The defensive line is an area of relative strength for the 2018 Colts as far as the defense goes. There is a chance that the shift to a 4-3 base will be a better fit for some of their players, and Chris Ballard invested heavily in the line this offseason. So how do they stack up against the division? Let’s have a look.
If this whole exercise of ranking the defenses in the division has taught me anything it is to appreciate just how good the Jaguars defense is. This line is just plain nasty. Perhaps worse than that, it is deep. The starting unit consists of Calais Campbell, Malik Jackson, Marcell Dareus, and Yannick Ngakoue. Campbell may be 31, but he still had an all-pro season in 2017. When Marcell Dareus is your weak link on your starting defensive line unit, you’re pretty good.
This doesn’t even factor in Dante Fowler, Dawuane Smoot, and rookie Taven Bryan, who was getting comparisons to J.J. Watt. This will be a tough group to face on any given week, and are built to stay good even if there are injuries.
The Texans were easy to overlook last season. Perhaps no team was more ravaged by injury than they were, and their defense saw the worst of it. NT D.J. Reader is entering his third season and performed admirably despite the missing pieces on the defense last season. Christian Covington will likely get the start on the right side and is adequate to hold down his role.
The real question that will determine how good this line will be is what will they get out of J.J. Watt? A healthy J.J. Watt in his prime was one of the most disruptive defensive players in NFL history. If he can stay healthy and return to anything resembling that level of form, it will make this unit a formidable one.
Chris Ballard has made the defensive line a point of emphasis since arriving in Indianapolis. A lot has been invested there in terms of draft picks and free agency. That investment began to pay off last season and will continue this year with the scheme change and more new faces.
Jabaal Sheard has provided his best years of production operating out of a 4-3 base, and is the most proven member of the defensive line. The Colts will need him to play at a high level and be their leader on the line. Al Woods played well last season, but doesn’t fit the declared mantra of speed and attack that the defense has adopted under Matt Eberflus. It remains to be seen how he will be used, but he certainly did well as the nose tackle for last year’s defense.
Rookies Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay will be interesting to watch as well. As 2nd round picks, both will be expected to make an impact on the defense, albeit most likely as rotational players. Tarell Basham, the Colts 2017 3rd round pick, was a bit miscast last season in a 3-4. He has reportedly looked more at home in the new scheme. Then there is wildcard John Simon, who was one of the defense’s more dynamic players at outside linebacker last year, who will be making the switch to defensive end.
In short, there is a ton of talent on the Colts’ defensive line. Much of it is unproven and it will take time to develop inside Eberflus’ scheme, but the end result is a deep group of reliable contributors, with the possibility of significant upside from all their young players.
The Titans certainly don’t have a bad group along their defensive line. They have reliable starters in Bennie Logan and DaQuan Jones, but these aren’t names that are costing offensive linemen sleep at night. Jurrell Casey is a very good player and has been a reliable factor for the defense since he was drafted.
However, Casey is essentially all this line has. Were he to miss any time at all, there would be a dramatic difference in the line’s effectiveness. The Colts saw first-hand last season how a defensive line can play well for 3 quarters only to collapse when there aren’t enough good rotational players available to ease the load on your stars. The lack of depth here puts this line last, but not by much.