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Colts boast embarrassment of riches at linebacker

NFL: NOV 17 Jaguars at Colts Photo by Jeffrey Brown/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It is true, every NFL franchise has weaknesses. The structure of the salary cap and the impact of the Collective Bargaining Agreement all but guarantee this will be true every season, and leads to a level of competitive parity that is rare in professional sports. “Beat the system” requires draft success, next level player development and/or game day coaching, or to be incredibly shrewd and successful with trades and in the free agency market.

When Colts General Manager Chris Ballard joined the Colts in 2017, the team lacked most of those things. The game day coaching staff left a lot to be desired, former General Manager Ryan Grigson failed to find consistent draft success, and rather than develop — many of the players who were required were seasoned veterans entering the twilight of their careers. It was a recipe for disaster and resulted in a challenging task for any GM, let alone a first timer.

Since Ballard joined the Colts, the team has made strides in a positive direction. It doesn’t mean that every move has worked out or every draft pick was optimal, but the team sits currently with a very strong projected group of starters and has reasonably solid depth at most positions. Perhaps no position on the roster is so deeply gifted at every level as the linebacker position.

What weak side linebacker Darius Leonard has accomplished in his first two seasons in the NFL is incredible. He is a two-time All-Pro and only a couple of tackles off leading the team in tackles in consecutive years, despite missing three games to recover from a concussion early in 2019. He regularly wreaks havoc in games, forcing fumbles and intercepting passes, and has the kind of range that makes it particularly challenging for opponents to have success stretching the field laterally.

Leonard’s partner in crime the last two years has been Anthony Walker, who has played the middle linebacker position. Walker has been a shining example of a player who has developed during his time in Indianapolis. He had an interesting road at Northwestern, one that saw him bulk up before his final season. Bulking up limited his athletic gifts and speed and resulted in a slip to the third day of the 2017 NFL Draft. When he arrived in Indianapolis, Chuck Pagano’s defensive scheme called for larger players at the position but Walker was resigned to a backup role.

When Ballard brought in Matt Eberflus as defensive coordinator, the entire defensive philosophy changed and Walker needed to make physical changes along with it. He dropped weight and started to get his speed and range back. This turned out to be critical, not only to his ability to move into a starting role, but also to improve in areas that are crucial in the NFL. He has made strides in the passing game, an area he’ll likely never be elite, and is a reliable run stopper.

In the modern NFL, most teams spend the majority of the game in a speed package to compensate for the prominent role of the passing game. This means, having two solid starting linebackers takes care of most teams’ primary needs. With the Colts, they have much more.

When Chris Ballard drafted Stanford linebacker Bobby Okereke in the 2019 NFL Draft, he added another rare athlete to the position. Okereke actually received comparisons to the aforementioned Leonard due to his speed and range. He used that speed and his incredibly high football IQ to get the nod as a starter while Leonard dealt with his concussion and worked his way into a more active role on defense late in the season.

A lot of young players make a second-year leap in ability and on-field production. They benefit from an off-season where they are familiar with the processes and can focus on the weaknesses in their games. A player who is particularly likely to experience such a leap is Okereke. If he manages to supplant Walker as the starting middle linebacker — meaning that Walker likely moves into the “starting” strong side role — the Colts will be looking at a three-deep starting rotation that should be considered one of the strongest in the league.

If that was the end of the story, for most teams, this would be enough. In Indianapolis, the talent level is so strong that it would be foolish not to continue looking at the depth chart. For instance, Matthew Adams has played the primary strong side role for a healthy portion of his first two seasons in the league. He is notably the teams biggest thumper and if he had the kind of speed and range of those listed above him on the depth chart, he would also be an every down player.

Fellow 2018 draft pick Zaire Franklin has played an important special teams role and his defensive snaps were stolen when Okereke joined the team in 2019. Still, he is another rare athlete at his position and serving as a third string middle linebacker is a luxury that any team would covet.

Late round 2019 draft pick E.J. Speed is another athletic anomaly whose biggest knock is that he played against a low level of competition at Tarleton State in college. He showed flashes in training camp and the preseason of having a nose for the football and having the speed and length to split blockers and make plays on the ball in the backfield. There is no doubt that Speed’s long-term success in the NFL will be heavily reliant on the Colts coaching staff helping him reach his potential. It must be nice to play for a defense that is coordinated by a highly successful former linebacker coach.

Late 2020 draft pick Jordan Glasgow projects as a valuable special teams contributor and as a player who brings versatility on defense. He fits in the mold of a hybrid linebacker who plays physically and aggressively enough to lineup with the front seven and has the experience and instincts to line up as a box safety. As mentioned before, an emphasis on finding ways to disrupt an opponents passing game is at a high premium in the NFL and if Glasgow can transition to the next level, he could be helpful in that respect.

For those keeping track, I’ve listed seven players at linebacker. Four of them have played or will likely play important defensive roles in the coming season. Three of them are either key special teams players, strong rotational backups, or athletic freaks who could develop into something much more than they are now — or some combination of those three.

If you throw in that former 2018 undrafted free agent Skai Moore is also going to be competing for a chance to contribute, things get pretty silly. Moore was one of the most celebrated undrafted free agent signing of the 2018 class of rookie free agents. He played an early role on defense and has been supplanted by the gauntlet of players listed above.

There is a likelihood that two or three of the players listed here will not make the team and will have to hope for an opportunity somewhere else or to be retained on the practice squad.

“Embarrassment of riches” may be the best way to describe what the Colts have put together at the linebacker position.