Last offseason, the Colts made a big gamble regarding their inside linebacker position. They let Jerrell Freeman, a very good four-year starter, walk and trusted the guys they had in-house (plus fourth round draft pick Antonio Morrison) to handle the position.
To put it simply: the gamble failed. The Colts lost. And all year the inside linebacker position was a weakness, while it’s one of the biggest needs this offseason.
Last year, D’Qwell Jackson was of course going to fill one of the starting spots, and though he hadn’t been a great player, he was still productive and still certainly serviceable. He wound up starting the first 12 games of the season, recording 78 tackles, five tackles for loss, a sack, three quarterback hits, three passes defensed, and two fumble recoveries. He was suspended for the final four games of the season, however, and he was released earlier this week.
The inside linebacker spot alongside Jackson was much more up in the air, and the Colts went through a number of potential replacements for Freeman. First, it was Sio Moore and Nate Irving, who were competing in training camp for the position. Moore was injured, however, leaving Irving to get the snaps. In a surprise move, though, the Colts cut Irving in their final roster cutdowns. That left Moore as the clear-cut starter as he returned from injury, and he had a nice game in week one... followed by three bad games. That led to him getting cut after the Jaguars loss in London, which paved the way for Josh McNary to start the next three games (with Antonio Morrison also seeing some time). McNary obviously wasn’t getting it done either, so the Colts then turned to Edwin Jackson.
Jackson wound up starting eight games in 2016, and though it wasn’t a high bar, he was the best of the guys the Colts started at the WILL position last year. He recorded 60 tackles, a tackle for loss, two sacks, and two quarterback hits, while he also contributed on special teams some (recording five special teams tackles).
Just as the Colts were seeming to settle in with Edwin Jackson at the WILL spot, however, D’Qwell Jackson was suspended - leaving the MIKE spot open. Rookie Antonio Morrison then stepped in and started the final four games at the position, and on the year he recorded 45 tackles, three tackles for loss, and a quarterback hit (while also making six special teams tackles).
With Jackson and Morrison starting the final four games, the Colts were making do with the talent they had, but it still wasn’t great (one need look no further than the Raiders game for proof of that). The position was without a doubt going to be a top need this offseason - and that was before they cut D’Qwell Jackson. Now, it could be argued that they need two starting inside linebackers to go with two starting outside linebackers, needing a complete overhaul of the position. It is possible that the Colts could decide that Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison are capable-enough to handle one of the spots, but even then they’d need to add another starter. The thing they shouldn’t do is enter next season with Jackson and Morrison as the starters, because while they are both interesting young players, the Colts need to improve the position quite a bit if they hope to seriously improve their run defense.