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Early Thoughts on the Colts’ (Maybe) Eight-man Defensive Line

Will the Indianapolis Colts keep any more than eight defensive linemen on the 53-man roster?

Indianapolis Colts v Houston Texans Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images

Even though the Indianapolis Colts completely overhauled their defensive scheme this offseason, the defensive line has too many quality candidates for too few spots on the roster. Normally during a scheme change like this, you’re looking for a whole new group of players that fit what you’re trying to do. Credit general manager Chris Ballard with the foresight, but the Colts have a good problem on their hands.

On a couple occasions, head coach Frank Reich has mentioned the Colts would like to have eight starting-level players on the line, most recently saying, “We all know how things roll these days in the NFL where your role on the defensive line is you keep them fresh. What we find is, hey, let’s get eight starters and just keeping rolling them and have them fresh out there. That seems to be the most productive formula and (we’re) really happy with the depth that we have at that position.”

Whether having eight starting-level guys means the Colts envision keeping only eight linemen total on the roster, or they want to make sure they have eight guys capable of playing at a starter level with maybe one or two developmental players, they’re still going to have to make some tough decisions.

What the Colts are ultimately looking for is a blend of players that can provide relentless pressure on the backfield in waves. When one player leaves the field, his backup needs to come with the same heat.

Right now, the Colts have 15 defensive linemen on the roster, and there are only three — Anthony Johnson, Caraun Reid and Tomasi Laulile — that look like they might have a tough time making the roster. Other than that, I can see the other 12 making things very interesting, although the Colts likely won’t keep any more than eight to 10 on the line. There are a handful of players who have been good enough to be on the roster to this point but may have a steeper hill to climb this summer against their competition.

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Veteran John Simon was a stud for the Colts last year as an outside linebacker. However, the Colts envision him solely as a defensive end in the new scheme although it seems to make a lot of sense for him to be an off-ball linebacker otherwise. If he stays at defensive end then he’s got stiff competition. Specifically, from second-year edge rusher Tarell Basham. Unlike Simon, Basham is a natural fit as a 4-3 defensive end and has earned first-team reps during OTAs opposite of Jabaal Sheard, ahead of Simon If Basham continues to make progress through the summer then there is zero reason he shouldn’t remain a starter.

Outside of Basham, the Colts also have productive edge rusher Chris McCain, who they signed this offseason. They also drafted Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis in the second round this year, the latter who can play inside and out situationally. Simon is going to have to make the type of plays from a three-point stance this summer that he did standing up last year in order to fend off the youth movement.

Inside, things don’t get a lot easier for some familiar faces. Nose tackles Al Woods and Grover Stewart will both face pretty good competition, against each other as well as free-agent signing Rakeem Nunez-Roches. Woods has been surprisingly productive as the starting nose tackle since his arrival last year, but his age (31) could be the deciding factor if someone else has made a name for their self over the summer.

Stewart being just a second-year player and a well-known project when he was drafted may buy him another season, but he’s definitely going to need to show out in order to keep impactful players like Woods and Nunez-Roches at bay.

Last up are Margus Hunt and Hassan Ridgeway, the three-tech counterparts to noses Woods, Stewart and Nunez-Roches. Newcomer Denico Autry has seen snaps as the first-team three-tech with Hunt and Ridgeway behind him. Hunt is arguably the league’s best interior kick blocker on special teams, so that may prove to be valuable enough to earn him a spot. On defense, though, he’s not that great of a fit. He came from a similar system in Cincinnati before joining the Colts and it didn’t go all that well. Hunt excelled as Henry Anderson’s backup last year from the five-tech defensive tackle spot. This year, he would be more of a three-tech. He does not have the bend and flexibility to play the edge, and he will also turn 31 this summer.

Ridgeway’s main issue in his first two years has been staying healthy. He has only missed three games, but minor things that he’s been able to play through — such as his shoulder last year — have caused some inconsistency. Still, he has shown plenty of flashes and may be a great fit for this new system if he can stay healthy.

At the end of the day, however many players the Colts keep on the line, it’s going to be a good-looking group. They will just need to decide what is the most important factor, as they have five edge rushers and seven interior players worth keeping around. This will be one of the better competitions during training camp, for sure.