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Colts starting nose tackle still up for debate

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Though Johnathan Hankins was presumably signed to hold down the zero-tech position, Al Woods saw a ton of snaps there throughout the offseason.

Tennesee Titans v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

One of the Colts biggest off-season acquisitions was defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins. Not only because he addressed one of team’s largest positional needs, but also because he represents an infusion of raw talent to a defensive line that was lacking it.

When Hankins signed, it appeared that the Indianapolis Colts were going to finally have the true nose tackle the team has lacked for years. Chuck Pagano’s defensive scheme relies on the nose to occupy multiple offensive linemen and still be able to effectively stop the run. Hankins offers an added bonus in his ability to rush the passer as well – a boon for a desperate defense.

However, almost exactly a month previous to signing Hankins the Colts signed Al Woods – one of the few Ballard targets who will play in their 30s. Also a zero-technique, Woods was a less-notable signing, and was considered a quality depth acquisition with so much uncertainty surrounding David Parry and the mess he created for himself this off-season.

Hankins was the New York Giants’ primary three-tech last season and Woods also has a bit of experience in that role from earlier in his career. Theoretically, this is a good thing to have more versatility among the defensive line when the front seven was anything but diverse in 2016. But you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who assumed Woods would be more than depth behind Hankins.

It just so happens that in OTA’s and minicamp Woods has been holding down the zero-tech with the first group and Hankins has been largely seen at the three-tech spot. Maybe this is simply to look for the best roles for each with so much still unknown about each player. It is also possible that this lineup is being used to address the versatility before training camp gets underway or to organically build chemistry, or even to allow Woods to get more snaps before the true No. 1 group takes over.

One thing is for sure, the coaching staff appears to like Woods in that role.

Throughout the past three seasons with Tennessee, Woods started only 17 games, accumulated 66 total tackles with a fairly even combination of solo and clean-up tackles, and has plenty of size to eat up blockers per his expected two-gap responsibilities.

Woods also looked quicker than he did with his previous teams, improving his ability to run down the ball carrier outside the tackle box. That’s pretty decent for a backup but I don’t know about for a starter.

Regardless of what the reasoning was behind Hankins primarily working over the guards in summer work, he was really good at it last season, and it’s possible the Colts coaching staff sees that role as the way he can best help the defense. At this juncture, I don’t know if I’m on board.

On one hand, Hankins was super productive in his last three seasons as a starter racking up 124 total tackles and 10 sacks going back and forth between roles. He’s a smart, technical and powerful defender with everything the Colts porous defense needs. He’s absolutely the best nose tackle, but he’s likely also the best three-tech the Colts have on the roster as it stands.

Conversely, Woods isn’t anywhere near as versatile – despite having the experience – and is clearly best suited at the zero-tech to help this defense. Honestly, if he is not used as a zero-tech lineman, he’s dead weight anywhere else along the line. There are others who can fill in within the rotation, but as much as I like T.Y. McGill, he’s not a starter over the center and Parry will need more than just production to impress his way onto the roster.

Looking down the line, I just don’t think the Colts can afford not to have Hankins as the unquestioned starter at the zero-tech. Henry Anderson, McGill, Hassan Ridgeway, Kendall Langford and maybe even a couple others offer enough talent from the three-tech, and out, to improve the unit. If you add in Jabaal Sheard and Tarell Basham to the mix as periodical down linemen, the question comes to a rest.

Should the Colts use Hankins as that true nose tackle or is the larger need for him to hold down the three-tech role? Color me intrigued for camp to shed some light on this very question.