While so much has changed over the course of this NFL offseason, one thing has remained constant for the Colts: there is a logjam of talent — or an embarrassment of riches — at the linebacker position that will inevitably fuel a healthy competition for starting reps and limited roster spots.
Perhaps no battle will be bigger or have a greater impact on the field in 2020 than the one between Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke for the starting responsibilities at middle linebacker. Walker has been a reliable starter and has developed chemistry with defensive leader Darius Leonard. Okereke is more athletic but has less experience, especially at a position and in a role Walker played his entire college career.
What both of the players have is a high football IQ and the type of academic makeup that led them to be recruited by institutions like Northwestern and Stanford. This led the team to believe in Okereke’s ability to push Walker and become a heavy contributor early on.
What was supposed to be a healthy competition in Okereke’s rookie season has grown into even higher expectations. Kevin Bown of 93.5 the Fan gathered some of the quotes that have been made about and from each player this offseason.
Jim Irsay said, “We think (Okereke) can be a big-time player, Pro Bowl player.”
Darius Leonard said,
Bobby is a smart player. He’s like a sponge. Once you tell him one thing or how to do something, he’s going to fix his mistakes. (Earlier this offseason), we were showing a play where he got beat in practice and coach corrected him in practice. Then playing against Jacksonville. He got his (interception). It was the same exact play that he messed up in practice and he got it right in the game.
A guy like that who can just fix a problem right there and never have a problem again, that’s the type of guy we need to have. He’s going to be a great player and I think he’s going to make a lot plays for us.
All of this attention is certainly visible to Walker. Nothing suggests that he isn’t a good teammate or won’t be happy to see the team get better but he also is entering a contract year and will be particularly motivated to keep a starting role. Regarding keeping his role as starter, Walker said:
That is not up for me to decide. My job is to go out there and be ready to play at any moment, be ready to play the linebacker position. Whenever my number is called and whatever position I am asked to play, that is what I am supposed to play.
One can expect that Walker will take the competition seriously. Of course, Okereke has also expressed confidence in his own abilities. Last week, when asked about whether he feels he is in the competition for starting responsibilities at middle linebacker, Okereke said:
I do. Obviously, I’m coming into the season playing a lot of SAM and I’m prepared to start in that role. But for this team, I think the best thing I can do is to put myself in the best position to either be the starting MIKE, or the starting SAM, but to just have an understanding of the playbook and just to be as skilled as I can at both positions so the coaches have an opportunity to make a decision and put the best players on the field.
All players want to put themselves in position to get on the field as much as possible. A starting role in the middle or on the strong side is better than nothing. Still, modern NFL defenses rely more heavily on sub packages and less frequently feature three linebackers on the field at once.
For Walker and Okereke, winning the battle to start at middle linebacker represents a big difference in expected snaps. This fact isn’t lost on them. It isn’t lost on the coaches or front office. It shouldn’t be lost on fans as offseason activities start to pick up.