For the first time in what seems like ages, the Colts appear to have stability in their coach staff. And for the first time in perhaps all of the Andrew Luck era, that coaching staff seems like one to have confidence in. Frank Reich’s philosophy, demeanor, and previous experiences give him all the makings of a good NFL head coach. Nick Sirianni is a highly regarded young offensive mind who won’t be taking too big of a jump to be the team’s non-playcalling offensive coordinator.
But perhaps more than anyone, the member of the coaching staff I’m the most excited for is defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. Coming from the Cowboys coaching staff, Eberflus has experience working in multiple defensive schemes and with defensive minds such as Rod Marinelli and Monte Kiffin. Though he was part of a 3-4 defense for part of his career in Dallas, Eberflus has indicated that he will switch to a 4-3 scheme akin to what the Cowboys have been running since 2013.
In all likelihood, this means the base defense will be a cover 3 Seattle-style defense, with elements of Kiffin’s signature Tampa 2 being implemented as well. What this seems to mean, and what both Eberflus and GM Chris Ballard have indicated, is that this will put a premium on athletic ability all throughout the defense. With that in mind, let’s look at the current construction of the defensive roster in the context of the Colts’ new emphasis on athleticism and their ability to thrive in a zone-based scheme.
The defensive line in Eberflus’ 4-3 scheme will mark a sharp contrast to the defensive line during the days of Chuck Pagano. Most notably will be the shift at defensive end, where quickness and pass rush ability will be the priority on the edge as opposed to the bulkier Henry Andersons and Margus Hunts of the world. This transition will perhaps be the easiest for Jabaal Sheard, whose game should translate incredibly well to a full time, hand in the dirt edge rusher. Though Sheard is best suited as a strongside defensive end, the lack of established talent the Colts will likely have to begin the 2018 season will force Sheard to play that primary pass rusher role on the weakside, a role in which he should still be able to flourish.
The rest of the defensive ends are a little trickier to sort out. John Simon, last year’s starting SAM, might find his game translating a bit more naturally to a true 4-3 SAM than to a full-time edge rusher like many have projected. Simon’s a relatively small player without much length, something that would likely be exploited as a defensive end. As an off-ball linebacker, Simon’s lack of size would be less of an issue, and his sound run defense and athletic ability would be valuable, especially considering the likely lack of experience that the rest of the linebackers will bring with them.
If Simon does stay amongst the linebackers, that will, as of now, leave second-year place Terrell Basham as the other starter across from Sheard. And though Basham did come on a little towards the end of the season, and though he will benefit from playing with his hand in the dirt like he did at Ohio, I doubt the team is thrilled with the prospect of relying on Basham as the only option for the 2nd starting defensive end. However, the likely additions in both free agency and the draft (Bradley Chubb, anyone?) will allow Basham to come off the bench as a rotational pass rusher, a role the team should be fairly comfortable with.
Bradley Chubb is going to be the pick at 3, as he should be. He’s a strong player who would immediately start for the Colts at left end across from Jabaal Sheard. If he’s not the pick, the Colts are likely in trouble by trusting that Terrell Basham will develop as a starter.
Perhaps the most interesting position in light of the Colts’ scheme change, this defensive tackle group will be one of the most interesting groups to monitor throughout the offseason and preseason. This group includes all three of the Colts’ starters on last year’s defensive line: Al Woods, Jonathan Hankins, and Henry Anderson.
Woods enjoyed a surprisingly impressive season last year as the team’s starting nose tackle and transitioning to a full-time 1-technique (outside shoulder of the center) shouldn’t be too hard for Woods. However, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Woods will not start next season, which is not indicative to any weakness by Woods, but instead a testament to the strengths of the other top guys in this group.
Jonathan Hankins will likely assume the role as the starting 1-technique, a role Hankins thrived in while in New York before he slid over to 3-technique (outside shoulder of the guard) after the Giants’ acquisition of Damon Harrison. Henry Anderson, in certain scenarios, could be the odd man out in this group, as his strength as a two-gapping player will be minimized in a one-gap scheme, but his experience at 3-technique should make the team feel comfortable with penciling him in as the opening day starter, assuming he makes a full recovery from his laryngeal fracture.
Off the bench, Grover Stewart and Hassan Ridgeway should both provide good depth with upside at 3-technique, while Margus Hunt seems like a likely cut come training camp, or at the very most, a special teams player only.
The decrease from 3 starters to 2 starters will result in one of last year’s starters being left out, and the result will dictate where Jonathan Hankins will play. If Al Woods is put on the bench, as I expect, Hankins and Henry Anderson will start at 1 and 3 tech respectively.
