The Indianapolis Colts managed 41 sacks in 2014, tied for the ninth-most in the NFL. Underlying that stat, however, was the struggle that went into every one of those sacks, something the Colts had a lot of trouble getting last year. Rookie Jonathan Newsome led the team with 6.5. Run defender Erik Walden was second with 6. Inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson and former first round pick Bjoern Werner (somehow) recorded four each. Defensive lineman Cory Redding had 3.5, while Ricky Jean Francois and Zach Kerr each had three. Seven other players on the roster had at least a part of a sack during the season, and behind the game planning and play calling of defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, the Colts got by without a number one pass rusher and instead went with a team effort.
Because of those massive struggles at rushing the passer, the Colts signed Trent Cole in free agency, adding a veteran who has produced to the mix. And, of course, getting Robert Mathis back will be huge for this defense - assuming that he's anything like the Robert Mathis of old. Like the Robert Mathis who led the league with 19.5 sacks in 2013 or the Robert Mathis who is the Colts' franchise leader in sacks with 111. If Mathis can return at anywhere close to that level, it will be an absolutely huge boost to this Colts' team.
That isn't a guarantee, however. For as much as we'd like to just assume that Mathis will return to form like he hadn't missed a beat, there's plenty of reason to doubt that it will happen. He's 34-years old, and he's coming off of a torn Achilles that caused him to miss an entire season. Hopefully he can come back productive from that, but it's perfectly understandable for there to be some doubts. The good thing for Mathis, however, is that he doesn't have a whole lot to live up to when compared to last year. While 6.5 sacks would have been Mathis' worst sack total since his rookie season in 2003, it still would have been enough to lead the team in sacks last year. We don't really know when Mathis will return (it might be in week one or it might be later), but he will return at some point this year. The question is about how productive he will be, and while we've learned to never count Mathis out, we'll just have to wait and see how good he will be.
The good news is that the Colts have taken a bit of the pressure off of Mathis by signing Trent Cole - also an older pass rusher (he's 32), but also a player who has produced in the NFL. In fact, with his 85.5 career sacks (all with the Eagles), the Colts are the only team in the NFL to have two current players with at least 85.5 career sacks. Past production doesn't always correlate to future performance, but it's a good indicator and with two pass rushers who have proven themselves at this level, the Colts should get a significant boost in the area this year.
Then, of course, there is Jonathan Newsome, who really impressed as a fifth-round rookie last year. He recorded 6.5 sacks and forced three fumbles last year, and the player who drew some pre-draft comparisons to Robert Mathis certainly showed glimpses of it on the field last year. The glimpses were small and infrequent, but they were there, and there's a lot of excitement about Newsome entering his second year. He'll be fighting for snaps, but playing behind Mathis and Cole should be a good learning experience and hopefully he continues to develop in 2015.
Mathis, Cole, and Newsome are likely to fill more of the rush linebacker role for the Colts, though the two spots are far from being exclusive. At the other linebacker spot is likely to be Erik Walden for the third consecutive year. He has played in 30 games and started 29 over the past two years with the Colts, recording 82 tackles, nine sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, and three passes defensed. And for as much criticism as the signing (and mainly the contract) received at the time, Walden did a solid job in 2015. He wasn't spectacular, but with trouble stopping the run and trouble rushing the passer, Walden stepped up and made a bad situation just a little bit better. If he can do that again in 2015 with a (hopefully) better surrounding cast, he should be in for another solid season.
Of course, any talk about the outside linebacker position must include Bjoern Werner, the Colts' first round draft pick in 2013. There's no other way of saying it but this: he has been a massive disappointment so far. He has played in 28 games and has managed just 6.5 sacks, and for a player who was praised for his pass rush skills coming out of college, we've yet to see it in the NFL for much more than a brief play or series. Werner attributes his struggles to injuries, and he actually has a believable case - but that doesn't erase the struggles. All it does is give life to a little sliver of hope, perhaps delaying the Colts (or the fans) from giving up on him completely. Werner will probably make the team in 2015, but he needs to step up his game. Surprisingly, the strongest part of his game has been in run defense, and he has actually done a pretty good job of setting the edge. With Mathis, Cole, and Newsome at rush linebacker, I'd expect the Colts to move Werner back to the other side to back up Walden, and hopefully that (plus staying healthy) could lead to a better third season in the NFL with the Colts.
There are other players who will be competing for a roster spot in a crowded outside linebacker position. Former rugby player Daniel Adongo, undrafted free agents Zack Hodges and Cody Galea, and the talented Cam Johnson will all be competing for spots, and we've covered each of them individually in our player preview series, which you can find here.
After a very rough 2014 season when it came to the pass rush, the Colts have a number of options this year who should be able to get after the quarterback. With the return of Robert Mathis, the signing of Trent Cole, the continued development of Jonathan Newsome, and then guys like Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner, the Colts should be able to get significantly more pressure on the passer than they did last year. Then with Walden (and Werner) on the other side, the Colts should be able to get solid run defense as well out of a unit that clearly is built to rush the quarterback. And if they can do that in 2015, it could make a big difference for the entire defense.
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson's other position previews: