The regular season is looming with the Colts’ home opener less than a month away. As we inch closer to meaningful football, it makes sense to have a look at what the primary team needs are and evaluate whether they have changed throughout camp.
The cornerback position is one that looks like it could really present a problem for the Colts this season. If the season started today, I believe the starters would be Quincy Wilson and Kenny Moore II on the outside and Nate Hairston in the nickel. Of those three, I think Hairston has been the most proven, and all three of them are in just their second NFL season.
On the one hand, starting three guys who are in their second year is encouraging. They have a huge amount of ceiling above them to grow, and could make major leaps forward. On the other, they’re unproven and could struggle mightily.
As far as depth, they have Pierre Desir, who is a journeyman backup, and probably best suited for that role. Behind him? Just a bunch of guys. Not that there is anything wrong with them, but D.J. White and Chris Milton aren’t making any quarterbacks lose sleep.
In short, the starters are unproven and could be dreadful. They need to be playmakers who can take the ball away, and haven’t shown that tendency thus far in the offseason. Even worse, if those guys go down, the Colts are in really big trouble.
It is altogether possible, and indeed likely, that come week one of the regular season two of the three starting linebackers could be rookies. That is more than a little terrifying. The linebacker position needed to be addressed, and Ballard has done that this offseason to some degree. However, starting two rookies there will come with the understood setbacks. They will struggle at times.
Darius Leonard has flown all over the field and made plays so far this offseason as the WILL linebacker. If he is developed well, there is every reason to believe he can be an impact player like Chris Ballard envisioned when he drafted him. It would be foolish though, not to expect some rookie blunders from him.
In the absence of second year player Anthony Walker Jr. due to injury, Skai Moore has been the guy getting a lot of work at the MIKE linebacker spot. Moore has looked really impressive considering he was undrafted, but had some understandable struggles in the first preseason game. The Colts will need him to grow up fast as well if they don’t want to be absolutely abused across the middle.
The most experienced player in the linebacker group is Najee Goode. Goode played last season as a starter for the Eagles due to injury, but has been largely a rotational guy and backup throughout his career. Still, he provides more reliability and experience than anyone else in the defensive backfield, so there is certainly value having him as a part of the defense. But at 29, he likely doesn’t have some hidden abilities that have yet to be discovered. What you see is what you get, most likely. And what you see is a guy who was a backup for a Super Bowl team.
Beyond these three is Anthony Walker, who may or may not take over the starting spot when he returns from a groin injury. Walker offers a ton of unrealized potential that has been constantly sidelined with injuries. If he can stay healthy, he could offer a boost to the group. Antonio Morrison seems unlikely to make the team, but has starting experience. He simply doesn’t have the speed or playmaking ability the Colts will want going forward and they may opt to ditch the experience and let their young players develop.
In a scheme that relies heavily on the linebackers to make plays because the front four are smaller and working to get penetration into the backfield and get after the quarterback, this is a group that is more than a little concerning. Hopefully we will get to see these rookies break out and if they do, it could change our perspective on the defense very quickly.
The Colts have exactly one suitable offensive tackle. Anthony Castonzo is the only player on the team who really locks down the position. When he is hurt, which he rarely has been, things fall apart quickly. Denzelle Good has potential, but struggles to stay healthy. Joe Haeg is a great option as a backup, but he isn’t the guy you want as your starter at the position. Austin Howard was brought in to help temporarily deal with the issue at right tackle and if camp and the first preseason game are any indication, he hasn’t impressed the coaching staff all that much.
It is telling when the team is giving first team reps at tackle to their rookie 2nd round pick at guard. While Braden Smith may do admirably there, and if he can develop into a solid tackle, could be invaluable on the offensive line going forward, it points to the lack of talent at the position.
To be totally fair to the team, there is a dearth of talent across the league along the offensive line as a whole. It isn’t really as though there were great tackles available that Ballard somehow missed. The mediocre linemen that were on the market got paid like they were already wearing their gold jackets.
Regardless, the truth remains that the Colts are one significant injury at tackle away from having a very bad situation, and short of hoping Braden Smith can develop into a good tackle, and crossing their fingers and wishing the injury bug away, they don’t have a lot they can do about it.
The Colts don’t have the best group of wide receivers in the league. However, T.Y. Hilton is a top ten receiver, and Chester Rogers and Ryan Grant both have the necessary talent to make plays when needed. Deon Cain gave a lot of hope for what this group could look like if he continued to make plays in the regular season as he had in training camp, and that injury was a big blow. However, Andrew Luck is talented enough as a passer that he can lift these players to be solid and move the ball successfully. With a solid tight end group to supplement the passing game, the receivers should be fine, but I expect this will be an area that gets addressed in the 2019 offseason.
While the starting safeties, Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers, could present one of the more formidable pairs in the league when healthy, they haven’t ever been healthy and on the field together. Matthias Farley has stepped up and been a valuable rotational player and made a case that he could even be in contention to start. However, the Colts still need a solid player at that 4th spot, and I might even make the argument that Geathers would be a better backup than a starter, and that if the Colts have the opportunity in the offseason to get upgrade at strong safety, they should do so.
The outlook is a little bit bleak on some of the position groups. However, almost all of that is because of the groups being so young. If they are well developed and grow into their roles, we could be looking at the beginnings of a very formidable defense in the coming years. Until that time, it is fortunate that we have one of the best quarterbacks in the game.