The off-ball linebackers were perhaps the single worst position group on the Colts last year. Antonio Morrison has shown nothing thus far in his career to be a considered anything close to a starting-level player, and Anthony Walker, though an intriguing second-year player with clear passing down upside, hasn’t shown much either.
What makes matters worse is that neither of these players is particularly good fit in a 4-3 defense. Morrison, as of now, would be the starting MIKE come opening day, a position that he is completely unfit to occupy. Walker, on the other hand, would probably be the starting WILL, but I’m not sure he’s quite the rangy athlete to comfortably fit what the new scheme demands at that position. And though Simon should be a good player at SAM, it is clear that the Colts will need to add at least two potentially starting-level linebackers in the offseason, ones that are both better players than Morrison and Walker and better scheme fits for what the Colts want to run.
Look for the team to target guys in free agency like Anthony Hitchens, Avery Williamson, and perhaps retaining Barkevious Mingo, while considering athletic prospects like Leighton Vander Esch and Rashaan Evans on day two of the draft.
This group is terrible. Expect John Simon to transition to a relatively full-time role as an off-ball linebacker and pray that the team somehow comes up with starters better than Anthony Walker and Antonio Morrison for opening day.
The cornerbacks were one of the biggest positive surprises on the team last year, even with second-rounder Quincy Wilson being in Pagano’s doghouse for the majority of the season. In the new press cover 3 system, Wilson’s strength and size should allow him to thrive and enjoy a jump in both playing time and performance in his sophomore year.
The chances of the Colts bringing back Rashaan Melvin seem to wither by the day, and his lack of production in every season other than his breakout season last year makes me hesitant to invest in him long term, especially considering he won’t be playing in the same man-heavy defense in which he thrived. If the 28-year-old does indeed depart, expect the Colts to target another corner in free agency and/or the draft to compete for a starting spot alongside Wilson, assuming additional free agent Pierre Desir leaves for another team in the offseason (my gut tells me he will).
On the bench, the Colts hold a decent amount of young talent that performed well last season. Last year’s 5th round pick Nate Hairston showed all the signs of being a steal in his rookie year, as he held down the nickel corner spot all year as arguably the best rookie cornerback on the team. Kenny Moore also showed signs of being a rotational player last year and will be given a chance to compete for a serious amount of snaps if Desir and Melvin depart. Both of these players will have to show they can have the same success in a zone-based scheme as they did in a man-based scheme, so don’t be shocked if Ballard looks to add a couple of respectable players in the secondary with experience in defenses closer to Eberflus’.
So much of this depends on what happens with free agents Rashaan Melvin and Pierre Desir. We know Quincy Wilson will start without Chuck Pagano to inexplicably refuse to play him, and it seems likely that the other starting outside corner isn’t on the team yet.
Now here’s a position that’s fun to talk about. Similar to along the defensive line, the Colts backend, as of now, has three players that will be competing for starting spots. Assuming a full recovery, we know Malik Hooker will take his spot back at Free Safety, where he should continue to develop into one of the league’s best playmaking and overall safeties. In Eberflus’ scheme, Hooker will be given just as many, if not more, opportunities to play as a playmaking centerfield in the middle of the cover 3 defense as he was in Pagano’s signature cover 1. Though it’s not fair to compare him to a generational talent at safety, Hooker’s a perfect fit in this scheme the way that Earl Thomas is in Seattle. Expect an even more dominant sophomore season for Hooker in 2018.
At strong safety, it’s fair to say the T.J. Green experiment is over and done with, leaving Clayton Geathers and breakout player Mathias Farley to compete. Though Geathers might seem like a safe bet to be the opening day starter, I think it’s fair to question whether questions about his longevity, general skill, or maybe even if his best position is at weakside linebacker (this would only be advisable if the Colts add nobody to their linebackers this offseason) leads to Mathis Farley being the starting strong safety, but even after a strong season last year, it’s fair to assume Farley’s best role is a rotational role player.
Malik Hooker will thrive in Eberflus’ scheme, but there one has to be a little discomfort with the uncertainty next to him. What’s for certain though is that there will be solid depth at the position, especially if the team resigns Darius Butler.
Though a 4-3 scheme change will ultimately benefit the defense, it does produce some awkward fits for the 2018 season. The additional required off-ball linebacker and the one fewer required defensive lineman goes completely against the current strengths of the team, leading to some pretty bad players getting some pretty serious minutes and some talented defensive linemen stuck on the bench. However, the scheme change should immediately improve the pass rush, and if Ballard nails the draft on the defensive side, result in an improved defense for next season.
What do you think of the Colts defense as of now? What are your expectations for the defense under Eberflus for this season and beyond? What are you most excited to see out of the 4-3 defense? Let me know in the comments or hit me on Twitter, @__AlexJacobson