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Chris Ballard Provides Positional Clarity for Some Colts Players

The Colts have a brand new coaching staff, which leads to questions about how some players fit. GM Chris Ballard provided some clarity.

Indianapolis Colts v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

On Monday night, Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard hosted some members of the media for a two-plus-hour film session of the team’s recent draft class. Outside of the draft prospects, questions about some current Colts players and how they can contribute in the new offensive and defensive schemes came up. Andrew Walker of got an excellent record of the evening.

*Because I mention it quite a bit in this piece, if you’re not familiar with what we mean on here when we refer to linebackers at MIKE, WILL or SAM, here’s a quick “for dummies” explanation. But first, remember that the Colts’ new defense uses three off-ball linebackers instead of two like it used to under Chuck Pagano.

  • The MIKE plays in the middle of the defense, usually lined up matching the center of the offense’s line. For the Colts, he has to be quick and fast enough to cover a lot of ground, but also physical enough to take on and get off of blockers. They have the most on their plate among the linebackers, as they call the defense and must participate both against the run and pass.
  • The WILL is usually going to be the quickest/fastest of the three linebackers. They line up on the opposite of the SAM, patrolling the weak side of the field. They fly around and usually make quite a bit of tackles with fewer blockers to take on, and you’ll see them often in coverage. They often dictate where a running back can go, and part of the reason the WILL needs to be fast is because sometimes that means cutting the ball carrier off on the opposite side of the field.
  • The SAM lines up on the strong side of the defense, matching up on the side that the offense is using more men on the line of scrimmage, typically over a tight end. The SAM’s primary use with the Colts will be run defense. If they can find one who is capable, they will also occasionally rush the passer and cover tight ends and running backs.

Ballard on Antonio Morrison:

“He has to be a MIKE-SAM, and really, more of a SAM … because we’ll ask our SAM a lot to hammer things down inside, which he should be really good at, because that’s what he is. He couldn’t play WILL for us.”

Morrison has started 19 of his last 31 games for the Colts as the MIKE linebacker inside the 3-4 defense. In a two-gap scheme with a rangier WILL by his side, Morrison’s lack of movement skills could be kind of masked. However, now it’s all about speed in the Colts’ new 4-3 defense, which Morrison lacks. Ballard declaring Morrison a one-trick pony as a run-stopper (which we already knew) and saying that he couldn’t play WILL for them is pretty telling. Saying that Morrison couldn’t fit into a role within his own position group is a damning statement in my eyes. However, the SAM is the least-used of the three linebackers in the Colts’ defense. If the Colts see Morrison as a high-quality run-stopper and want to put him in the lineup in heavy situations, they could still do that.

On Anthony Walker:

“Pretty good. He got his weight back down to about 238, I think. He’d be a MIKE-SAM also.”

Walker should be considered Morrison’s top competition at SAM. When Walker is lighter, he does have the ability to cover quite a bit of ground in a hurry, which means he could fit in as the MIKE also. Walker is also known for being a cerebral player and coach on the field, so his highest upside is as the MIKE. Ballard mentioned that Walker is down to about 238 pounds now, which is about five pounds lighter than last year. While Walker is the biggest threat to Morrison at SAM, the player most in Walker’s way to play MIKE would be Najee Goode . Goode started four games for the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles last year, including the NFC Championship. Coaches already know that Goode has the experience. However, he has been mostly a special teams standout in his career. His acquisition this offseason seemed like a security move, wherein if no one else steps up this summer to take the starting MIKE job, the coaches know Goode can do it.

On Darius Leonard:

“We’re going to play him at WILL; so our WILL be covering.”

Our guys, they’re going to be hat in a crack, get downhill and get in a gap — fast. … This is the stuff that you can really see (the speed). It really showed up at the Senior Bowl, especially when he was covering those backs. So this is what we’re going to ask him (to do); so why this defense is good is the WILL’s always lined up behind the three (technique).”

This was a pretty easy one to predict, as the rookie has great speed and movement skills, but not much girth and strength to play in the middle. He moves very well laterally, and he can stay glued downfield with the players he covers. Leonard is likely Ballard’s ideal WILL on tape, so I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see him as the starter come Week 1 of the regular season.

On T.J. Green:

“It’s a big year for T.J. I like him. I like the kid. I think he’s tough. I do think the scheme will help. We’re gonna put him in one spot. That was a little my fault last year; I don’t blame that on the coaches. Blame it on me. (Trying Green at cornerback) … (I was thinking) let’s cut the field for him, because he’s talented enough to do it. That was all me. And then he had the struggle in L.A., and he can’t play corner, and let’s kick it back to (safety). … He’s a safety. … In Kansas City we wanted him as a corner. That’s what we wanted him as. … He could do it. He could do it. But I thought the end of the year, last couple games you saw some real flashes from him. You know, you forget: T.J. (in college) was a one-year starter; what was he, 20, when he was drafted? He’s only 23 years old. … It takes times for them young guys to understand what it takes to play in this league.”

