The Colts' all-time leading sacker was 34-years old and coming off of a torn Achilles, an injury that forced him to miss the entire 2014 season. The last we had seen Robert Mathis on the field, he led the league in sacks with 19.5 in 2013, but it was hard to expect that same level of play from a guy in his situation entering 2015.
So the Colts set out to ensure that Mathis, whenever he returned, wouldn't have to shoulder the load at pass rush the way he had in 2013. The team had Jonathan Newsome coming back for his second season after a promising rookie year, and they signed veteran pass rusher Trent Cole to a two-year, $14 million deal. The team was unsure when exactly Mathis would be back, but the hope was that he would provide a boost to an already solid pass rush.
That hope turned out to be far from the truth, however. Mathis made his season debut in week two and played in 15 games on the year, and it turned out that he was the Colts' best and most reliable pass rusher. He tied for the team lead with seven sacks (tied with defensive lineman Kendall Langford) and was second on the team with 14 quarterback hits (Langford had 16). Mathis forced a fumble and recovered another, one that he grabbed for a touchdown. He wasn't a dominant force, but he was still a good pass rusher for a team that really lacked in the area all year. For a 34-year old coming off of a torn Achilles, you really couldn't have reasonably expected much more from Mathis this year.
Trent Cole, on the other hand, was a big disappointment. He managed to play better later in the season, but the 33-year old struggled to give the team much help in the area of pass rush - the very reason he was signed in the first place. He recorded just three sacks and just seven quarterback hits all season in 14 games, adding two forced fumbles, 32 tackles, and three passes defensed. The Colts could save $6.125 million this offseason by cutting Cole, a move that makes a lot of sense after the very disappointing season that he had in 2015.
Jonathan Newsome had a rookie season that raised eyebrows in 2014, as he recorded 7.5 sacks and four forced fumbles (including playoffs). Unfortunately, he didn't build upon that success but instead took massive steps backward. Playing in 14 games, Newsome managed just 14 tackles, one sack, two forced fumbles, and two passes defensed. His pass rush production, quite simply, was almost non-existent, as he recorded just one sack and two quarterback hits all year. He found himself relegated to a depth linebacker position, and he didn't do anything to warrant an increase in playing time as the year went on.
Another player drafted by the Colts to be a pass rusher who has disappointed is Bjoern Werner, who was given one last chance to produce in 2015 - and he didn't. The "pass rusher" had recorded just 6.5 sacks in his first two years in the league after being the Colts' first round pick in 2013, and it was clear to most that he was a bust. The positive, however, was that he was serviceable against the run as a depth guy, so with the signing of Cole and the return of Mathis, Werner was able to move to the strongside outside linebacker position. It was, essentially, Werner's last shot at proving himself with the Colts. If he was going to succeed in the team's 3-4 system, it was evident that it would be at the strongside spot rather than the rush linebacker. As you may have guessed, however, the move didn't prove to be the change Werner needed, as he still wasn't much of a factor at all in 2015. He was inactive for several games, and during the action he did see (playing in ten games) he recorded 13 tackles and a fumble recovery. He's entering the final year of his rookie deal and doesn't cost much against the salary cap, but it seemed that as the 2015 season went on, the Colts finally gave up on him.
The Colts didn't have to count on Werner carrying the strongside linebacker position, however, as Erik Walden remained entrenched as the starter at that spot. In his third season with the team, Walden again proved to be a solid, reliable player for the Colts on defense. He's not a star and he has his faults, but he has exceeded expectations with the Colts and has been a solid guy at the spot - and, considering the state of the Colts' defense and their outside linebacker position, solid isn't that bad. Walden played in 15 games in 2015 and recorded 42 tackles, three sacks, and a forced fumble.
One last player worth mentioning here very briefly is Andy Studebaker, who was signed on December 15, 2015 for one purpose: special teams. We'll mention this more when we look at the Colts' special teams unit, but they struggled in giving up three return scores, leading to moves geared toward addressing that. One such move was to bring back Studebaker, who had been with the team in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. He hardly saw any playing time on defense, but he's a good depth player and could be worth keeping around for special teams purposes moving forward.
Ultimately, I think the outside linebacker position was the worst for the Colts in 2015. The team's biggest weakness last year was their lack of a pass rush, and in the 3-4 system the Colts run, that blame lies heavily on the outside linebackers. Robert Mathis did as well as could have been expected of him, but Trent Cole, Jonathan Newsome, and Bjoern Werner really didn't live up to expectations - or even come close to them, to be honest. Erik Walden did a solid job as the strongside linebacker, but he's not perfect either. Andy Studebaker is a guy who might be worth keeping around, but he's primarily a special teams guy who can play a depth role at linebacker if necessary. It wouldn't be a surprise at all - in fact, it's expected - that the Colts will address their outside linebacker position this offseason. There's a real possibility that Trent Cole and Bjoern Werner could be gone (Newsome has a very minimal cap hit, so it would make sense to at least have him around for camp), and it's crucial for the team to find another pass rush option - whether in the draft (preferable) or in free agency.
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2015 season, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews: