As the Indianapolis Colts look forward to the 2018 season there are some key building blocks for the team to use as they transition to a new offensive and defensive scheme. A large amount of their second-year players are large part of what the team is working towards in order to become a perennial contender in the future, but immediately back in contention for the AFC South.
As a whole, some of them work in favor of that goal and some are a major question mark at this time. In this edition of looking at the building blocks the Colts brought in last season, we’re looking at the 2017 draft selections. Soon, we’ll also take a look at last year’s free agent acquisitions as both will be utilized along with the upcoming free agent and draft selections to build a strong base of talent for the future.
How do they fit? What will their roles be within the expectations of their new schemes on their respective side of the ball? We’re going to look at each of them and convey why the vast majority of them are so vital to the formation of a complete team rebuild through the vision of GM Chris Ballard.
It’s very difficult to find a realistic excuse as to why Wilson didn’t get more playing time in 2017, but I also can’t imagine that that will be a problem next season. Wilson has the length, speed and toughness that will be necessary to be heavily incorporated within the new scheme.
There will be a healthy mix of cover-2/cover-3 with some man-coverage opportunities in there as well in which Wilson (6-foot-1, 211 pounds) will be heavily relied upon to be on an island with no less than the opponent’s No. 2 receiver. Additionally, his willingness to be a force in run support is a must within this new scheme, and he showed that in limited play last season with 22 total tackles while starting only 5 games.
It doesn’t look as though there is currently a No. 1 boundary corner under contract for 2018, but they will absolutely need Wilson to hold his own going forward. Another capable corner will have to be brought in from the incoming groups of free agents or through the draft, but any way you slice it in Eberflus’ system Wilson is a top foundational talent for the team to build around.
Hooker is exactly what the Colts need within the move to a 4-3 base look. He was billed as the top centerfielder at safety in last year’s draft and he showed some flashes of what we can expect in the future from him. He was more physical than his naysayers opined throughout the draft process and he too saw success with 3 interceptions while starting only 6 games.
Hooker is so pivotal to the defense due to his excellent instincts coupled with the speed and athleticism to help either side of the field over the top. The Colts one-two-punch of safeties of Hooker and Clayton Geathers fits extremely well as a combo which can cover and assist against the run. The Colts do need a solid backup, which some see as Matthias Farley, but another who can add to the depth should be desired this offseason.
It looks like the backend of this defense is set up nicely for the transition, but depth and someone who can challenge for the backup/rotational role at both safety spots is necessary if the Colts are going to make any real strides in 2018. Nevertheless, Hooker — if he remains healthy — is 100% another piece to the foundation for this defense going forward.
Anthony Walker Jr.
We didn’t see a ton of Walker in the middle linebacker role last season, but make no mistake that the Colts absolutely NEED him to be the player they drafted him to be. Walker played primarily a rotational role and got some time in on special teams, but the team’s linebacker situation is a bleak one heading into the 2018 season.
If Walker is going to fill the role of a competent linebacker in this scheme, he’s going to be asked to do a great deal more than just fill gaps as he was in last year’s 3-4 base. I don’t even think there’s a specific spot (OLB Vs ILB) that he can just be plugged into — even theoretically — at this point within the new scheme.
He’ll have to be better at lateral pursuit, much better in coverage and become a guy who can shut down a running back trying to gain the edge throughout the flow of the play. Seeing his ability to diagnose between run and pass will be enormously critical in his ability to be a piece of the puzzle for the future. The Colts need more at the position either way, but Walker’s abilities truly need to come to the surface in 2018 or he could easily be passed by during the rebuild.
Last season we witnessed Basham playing in a scheme that he hasn’t been used to. At Ohio he had his hand in the dirt quite often in more of a 4-3 defensive end role. He’ll be getting a valuable opportunity to show that learning a new approach to rushing off of the edge may have stunted his rookie season.
Next year, there will be no excuses. Yes, the Colts will be hunting an edge rusher, but his need to become a heavy contributor in a more familiar role is crucial to his viability. He did get 2 sacks last season, but those were very few and far between as his lack of refinement was truly evident.
He needs more than a bullrush, more than just an initial pass rush move. He needs to develop a legit counter move as well as at least another initial, and secondary pass rush move. He began to show some diversity with that towards the end of the season last year, but that must get worked on during the offseason — he’ll need to be a tireless worker.
Bringing in a guy like Bradley Chubb, for instance, will only ramp up the pressure on Basham to excel as some of last year’s free agent acquisitions will be pushing for similar roles.
However, should the Colts grab a premiere pass rusher who can immediately contribute AND get the most out of Basham in his role in Eberflus’ scheme the defense will have the seedlings of an exciting defense in 2018 and possibly truly threaten opposing quarterbacks by the end of the year, and in to the 2019 season.
Stewart is one of the more interesting cases for this defense going forward, and likely needs to be one of those who improves the most in the next season or two. Just looking at the 2018 season, Stewart has to prove that he can be equally effective holding running backs to very little gain, disrupting them immediately in the backfield allowing others to clean up as well as becoming a legitimate interior pass rusher.
He was reasonably productive in 2017 with 12 tackles as part of a rotation up front. But, with the way that defensive linemen fall off when they don’t make significant steps forward, his athleticism needs to be built upon with improved technique and development. The Colts like what they see in Stewart, but a lot of why he was drafted was to realize the potential he possesses quite quickly.
Nobody thought Hairston would be starting as many games as he did last season. Because he was in that nickel role he only gets credit for 4, but he got a ton of snaps throughout the season and was one of the more impressive rookies of 2017. He played in 14 games and was THE nickel corner, for whatever that is worth, and may be just as natural of a fit in the new scheme as Hooker and Wilson are.
Hairston was used to create pressure of the edge notching 2 sacks, was very good in coverage when looking at the entire season as a canvas and fully embraces the physicality that will be expected from him at the position. For an offseason addition to bump him out of that role for the 2018 season is — at least at this time — unexpected, and thus, the Colts secondary has an excellent beginning towards the re-branding that is necessary.
Within Eberflus’ scheme, Hairston will be one of the most pivotal pieces for the unit. Not only will he need to be a willing tackler, he’ll need to be one of the best and most reliable. He’ll need to be able to be physical at the line of scrimmage as well as at the catch point — almost the perfect hybrid between corner and safety. Hairston may be one of the most intriguing defenders as training camp begins to see how he’s developing.
Make no bones about it, Mack is going to have a lot riding on the 2018 season. The Colts backfield is looking to add a piece or two to the group, and within Frank Reich’s system he’ll need to make some serious strides in the right direction. Mack is dynamic, there’s no mistaking that, but we have to be realistic about his flaws to this point.
He was awful in pass protection last season, using poor technique and avoiding contact. He also struggled as a receiver, dropping several opportunities, or bobbling passes which hampered his ability to avoid defenders. Additionally, he never recreated his ability to run between the tackles — and make linebackers miss — that he flashed in the preseason.
Right now, Mack’s big-play potential is the foundation for his growth. Running backs don’t last long in the NFL, and they disappear even quicker when they can’t block or catch. Getting him the ball in space is Mack’s major hot point, so he’ll have to be able to haul in what’s thrown at him and smooth out the rest of his abilities in order to be a consistent asset in the new offense.
Mack has a career-defining season ahead of him potentially where he will likely be the No. 2 running back within a very active rotation, if the Eagles’ offense from the 2017 season is any template of what’s to come for the Colts offense. Mack is going to be a major piece to build upon for the Colts offense, and if he can put it all together — watch out — he’s going to be very fun to watch next season.