Colts fans have become pretty used to underperforming linebacker play. Even when the linebackers were better, they have been a relatively weak position on Colts defenses. I feel pretty comfortable in saying that in my time as a Colts fan, I cannot really remember a linebacker group that inspired real fear in any offensive coordinators.
This is clearly a position that matters to Chris Ballard, as he has drafted 4 linebackers in his two drafts as the Colts GM, and has signed several others. So how do the Colts compare in the AFC South in terms of linebackers? Let’s have a look.
This might be the toughest group I’ve compared yet. There is a ton of talent at the linebacker position in the AFC South, and a pretty good group of young players coming in to inject more. The edge goes to the Texans at this stage.
The combo of Whitney Mercilus and Jadeveon Clowney on the outside is unpleasant enough, but Zach Cunningham and Benardrick McKinney round out a very even and dangerous starting group. Mercilus missed all last season with a torn pectoral muscle but should be back at full strength and ready to go. Clowney is a menace on the field and with the return of Mercilus and Watt, will benefit from not having to deal with all the attention from blockers.
Like any team, this group will be pretty reliant on staying healthy, but top to bottom they get the edge as the best overall group in the division.
Coming in at a very close second is the Jaguars linebacker group. With Telvin Smith and Myles Jack, they’re a very talented group that could easily outshine the Texans. However, seeing Paul Posluszny retire means that a significant spot on the defense will need to be filled by new blood. Blair Brown is the penciled in starter at the SAM position, but speculation is abounding that rookie 7th round pick Leon Jacobs could challenge for that role. Whoever ends up there will have a great supporting cast to learn from, but there will undoubtedly be some struggles as a new starter adjusts. What might be the most disconcerting thing as a Colts fan is that this is perhaps the weakest position group on the Jaguars defense. There won’t be many easy yards against this team.
I could probably mix up the rankings of these top three completely and make a pretty solid argument for why each could be at the top, so when you see the Titans ranked third, know that it isn’t by much. The Titans have the oldest linebacker group in the AFC South. Derrick Morgan is 29, Brian Orakpo and Wesley Woodyard are both 31. That comes with advantages and disadvantages. The old guard have experience and understanding of the game in their favor. However, their bodies break down more easily and they just can’t perform at the same athletic level as the younger guys.
With the arrival of new head coach Mike Vrabel, you should expect this unit to be well coached. I would also expect to see plenty of rookies Rashaan Evans and Harold Landry early and often. Vrabel will want to get these playmakers involved, and if they can make an impact early, it could make this unit look a lot better.
While the top three linebacker units are neck and neck, the Colts players are lagging far behind. Like so many of the remade units on the Colts’ defense, there are more questions than answers for this group. Training camp will be critical to revealing who lands in starting roles.
Rookie Darius Leonard may find himself thrust into a starting job early due to the lack of talent. Undrafted free agent Skai Moore finds himself earning praise during the meaningless part of mini-camp and OTAs that we often obsess about during our period of forced football content starvation. Anthony Walker Jr. is an intriguing prospect from last year’s draft who saw his season slip away due to injury.
However, if you asked me who the guaranteed production is going to come from in this group, I simply couldn’t tell you. It is entirely possible that Leonard, Moore, and Walker could all have amazing years. We could see them all break out and have impressive outings that give us a glimpse of a bright future for our defense.
Rookies Zaire Franklin and Matthew Adams could blow us away and come from nowhere to be stars. Najee Goode could end up turning heads after his run as a special teamer and backup for the Super Bowl Champions. All these possibilities and what-ifs don’t amount to a whole lot. Until they prove otherwise, the middle of this defense remains woefully lacking by comparison to our AFC South rivals.
Next up, defensive line.