In 2016, the weakest position group on the Colts roster was their linebacking corps, and that will be one of Chris Ballard’s biggest immediate challenges in overhauling this roster.
He begun that process today by cutting veteran inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, who had been a starter for the Colts for the last three seasons. The move really isn’t that surprising, nor is it an unnecessary one, but it does highlight the huge need that the Colts have at linebacker.
Consider who the team’s starters were at the four linebacker positions last year and what their outlook is for 2017 (going by who started the most games at each position):
RUSH - Robert Mathis (12 starts), retired
WILL - Edwin Jackson (8 starts), under contract
MIKE - D’Qwell Jackson (12 starts), released
SLB - Erik Walden (16 starts), free agent
Of the Colts’ four starting linebackers last year, only one of them is currently under contract - and it’s Edwin Jackson, who started the most games at a position that was a revolving door. It started when the Colts let Jerrell Freeman walk in free agency, then cut Nate Irving following the preseason, then cut Sio Moore after week four. Josh McNary got the first shot at replacing Moore as he started the next three games, but after that the Colts transitioned to Edwin Jackson as their starter. He was the best they had last year and is an intriguing player, but even he shouldn’t be guaranteed a starting spot for next year.
In essence, the Colts could stand to replace all four starting linebackers this offseason - that’s how bad things were in 2016. Erik Walden did the best job of any of them and managed to be the only consistent pass rush threat (recording eleven sacks and three forced fumbles), but he’s set to become a free agent and with a new GM coming in, it’s uncertain whether Ballard will want to pay the money to keep a guy who will be 32 years old when next season starts and is just a solid player, nothing spectacular.
That leaves plenty of questions at the strongside outside linebacker spot, but there are perhaps even more questions at the rush outside linebacker spot. Robert Mathis is retired, and Trent Cole is also set to become a free agent (and it would be a surprise if he’s re-signed).
Without a doubt, the Colts will need to add outside linebackers this offseason. They need both pass rushers and guys who can set the edge against the run, as all they have right now are a bunch of guys, the most notable being Curt Maggitt and Akeem Ayers. The Colts simply must add multiple guys at the position and address two starting spots at outside linebacker.
The same could be true of the inside linebacker position, too. Though it’s possible the Colts could wind up with Edwin Jackson and/or Antonio Morrison starting, that wouldn’t be the best-case scenario. We saw them start alongside each other late in the season and they didn’t really help things defensively. At the very least, the Colts are going to need to add some guys at inside linebacker too, as they could really stand to add one or two starters.
In addition to the numbers above about the starters, consider this: of the 63 starts at linebacker for Colts players in 2016, only 12 of those starts were made by guys currently under contract for the team in 2017: Edwin Jackson (8) and Antonio Morrison (4). That’s less than 20% of the Colts’ starts from last year that will be represented on the roster when the new league year begins, provided they don’t re-sign anyone before then. That’s not ideal.
So if you want to know what position to really follow closely in connection to the Colts this offseason, it’s the linebackers. The Colts really need a complete overhaul of the position, and it looks like Chris Ballard may be starting to get that underway today as he cut D’Qwell Jackson. There will surely be many more moves still to come at the position this offseason, as the Colts are in desperate need of starters - as they could in fact use upgrades at all four starting spots.