The issue of the Colts' run defense is one that nearly everyone who follows football is aware of. The team's struggles against the run are issues that have been painfully evident in matchups with the Patriots, as New England has simply dominated the Colts on the ground. Head coach Chuck Pagano even called it the team's "Achilles' heel" earlier this offseason, and it has been an evident need in the moves made in free agency. While a lot of the blame for that rightly goes to the defensive line, it needs to be equally split with the inside linebackers - the position that we will take a look at today.
At the inside linebacker position, the two starters are staying the same for the Colts this year. D'Qwell Jackson was signed as a free agent last offseason and started every game for the Colts last year, while Jerrell Freeman was brought back as a restricted free agent this offseason.
Jackson had an up and down season in 2014, but it resulted in several firsts: he made his first playoff appearance, won his first playoff game, and made his first Pro Bowl. In addition, Jackson led the Colts in tackles with 138, and he also recorded four sacks (a career high), a pass defensed, a forced fumble, and four fumble recoveries (another career high), one of which he returned for a touchdown. Jackson struggled mightily in coverage last year, but as the season went on he improved in other areas of his game, moving from being a liability when he was in the game to being a solid player at the inside linebacker spot. The nine-year veteran will be returning as the starter this year, and there's really no question about it.
There's no question about the other inside linebacker spot, either, as Jerrell Freeman will be the Colts' starter for the fourth consecutive year. In the last three years (since being signed out of the CFL), Freeman has started 44 games and has recorded 366 tackles, nine sacks, 14 passes defensed, three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), eight forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. In both 2012 and 2013, Freeman led the Colts in tackles, and he finished second on the team in 2014 despite missing four games due to injury. He excelled in coverage last year but struggled against the run. Freeman was a restricted free agent this year and the Colts brought him back, signing him to a one-year, $2.356 million deal.
Jackson and Freeman will clearly be the Colts' starters at inside linebacker when they open the 2015 season, but Nate Irving should see significant playing time as well. Irving was signed as a free agent by the Colts this offseason, and though he's recovering from a torn ACL suffered last year, he is a good run defender who should help the Colts in situational football. In four years with the Denver Broncos, Irving played in 54 games (starting 12) and has recorded 104 tackles, two sacks, two passes defensed, and a safety. He entered the 2014 season as the starter for the Broncos and did indeed start the first eight games of the season before suffering the season-ending injury. Irving should help the Colts greatly with their run defense, as he can come in during specific situations and give the team run defense that they lacked last year, likely in place of Freeman. The signing of Nate Irving will in no way solve the run defense's issues, but it should absolutely help.
After Jackson, Freeman, and Irving, the remaining inside linebacker spots are up in the air. Henoc Muamba is a very intriguing and talented player who the Colts signed out of the CFL last offseason, and Muamba played in 13 games with the Colts last year. He would seem to have the edge for the fourth inside linebacker spot, though it will be a competition in camp. Rookie Amarlo Herrera will also be an interesting name to keep an eye on in training camp, as he was drafted in the sixth round of this year's draft by the Colts out of Georgia. He's in no way guaranteed a roster spot just because he was drafted, but the Colts obviously liked him enough to spend a pick on him and he could compete in camp. From there, undrafted inside linebackers Justin Shirk (Bloomsburg) and Junior Sylvestre (Toledo), as well as one-year pro Carlos Fields, will look to play their way into a spot, though all seemingly facing an uphill battle to do so.
With both D'Qwell Jackson and Jerrell Freeman returning this year for the Colts, the inside linebacker position won't be the best in the league nor the strongest position on the team, but it should be a solid one and especially with guys like Nate Irving contributing depth (and possibly Henoc Muamba and/or Amarlo Herrera too), the inside linebacker one shouldn't be fine for the Colts.
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson's other position previews: