Jackson are both solid players, but they're just that. I do think Freeman provides more than Jackson does, but neither are the type of special playmaker that the team was lacking in 2014. In a 3-4 defensive scheme like the one the Colts run, it is the role of the defensive linemen to take up as many blockers as possible to allow the inside linebackers to make the plays. Certainly, there is room for improvement along the defensive line, but there is also room for improvement among the linebackers who need to make those plays and too often didn't do so.
What I'm not trying to do in this article is completely bash Freeman and Jackson. I have been impressed with Jerrell Freeman in his first two seasons especially and I like him as a player. And I thought that Jackson improved toward the end of the 2014 season and was a serviceable linebacker. But while both are solid players, the Colts need something more than that at the inside linebacker spot, and that's the point I'm trying to make.
I wouldn't be surprised if both Freeman and Jackson are back next season, and in fact that is probably the most likely option. Freeman is a restricted free agent but one that I think the Colts will make every effort to bring back. Jackson's situation is made more complicated by news of his arrest for assault of a pizza delivery worker this week, but at this point we will continue to assume that he will be returning. Regardless of what the Colts decide to do with both of those players, however, one thing is clear: they need to address the inside linebacker position. That could very likely happen in the draft, and many have projected the Colts to take an inside linebacker with their first round pick. However they choose to address it, they need an athletic guy who can be a playmaker and more than just the average players that Freeman and Jackson are. They need to get a very good player in the middle of their defense, and that needs to be one of their biggest priorities this offseason.