For the second straight season, the Colts had the duo of Jerrell Freeman and D'Qwell Jackson starting at inside linebacker, and it worked out much better in 2015 than it did the year before.
In 2014, neither of the inside linebackers were anything special and, in fact, at many times were weaknesses. Many (including myself) saw it as one of the biggest areas of need for the Colts in the offseason, but the only two moves that the team made at the position was to sign Nate Irving in free agency and draft Amarlo Herrera in the sixth round. Those moves clearly were for depth purposes and not as competition for the starting spot, so once again it would be Freeman and Jackson. In 2015, both of them played well and gave the Colts consistency in the middle of their defense.
Freeman had a tremendous season, starting 13 games and recording 112 tackles, three sacks, two passes defensed, a fumble recovery, and a pick-six. He had a big impact in the run game, as he recorded a number of stops. He also proved himself to be reliable in the passing game too. Freeman was all over the field making plays and was a very good contributor - in fact, he was one of the team's best defensive players in 2015. It was a very encouraging sign for him after a down year in 2014, and Freeman played much better this season than even his solid play in both 2012 and 2013. According to Pro Football Focus, Freeman was third among inside linebackers in run stop percentage, in the top five in tackling efficiency, and second in yards-per-cover-snap. PFF added that, "As far as the hierarchy of inside linebackers goes, it is Luke Kuechly's world, and everyone else is living in it, but Freeman is the only ILB that came close to Kuechly's run defense grade." In other words, Freeman was phenomenal in 2015 for the Colts.
D'Qwell Jackson also improved upon his "Pro Bowl" 2014 campaign, as he started all 16 games and recorded 150 tackles, three sacks, nine passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a pick-six (a crucial one in the win over the Falcons). By this point, everyone knows about Jackson's struggles in coverage - he's not good in that area. But rather than focus on that (it's been well-covered by this point), let's focus on what Jackson did bring to the table in 2015 - he was a fine defender against the run, showed some capability in limited aspects of the passing game, and was reliable in what the Colts asked him to do. Freeman was the standout of the group, but Jackson played every game and produced. He's not great, but he played like an above-average inside linebacker for the Colts and that's something the team will certainly take out of the 32-year old.
Freeman and Jackson were firmly entrenched as the starters, but at the same Freeman missed three games due to injury and some of the depth players did see significant action. Nate Irving was viewed as the third guy on the depth chart behind only the starters, but it took him a while to actually get going as he recovered from a knee injury suffered last season. In total, Irving played in eight games and started two of them, recording 14 tackles, a sack, two passes defensed, and a forced fumble before his season ended late in the year with an injury. Josh McNary was brought back after he was cleared of rape charges, and he played in 13 games (starting one), recording 14 tackles. Amarlo Herrera, drafted in the sixth round, spent three different stints on the active roster in between time on the practice squad, and he played in three games - though mainly seeing special teams work. Lastly, Sio Moore was acquired in a trade shortly before the season began, but he never saw as many opportunities as many people thought he would. He played in 12 games and recorded 13 tackles, but a lot of his action was relegated to special teams work. He didn't see a ton of snaps, but then again, he didn't do a ton to warrant more snaps either. All in all, the Colts had a nice group of depth players at the inside linebacker position in 2015, as Irving, McNary, Herrera, and Moore all proved to be guys who could either fill in when necessary or play on special teams.
Moving forward, there's really one huge question for the inside linebacker position: the status of Jerrell Freeman. He's set to become an unrestricted free agent and, with him coming off of a career season, he'll likely get a nice raise. He's at the top of the list of players the Colts need to re-sign, but it's unclear whether they actually will. It probably depends on the price, but he's a crucial player for the team to bring back. Though he'll be 30 years old when the 2016 season starts, he's still one of the best defenders the Colts have and a guy that they need around. D'Qwell Jackson is good enough for now, but the Colts could really benefit by pairing him alongside Freeman again. Then if they could retain some of the depth players that they had a year ago, the inside linebacker position wouldn't look too bad heading into next season. If they get Freeman back (that's the huge key here), they can more than live with the duo of Freeman and Jackson once again while focusing on other areas of the defense that need attention.
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2015 season, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews: