With teams still not able to properly access their facilities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is some question about exactly if and when training camp will begin, as well as what it will look like if it does. However, let’s assume that some of the early positive signs prove to hold up and we are able to resume some kind of normality. The Colts are primed to be an exciting team in 2020, and ahead of camp, we’re going to review every position group and see how they look on paper.
If you’ve paid any attention to Chris Ballard at all, you’ll know that he is passionate about the trenches. He wants his best talent to be on the offensive and defensive lines. The process of transforming this defense into his own vision for it has been gradual, but it is nearing what should be its fruition. That starts with the defensive line, and a group that should be exciting to watch in 2020. Let’s dig in.
It is not often that you get to add a sure-thing with your first-round pick. The Colts did it with Nelson in 2018 and have done it again in 2020, albeit by a different method. The Colts sent their first-round pick, pick 13, to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for the guy many viewed as the best player on a Super Bowl caliber defense.
Buckner is a game-wrecking talent in the middle of the defensive line, and he immediately upgrades the defense in a major way. When Brian Baker, the Colts new defensive line coach, spoke with the media this offseason, he said that his biggest concern when he watched the Colts film was with the depth at the interior on the defensive line. All Ballard did to address that concern was trade for a young All-Pro who is preparing to enter his prime.
With his addition, this line goes from average to good, with the potential to be great depending upon how some of the young talent emerges. The 6’7” 300lb beast brings elite athleticism, incredible power at the point of attack, great technique, and a non-stop motor. Everyone across the defensive line will be able to be better simply because of Buckner’s presence and impact on the field.
Last year at training camp during the very first 11-on-11 sessions, there was one person who repeatedly stood out. Kemoko Turay looked like he was being fired out of a cannon coming off the line, and were he allowed to hit the QB, he’d have had a number of sacks just in that early period.
His 2019 season stayed right in line with that hot start. Through just 4 games, Turay had 2 sacks, 5 QB hits, 8 hurries, and a forced fumble. All that production was despite only being on the field for 81 total snaps.
Unfortunately, his season came to a sudden halt during the game against the Chiefs, when he dislocated and fractured his ankle. The injury sent him to IR, and stunted our opportunity to see if he was gearing up to take a big leap in his second year.
2020 will be big for Turay. With Buckner up front there should be more opportunity for him to get one-on-one looks on offensive linemen. The pressure will be on for Turay to hit the ground running and be a force against the pass. The Colts haven’t had a quality pass rusher since Robert Mathis retired, and this is Turay’s chance to prove he can be that next guy.
The biggest man on the Colts defense at 6’4” 330lbs, Grover Stewart saw major improvement over the back half of the 2019 season, and it would not be a surprise to see that continue. He showed himself more than capable of taking up space and keeping the Colts linebackers clean by eating up double teams as well as beating them.
For a guy his size, Stewart has surprisingly good movement to go along with his less surprising power. The Colts brought in new DL coach Brian Baker to put their young defensive linemen to work, and Stewart should definitely see the field often, especially with Margus Hunt gone. With focus on the interior almost certainly dedicated to DeForest Buckner, it will be Stewart’s opportunity to shine and create disruption. I expect him to be a breakout candidate for the Colts defense this season.
The Colts have certainly gotten their money’s worth out of Justin Houston since signing him, and despite being 31 years old, there is little reason to think he can’t have one of his most productive seasons yet in 2020.
As a part of the Colts’ defense, Houston worked as a pass rusher without the added responsibility of dropping in coverage as he had done for the Chiefs. In 2020, he’ll be paired opposite Kemoko Turay and cut loose, and this season offensive coordinators are going to have to make a tough choice: do you roll protection to help Justin Houston, or do you focus on dealing with DeForest Buckner? If Turay comes out hot, that choice becomes even tougher. Regardless, the results are good for Houston, who won’t have to be a major contributor in terms of snaps to have a big impact on the game.
Houston forced 2 fumbles, recovered 3, had 11 sacks, and had 40 hurries in 2019 with far less help on the defensive line. He turned in one of the best seasons of his career, and even if he can’t produce at quite that same level, he should still be in for a big year.
The Colts love to have a good group of guys rotating in along the defensive line to keep their guys fresh, and that means we’ll probably get to see Muhammad still getting his share of snaps on defense in 2020. He had 3 sacks, 8 tackles for loss, and a forced fumble in 2019, and played well in his rotational role.
Not a great pass rusher, Muhammad will make his money on early downs as the guy setting the edge. With Jabaal Sheard leaving, there is certainly a need for that role, and perhaps Muhammad can assert himself there. He is undersized for a typical defensive lineman, but fits well in the Colts scheme and should continue to be a valued rotational player.
As great as the move to get DeForest Buckner was for the team as a whole, it wasn’t great for Denico Autry. He had started in 25 games for the Colts over the past two seasons, and will now be relegated to a backup role. While that is undoubtedly disappointing, it is great for the Colts. They now have a rotational player who has had 12.5 sacks, 22 QB hits, and 17 tackles for loss in his two seasons with the Colts. On a team that loves to use lots of guys on the defensive line, that’s a great thing. Autry has struggled to stay healthy, but with a more limited role, perhaps he can be an impact player when Buckner needs a breather and can help keep that line fresh.
Like Turay in his first season, Banogu showed flashes of incredible talent as a rookie. He is a smart, hard-working player who didn’t get on the field a lot as a rookie but showed the kind of speed, burst, and bend that you want to see from a pass rusher. In 2020, with a concerted effort to develop these young edge players, we could see a huge breakout year for Banogu.
What remains to be seen is whether they begin to work Banogu in at SAM, where they originally planned to use him. The decision was made during camp last year to predominantly give him work at defensive end, but the thought initially was that he would end up playing SAM linebacker once he got his bearings. With talented players in the linebacker corps, it will be interesting to see how the team uses Banogu in 2020.
Another former 49er, Sheldon Day didn’t get a ton of playing time on a defense that was absolutely loaded with talent up front. He provides a big body on the interior and had 15 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 2 quarterback hits, and 1 sack last season for the 49ers.
For a player who is nearly 300 pounds, Day shows good athleticism and burst, both qualities that are highly valued on the Colts defense. His technique is solid, and like Autry, he should make for very good quality depth on the interior of the defensive line.
This could be the end of the line for Lewis. He is entering year three with the team, and so far there hasn’t been much to speak of in terms of his production. Despite injuries and struggles from the line, Lewis had a very limited impact on the defense, and wasn’t on the field much in 2019. At 6’3” 277lbs, he is somewhat in between the Colts normal positional sizes. If the Colts can’t get something out of him in camp and feel really good about his development, he may not make final cuts.
The Colts’ 193rd pick in the 2020 draft, Robert Windsor will be an interesting player to keep an eye on. Windsor is a high motor guy who is somewhat unrefined technically and doesn’t offer much in terms of either pass rush or a major presence against the run. He works hard and has the raw tools to be effective, but with a best fit as a 3-tech, his best hope may be to develop as a part of the practice squad.
This is the best total group of defensive linemen the Colts have had in my memory. They have some questions on the edge, but this is a team that should be disruptive up front and has the ability to let their linebackers go to work. If the Colts get the return they expect from Kemoko Turay and Ben Banogu, this will be a great year for the Colts front seven.