Real football is creeping closer. Training camp is nearly here and with it a lot of questions. If you ask Chris Ballard, the answer to most of them is probably “competition.” It is a little bit refreshing as there have not been many training camps in recent memory with a real shot at having some actual competition for roles. If you are just emerging from the fog of the offseason and need a refresher, here are 5 defensive players to watch during training camp and through the preseason.
1. John Simon #51 OLB
It is easy to get excited about free agents. Most of us live by the Barney Stinson theory that “newer is always better.” At least during the offseason. We come back down to earth when real football resumes, but we can easily overblow the impact a free agent can have.
John Simon is a guy that Colts fans really need to keep an eye on, though. The reason? First, let’s take a look at his numbers. He had 32 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble, and 2 passes defended. By comparison, the guy he is replacing, Erik Walden, had 31 tackles, 11 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and no defended passes. Pretty similar production although Walden had a great year putting up 11 sacks. The difference is that John Simon got those numbers as a backup, while Walden was a starter all season. Simon started 5 games and only played in 11.
Playing on a team like the Texans whose roster is overflowing with solid defensive players, Simon still carved out a statistical year that would put him in the upper grouping of our linebackers from the 2016 season. That is encouraging. He is a solid tackler, which was a phrase only used with sarcasm about most Colts defenders last season, and a force against the run.
Once we get a chance to see Simon in live action we will get a much better idea what they Colts have got in him, but he seems to be a player on the rise and knows what it means to be a part of a nasty defense. That kind of attitude and influence could be a real help to a young defensive group. If he can prove himself to be a versatile addition by having an impact in the pass rush, he will be an invaluable addition to the roster.
2. Johnathan Hankins #95 NT
One Colts player has done a bit more talking than most this offseason, and he’s new in town. Johnathan Hankins has made his presence known in Indianapolis right away by saying he thinks the Colts have the best defense in the AFC. That is a good thing because since Pat McAfee left, the locker room has needed a resident comedian.
In all seriousness, that sort of swagger and attitude hasn’t been seen in a Colts defensive locker room for a while, and maybe it isn’t such a bad thing. Hankins is certainly the kind of run-stuffing true nose tackle the Colts have coveted since moving to a 3-4. While his numbers are not remarkable, he wasn’t playing at his natural position and a return to it should be to his advantage.
Like Simon, Hankins comes from a good defense and can help bring that winning mentality to a unit that has been run roughshod over, both in and out of the division. I absolutely cannot wait to see a big disruptive guy in the middle for the Colts, and if he lives up to the billing he could be a major difference maker.
3. Quincy Wilson #31 CB
The life of a rookie cornerback is tough. The speed and complexity of the game and the quality of quarterbacks and receivers are so much better than the college level that it can take a couple of years for most corners to adjust and really flourish. Wilson won’t get eased into the process either because he will be slated to start opposite Vontae Davis. The scheme of the Colts won’t exactly help him either, as Ted Monachino’s defense really depends on the cornerbacks locking down their assignments.
While that first year is an adjustment for all rookie corners, Wilson has the skills to be a real contributor early. He is a big strong corner and held quarterbacks targeting him to a 29.9 passer rating in 2016. The things he is best at, press coverage, getting physical with receivers, and having a knack for jumping on routes for takeaways, are all areas the Colts have lacked in past years opposite Davis.
Until Wilson gets time on the field against NFL caliber receivers we won’t know how quickly he will be able to adjust or how big an impact he can have. The pressure will definitely be on him to perform as the safety position is pretty thin and they will need all the help they can get from the corners. If he has early success it will be a huge boon to the pass rush which can thrive if the quarterback’s first and second reads are not available.
4. Henry Anderson #96
Some guys have rotten luck, and Henry Anderson has been one of those guys. Since coming into the league he has struggled with injuries that have hampered his progress on the defensive line. He was one of the bright spots in 2015 and was in the hunt for defensive rookie of the year until he was knocked out for the season with a torn ACL in week 9 against the Broncos. Another knee injury in 2016 held him to just 11 games played and he did not look like the same guy from that first stretch his rookie season.
Where ACL tears are concerned it is generally agreed that a full recovery takes closer to two years to reach optimum shape, which means that Anderson should be fully recovered and healthy. That makes him an intriguing prospect to watch and probably someone who Chris Ballard will have a keen eye on as well. Anderson needs to show a return to form and that he can stay healthy if he wants to earn a long-term deal. While he is under contract until 2018 if he wants to be a part of the Colts plans he will need to start making his case now.
The good news is that Anderson has not played on a defensive line with this much depth in all his time as a part of the Colts. Having better players around him should help improve his play as well, and while he was not a dominant force in the pass rush, he got good penetration and was a successful run stopper. Maintaining good health and a return to his previous form would make him one of the few bright spots of Grigson’s tenure on the defensive side of the ball.
5. Malik Hooker #29
While he will be starting training camp on the active/PUP list, Hooker is definitely a guy worth watching. If he is to be believed, he is feeling great. If that is true, it may have been a minor injury and the Colts just chose to be overly cautious with him to cover themselves. That was probably smart, but if he heals quickly it will make him the most interesting guy to get a look at on that defensive side.
Hooker’s reputation is as a center fielder and a ball hawk, but that comes with limited experience. He started just 12 games for the Buckeyes and will be short on experience. While he has the skills and instincts, he has never gone up against a player like T.Y. Hilton or defended against a quarterback like Andrew Luck. While he won’t see Luck in training camp, Hilton will be sure to welcome him to the NFL.
Getting as many reps as possible for Hooker will be critical to bring him up to speed for the start of the regular season. Because of his relative inexperience even compared with other rookies, Hooker will need to learn the defense not just from a mental side, but in practice. Reps are relatively few during the season, so getting to be a part of training camp would be very important for his development. Obviously, expectations are high for Hooker as he garnered a first round pick, we can only hope he is able to participate fully and prove he was deserving of that selection.