Not all young NFL players take the league by storm. Some take years to fully develop, some deal with nagging injuries that limit their production, and some simply don’t make it over the hump to establish an NFL career. A player on the Colts roster to keep an eye on in 2020 is 2018 second round pick Tyquan Lewis.
When drafted, Lewis had the size and showed the pass rush ability to be an intriguing prospect out of Ohio State. He was big and powerful enough to be effective against interior offensive linemen in college and had enough athleticism to create pressure against future NFL tackles as well. On a Colts defensive line that was in desperate need of a long-term rebuild and in the midst of a scheme change, Lewis looked like a good possible solution.
Unfortunately for Lewis, a toe injury would derail a lot of his off-season work and land him on injured reserve shortly after the start of the 2018 season. He lost crucial reps during the offseason in a new defensive scheme, with a new coaching staff, and a significant chunk of his early regular season opportunities as well.
Fortunately for him, he was designated for return and came back following the Colts’ Week 9 bye. Some injuries limited starting defensive end Jabaal Sheard and gave Lewis an opportunity. Over the final eight weeks of the season, Lewis took 338 of 503 possible defensive snaps (67.2%) and tallied 13 tackles, 2 sacks, 3 TFL, 8 QB Hits and 1 pass defensed. Perhaps more importantly, he looked like a player who was really starting to put things together at defensive end.
Flash forward to 2019. A few things change.
The Colts bring in veteran defensive end Justin Houston, second-year pass rushing athletic freak Kemoko Turay has developed, Al-Quadin Muhammad proven to be a reliable rotational end, Jabaal Sheard is still the entrenched starter and Ben Banogu joins the team through the draft to compete for reps and development at Sheard’s spot.
On the other hand, the interior defensive line depth isn’t particularly exciting — especially at the 3-tech position — a position Chris Ballard and his coaching staff would later refer to as key to making Matt Eberflus’ defensive scheme work. Behind Denico Autry is basically no one, unless Lewis can manage to transition full-time to the inside.
One thing doesn’t change, Lewis is again struck by injury early (ankle) in Week 3, forcing him to miss Weeks 4 through 10 (Week 6 was the team’s bye). When he does return, his impact is limited. He doesn’t play a snap Weeks 11-13 and only plays in more than 50% of the team’s snaps once the rest of the way.
His 2019 statistical production is 5 tackles, 1 TFL and 1 QB Hit.
Needless to say, Tyquan Lewis has needs two things more than anything else. It is clear that he must find a way to stay healthy for an entire offseason and the vast majority of an NFL regular season if he hopes to turn his career around. The second thing, the Colts need to abandon the idea of using Lewis primarily at defensive tackle. He can’t anchor on the inside and will never been anything more than a deep rotational player there.
Lewis was most effective in a consistent rotation with or as a replacement for Jabaal Sheard. He saw his greatest production as a healthy rookie on the outside and certainly looked like the type of player who could take a second-year leap. I suspect that carrying extra bulk to force his way inside did no favors for his body and that leaning back up will help him stay healthy.
In many respects, this is a make or break year for Lewis. He could be a sleeper who forces his way into a starting job or see the fire start to burn out. I’ve long felt the Lewis was far better suited to play defensive end and that he is likely the best option on the team, athletically, to be the base-down starter in place of Sheard.
He won’t have the job handed to him. He will have to compete with Denico Autry, who the Colts have also vowed to used at the position, and perhaps both Banogu and Muhammad. I like his odds of winning that competition much better than winning a starting spot on the interior in 2019 or beating out Jabaal Sheard as a rookie in 2018.
It’ll be fun to watch the competition play out.