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2017 Colts defensive line preview: The curious case of Al Woods

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Cleveland Browns v Tennessee Titans Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Heading into the off-season the Indianapolis Colts faced adversity with starting nose tackle David Parry getting into legal trouble. The team also chose to let Zach Kerr sign in Denver.

To help address these moves, Chris Ballard signed nose tackle was Al Woods, who was released by the Tennessee Titans. The biggest signing of the Colts off-season followed, when Ballard added Johnathan Hankins. It was entirely reasonable for fans to believe that the Hankins signing squarely placed Woods in a depth role as a rotational nose tackle with Hankins as the sure-fire starter who would make all of the difference in the trenches.

Fast-forward to training camp and Woods has held down the nose tackle position with the starting group. In fact, he’s garnered steady attention for the size and strength he has shown and developed some chemistry next to Hankins that could create one of the most important and most active pairings on the defensive line for 2017.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had to pause on all of the hype that Woods has been generating so far in camp. Here is a guy who has played for six other NFL franchises, who failed to make a meaningful on-field contribution until he made it to the Titans, and who was then released after one season of a three-year deal signed in 2016.

Is there anything that might explain how he has generated such positive momentum in training camp after such a rocky start to his career?

No Clear Position

Woods started his NFL career at 6’4” and 307 lbs. In his final season at LSU he dropped weight in an effort to become more effective as a pass rusher. When Woods was drafted by the Saints in 2010, SB Nation’s LSU blog “And the Valley Shook” discussed the implications of dropping weight and how it might impact his transition to the NFL.

I think Woods dropping weight to become quicker was a mistake. He shed some pounds so he would play quicker, hopefully to help with his pass rush, and it didn't really work. The problems on the pass rush were probably not with Woods, but schematic with LSU. It seems someone just needs to teach him better pass rushing technique. Yeah, that's a shot at our coaching.

At this size he spent the six years of his NFL career trying to find a home as a defensive tackle or defensive end. It wasn’t until Pittsburgh started working him at nose tackle in 2013 that he started to focus on moving inside and even then he was slated to do so only in a reserve role with Steve McLendon ahead of him on the depth chart.

“I am working all three positions,” Woods said. “Coach wants me to work all three positions so that’s what I am doing. I am just trying to help the team out anyway I can.”

Woods was a utility rotational defensive lineman for the Steelers who rarely saw the field and would remain in that role until he was signed by the Tennessee Titans in 2014. Also, at this point in his career he was still playing at about 307-pounds.

Time with Tennessee

In Tennessee, Woods played at nose tackle and really started to make noise for the first time in his NFL career. Still, he found himself competing with Sammie Lee Hill, who the Titans were very excited about, and as a piece of a defensive line that was one of the deepest positions on Tennessee’s roster.

Defensive line is the Titans deepest position, and the rotation possibilities are significant.

"I believe we're developing really good depth where more and more guys have shown us that they can play, that they will be able to play," defensive coordinator Ray Horton said.

If Woods did start to get attention from his coaching staff and did start flashing some real potential on the inside, what could have caused the Titans to release him?

The answer is no more complicated than the reason the Colts have recently allowed some of their aging or more expensive players go, like Mike Adams or Erik Walden — they wanted to get younger and would rather spend the time and money on the “future” at the position.

The Titans currently have three players listed as nose tackles on their roster — Sylvester Williams 6’5”, 313 lbs, Antwaun Woods 6’1”, 318 lbs, and DeAngelo Brown 6’0” 302 lbs — with DaQuan Jones at 6’4” 322 lbs and Austin Johnson at 6’4”, 314 lbs. The most tenured player on that list is Williams with five years in the NFL and only two of those players were slated to make more than Woods in 2017.

Cutting Woods when they did saved the Titans $1.25 million up front in guarantees and what would have been a better than $2.5 million cap hit for the coming season. Letting him go made a lot of sense for the Titans.

Productive Off-Season

After starting to find a more meaningful role in the NFL with a full-time move to nose tackle, and after putting weight back on to now tip the scales at 330 lbs., Woods has put in a lot of time honing his craft over the off-season. He has spent his summer working a cattle farm at his home in Louisiana, including using his breaks from taking care of the farm to work out at a local high school.

He focused on improving his abilities as a pass rusher at his new somewhat new playing weight.

“I think I can have a tremendous presence,” Woods said. “I can push the pocket. That’s one of the things I’ve been working hard on during the offseason on my own. Run defense always came easy to me because I was a bigger guy. But this pass-rush thing was kind of a challenge.”

To that end, Woods came up with a routine in which he would walk the length of the field, practicing a pass-rush technique every five yards, for 100 yards. The process would continue up and down, back and forth, until Woods could perfect the move at full speed.

While Woods taking a big step in his career as a eight-year veteran would make him a very rare athlete, his journey to Indianapolis has certainly been challenging. He has been asked to play all over the defensive line and behind known starters for nearly every team he’s played for along the way. He has been overlooked for younger or cheaper talent even when he did start to establish himself. He played on some very deep defensive teams in his journey including the likes of the Steelers, Seawhawks, and a stacked defensive line for the Titans.

Has he finally found his way home? Has pushing hay bales and putting back on the weight that might have cost him early in his career made all of the difference? Could coming to a defensive line with a real opportunity under new leadership with a long-term question-mark at the nose position be all the Woods needed to find his way?

We know he has been looking good in training camp but we will have to wait until he takes the field in a game to get any real confirmation.