Pro Football Focus

Green has caught a lot of crap from the media and fan base, but he did improve in his second year from his lowly rookie year. Like Ballard said, they briefly moved him to corner, didn’t like what they saw and so they are sticking with him at safety. In Year 3, in a simplified defense, we may see him get even better. He will have to take advantage of his limited opportunities, however, as he will primarily be on the field for special teams. If he sees time on defense, it is either because Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers and Matthias Farley are injured, or because Green has shown so much in practice that they try to get him on the field in certain sub-packages.

On Marlon Mack:

“Like, everything with Marlon was better than I expected. Everything. And I know he had some pass protection issues, but he also did some good things in pass protection for a rookie back. He ran between the tackles better than I ever expected. Just because it was all that outside-run (stuff); they were in that high-tempo offense, outside run scheme — that was a hard evaluation to know if he could do it, but our scout was driven by the kid. He kept saying he had done so much work on Marlon — you know, what his makeup was; he had played safety in high school, so he had some toughness. The coaches raved about his toughness. He said it was just kind of a byproduct of the offense.”

Mack’s biggest critics and most passionate fans alike all shared the same sentiment of his performance last year — not used enough, but showed great playmaking ability outside and a lot of room to grow while running inside. However, Ballard heaped a surprising amount of praise on Mack overall in this conversation, even in pass protection. It sounds like Mack’s development from college spread running back to three-down NFL running back is coming along nicely according to the Colts’ staff. He has a lot of competition, but I expect Mack to be the starter when he takes the field following shoulder surgery.

On Robert Turbin:

“Let me just say this: I don’t want to downplay Robert Turbin. Great short yardage — I think he was the best in the league two years ago? Great professional. Pass pro’s great. Robert Turbin, that guy’s a pro and he’s going to be good for these young guys. I’ll say that. … (Hard to keep when he’s a one-trick pony?) When you’ve got good flavor around him, I don’t think so. I know Rob’s got to do his part, but when you’ve got other guys around him — and look, if you look at Philadelphia, they had four backs; they had four backs on the roster.”

I’ve never seen a negative thing said about Turbin from the Colts’ side. Ballard knows exactly what he is — a premium player both in short-yardage situations and in pass protection. Those are two invaluable pieces of the game on offense. As long as Turbin doesn’t look out of place and is completely outplayed by his younger counterparts, I expect him to remain on the roster. If the Colts carry four backs (I’m sure they will), it looks like that would be Mack, Turbin, Hines and Jordan Wilkins.

On Nyheim Hines:

(Is he the returner?) “Yeah. He needs to work on the punt return stuff, but he’s pretty talented. I mean, look: I just go right to speed. So from Devin Hester, to Johnny Knox to Daniel Manning to Tyreek Hill, I mean those are all guys I’ve been a part of drafting, and they all had one common trait: speed. Every one of them. … This kid’s a neat kid, too. Really smart. He’s got all the intangibles you want.”

“He played at pure slot receiver the year before. Our coaches really have a vision for him. … When you can see it, both of you can see it, of what this guy can be, that’s usually a pretty good chance of success when both sides can see it. And even though he’s short, he’s 198 pounds. It’s not like this is a little (guy). I mean, he’s got thickness; he’s got thickness in his butt, in his hamstrings and in his quads.”

(Can he pass protect?) “A little bit. It’s going to need work. I mean, and it will get work with Rath (Tom Rathman). Tom, he is demanding, now, on the pass protection stuff.”

“This is where … what gives Hines a (leg up) is that he can do so much in the passing game. You can him up as a slot, you can line him up with another back, and all of a sudden now he’s in the slot and you’ve gotta choose … from a defensive standpoint.”

“I thought Morocco (Brown) put it best, because (Hines is) almost a Swiss army knife, where you can use (him) in a bunch of different roles. I was excited because of the explosive plays. I mean, that was the one thing we lacked. You know, we just didn’t have enough explosive players. I mean, I know everybody talks about the wideout position, but you could create, between tight end — (Eric) Ebron — running back — this little dude — we could create big plays with others … it doesn’t just have to come from T.Y. (Hilton). You can create it in other ways.”

“He doesn’t run like a small guy. And this is his first year back at running back; he had been playing wideout. That tells you that he’s also a really good teammate; that he’s going to do whatever you ask him to do. If we told him to play wideout, he’ll play wideout. If you told him to play runner, he’ll play runner. If you ask him to play special teams, gunner — whatever you ask this kid to do, he’s going to do for you. Like, I think he can do a lot on teams, not just as a returner, but also as a cover guy, because he’s got speed. Kickoff and punt will come into play just because he’s got strength and speed, so he could be a gunner right away.”

“I always think about putting this speed on our turf, indoors, we’re going to play in good weather. To me, that matters — you build your team around where you’re playing most of your games at.”

There was apparently a lot to say about Hines, and I didn’t even include everything. It sure sounds like the staff, top to bottom, is excited about this guy. First and foremost, the Colts now have a dangerous player in the return game, but they also have a lightning rod on offense. Although he was probably misused in his first couple of years, Josh Ferguson was supposed to be that player for the Colts, but Hines has much more upside. Hines is ridiculously fast and can catch as well as any running back, but like Ballard pointed out, he also has the thickness in his lower body to potentially run between the tackles. There’s a lot the Colts are going to be able to do with Hines, and it sounds like they were already planning it for awhile.