Since first year General Manager Chris Ballard arrived in Indianapolis, he has launched an aggressive rebuild for the Colts defense. The only starting spots from 2016 that are likely to be filled with the same player from a season ago are manned by veteran corner Vontae Davis and third-year defensive lineman Henry Anderson. When Clayton Geathers returns from injury he will take his spot back in the starting rotation as well (get well soon Clayton).
This leaves 8 spots that are likely to have new starters from last season. 3 of those spots might be filled by players who were on the roster before Ballard arrived — Darius Butler could start at safety if Malik Hooker needs more time, Kendall Langford may take back his starting spot at defensive end, and Rashaan Melvin could start opposite Davis in the secondary if the team wants to allow rookie Quincy Wilson a more gradual learning curve.
The new faces to the defense this summer include what could be an entirely new group of starting linebackers, a new starting safety, a new starting corner, and one new starting defensive lineman. These additions include: DT Johnathan Hankins, DT Al Woods, DL Grover Stewart, DE Margus Hunt, OLB Jabaal Sheard, OLB John Simon, OLB Barkevious Mingo, OLB Tarrell Bashsam, ILB Sean Spence, ILB Jon Bostic, ILB Anthony Walker, CB Quincy Wilson, CB Nate Hairston, and S Malik Hooker.
That is a pretty impressive group of new defensive blood that Ballard hopes will breath new life into a historically bad defense.
Still, what came of the players who were replaced? The answer speaks volumes about the poor state of the defensive roster in Indianapolis when Ballard took control.
The outliers are steady veteran safety Mike Adams who signed with the Carolina Panthers, oft-injured corner Patrick Robinson who signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, and utility defensive lineman Zach Kerr who signed with the Denver Broncos. At this point only one of those players seems like a candidate to start.
Sure, special teams rotational players like linebackers Josh McNary and Chris Carter also found opportunities on other teams but McNary played only 16% of the team’s defensive snaps and Carter played only 4 defensive snaps total during his time in Indianapolis.
The majority of the Colts 2016 primary defensive contributors who were released are still waiting for a call from another team. They include:
OLB Erik Walden — Utilized on 70.63% of defensive snaps
ILB D’Qwell Jackson — Utilized on 66% of defensive snaps
DT Arthur Jones — Utilized on 30% of defensive snaps
OLB Trent Cole — Utilized on 22% of defensive snaps
OLB Curt Maggitt — Utilized on 11% of defensive snaps
At the bare minimum, lingering in free agency indicates that the players who are no longer in Indianapolis have not received a great deal of attention from other NFL teams. It more likely reflects how desperately the defense needed an infusion of new talent and may go a long way in explaining why the unit struggled so much in 2016.
It is true that there is little way of knowing what the Indianapolis Colts defense will look like in 2017. Broad changes like those that have been made by Ballard will keep Colts fans and the NFL world waiting to see how the changes pay off. However, if the status of many of the Colts primary defensive contributors from a season ago is any indication, it leaves reason to think the group will be a little better.