While the offense got a lot of the headlines this season with the remaking of the offensive line and the return of Andrew Luck, it was actually the defense that offered the most encouraging improvements on the Colts roster. Today we’re going to dig in to the winners and losers from the 2018 season on defense.
Who else could kick off our list? From one of the “worst picks in the draft” to First-Team All-Pro and a very likely Defensive Rookie of the Year award, this guy did it all. He set a new record for the franchise in tackles, he changed the mentality on the Colts defense, and he just kept making game-altering plays. Even in a truly ugly divisional round game he was there, forcing a fumble and giving his team a shot to get back in it.
This Colts team hasn’t had a player like Darius Leonard on it in a long time, and Chris Ballard said today that he has the potential to be the same kind of player as Brian Urlacher. High praise from a guy who has worked with him. Leonard did that in just his first season in the league and in a new defense. Imagine what he can do with another year under his belt?
No one deserves to be right up here as much as Kenny Moore. Moore went from a waiver claim to the best corner on a tough defense and did it largely over the course of this season. He has a real knack for getting to the quarterback on blitzes, and has repeatedly come up big on critical 3rd down plays to break up passes. You could really see his confidence and swagger coming on later in the season as he got more comfortable in Eberflus’ system. The best part is, he is just 23 years old. His jump from year one to year two was big, but another step forward could make him an unpleasant man to deal with.
There were quite a few people scratching their heads when Denico Autry was signed by the Colts this offseason. Most of us knew precious little about the rotational defensive lineman from the Raiders, and he came on at a time where the Colts were getting killed in the media for not spending in free agency. Hardly the big splash everyone was looking for. All Autry did was put up 9 sacks, 37 tackles, and 11 QB hits in his 12 games played this season. If not for injuries that kept him out of four games, he would have likely had a 10-sack season. Quite a steal for a guy no one knew about. If the Colts can get a similar season out of him next year, and if he can stay healthy, he can be a major contributor on the defense.
The verdict had just about come down on Quincy Wilson as a bust through the first quarter of this season. He had failed to make a mark in his rookie season, too immature to work hard in practice and butting heads with the coaching staff. The same issues seemed to plague him early on. Then, the signing of Mike Mitchell happened. Mitchell took it upon himself to mentor and guide Wilson, and that proved to be essential. Over the back half of the season, Wilson began to find himself getting more snaps and making plays. He looked like a guy who was waking up to what was needed from him. The question with Wilson has never been whether he was talented, but what he would do with that talent. If he continues to develop and work hard, he might end up a solid player after all.
After a frustrating rookie season where he spent most of the year in the training room, Anthony Walker had a great comeback year. Working as a de facto rookie, he paired with Leonard to help turn the linebacker room from team weakness to a source of strength. He and Leonard attacked the football effectively, helping make this defense one of the best against the run. While there is certainly room for him to improve, the fact that he came on so well despite having very little time on the field last season bodes well for his future.
Clayton Geathers was a huge part of the heart of the defensive secondary. He hits hard, tackles soundly, and plays up in the box with the kind of presence and tone setting that this defense needed. It wasn’t long ago that we were uncertain whether he would be able to continue to play given his neck issues. He seems to have overcome these and had a solid year to finish out his time under contract.
Chris Ballard talked today about loving Clayton and the work ethic and mentality that he brings to the Colts. Geathers shared a similar sentiment, saying that he wants to be a Colt. While the Colts will undoubtedly look at every option in the offseason, there is no doubt that this defense had something special, and Geathers was a part of that, and of remaking his career after a serious injury.
Down the stretch, Pierre Desir had a truly impressive run. He limited DeAndre Hopkins twice and Amari Cooper once, on his way to making himself a surprising headache for number one wide receivers. Desir played solid coverage, and improved as the season went on, which was fortunate for him, because his deal with the Colts only extended through this season. Whether it is the Colts or someone else, Desir has likely made himself some money with his play this year.
In a locker room filled with young guys, Jabaal Sheard, as the 29-year-old veteran, became a leader and voice of experience this season. The stat sheet isn’t wild with Sheard. He had just 5.5 sacks on the season, but unselfishly took on the jobs that go unrecognized. His work largely allowed others to be effective, and his 13 QB hits said that despite a relatively low number of sacks, he was getting to the quarterback and having an impact all the same.
The Colts defensive coordinator did such a great job molding this young group of men that he was already getting calls to be a head coach. Thankfully, he was not hired anywhere, and so will have another year to grow this group of players and continue developing them into a stronger unit.
He grew as a play caller and a leader throughout the season, with a notable change in his approach over the last several games of the season, where he developed a great feel for how to dial up blitzes and how to keep the opposing offense on their toes. The Colts are very fortunate to get another year with him.
Last season Nate Hairston took nearly every snap at the nickel corner position. He looked primed and ready to be a solid starter or better if he took a step in his sophomore season. Instead, by the end of the year he was relegated almost exclusively to special teams. Much emphasis has been put on how guys practice by this coaching staff, and that is likely what differentiated Hairston. Whatever he is or isn’t doing, he’ll need to see improvement in the coming year if he wants to be on this roster for long.
On a team with a crowded defensive line group and up against a draft class loaded with defensive line talent, Hassan Ridgeway needed a strong year. What he got was, well… not a whole lot. Ridgeway has been disappointing since his selection in 2016 in the 4th round. He may already have missed his chance to be a part of this roster long term.
This one can be debated, and I’m sure will be in the comments. However, this year was clearly a bit off for Hooker, who seems to still be struggling to make his way back from his season ending ACL and MCL tear of his rookie year. In addition, Hooker seemed to struggle all season long with an unknown hip injury that cost him a few games and left him playing injured for others.
When he was able to play, there was no doubt that he made an impact. He simply wasn’t able to look quite like himself a lot of the season. Some of this was due to the scheme, and a lot can likely be attributed to him both recovering from injury and learning a new defensive system. Hooker is still remarkably new to the safety position and will need to continue to grow.
Ultimately, it will be important to see Hooker back to his usual self with an offseason of rest. That alone is likely to push him back into winning form.