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.
We’ve covered the defensive line, where the addition of DeForest Buckner should have ripple effects across the unit and make them a very good group. Today we’re looking at the linebackers and what kind of season we should expect from them in the 2020 season.
The impact of Buckner’s addition should have ripple effects beyond just the defensive line, and that includes what could be an even better season from the Colts two-time All-Pro linebacker. Leonard missed time in 2019 with a concussion that lingered, and early in the season he had moments where he struggled. Colts fans perhaps had such high expectations for him as a second-year player that it would have been nearly impossible for him to live up to them.
As he enters year 3 at the WILL position, Leonard has proven himself as a difference making player and leader of the defense. With improvement up front in the defense, the opportunity for the linebackers, and Leonard in particular, to be productive goes up. As opposing offenses have to account for Buckner, Leonard should be kept as clean as he’s been in his time in the NFL. That should allow him to generate more pressures when used in the blitz, as well as rack up big tackle numbers.
The real contribution that will matter most for Leonard as a third-year player will be in terms of turnovers. His ability to be a game changer by creating turnovers has been a huge part of what made the Colts defense successful when they have been in the past couple seasons. If he can continue to do that successfully, the team should be very competitive.
Season two is a big one for Bobby Okereke. A very good athlete with the kind of length that the Colts covet over the middle, Okereke was everything they hoped he could be and more as a rookie. He is a smart player and seeing a second season in the same defensive scheme should mean even better processing and reads as he continues to adjust to the NFL.
In coverage Okereke grew as the season went on in 2019, with perhaps his best play coming in coverage on special teams where he took an interception on a two-point conversion attempt all the way to the house. He has the speed to mirror running backs and tight ends and the ball skills to be disruptive in those roles.
Okereke’s biggest hurdle to taking the starting role away from Anthony Walker Jr. will be improving his ability to shed blocks in the running game. With improvement up front on defense and the prospect of getting clearer lanes, Okereke could really shine in year two. He’s a tough, hard-hitting player who defies his undersized stature to really put it to backs when given the chance, and in 2020 it is quite possible that’s a chance he’ll get.
Anthony Walker Jr.
With just two linebackers likely to get substantial playing time as a part of the Colts defense, the competition between Bobby Okereke and Anthony Walker Jr. for the MIKE spot might be the biggest competition at training camp.
Paired with Darius Leonard, Walker has played quite well, and while he hasn’t been perfect, he has consistently provided the Colts with a solid run stopping linebacker over the middle. His 2019 was shaken up some because he shifted to play the WILL role during Leonard’s concussion, a spot that was clearly not in his wheelhouse.
In coverage, Walker struggles a little bit, and doesn’t have the length that Leonard or Okereke do to disrupt passing lanes. His instincts and closing speed are also not what they need to be in that area, and made him a player who could get isolated and attacked in the passing game at times.
Overall, Walker has been a reliable player, a smart and talented leader, and a valuable part of the team alongside Leonard. As a 5th round pick with some athletic limitations, Walker has done excellent to hit his ceiling as a player, and has far more good plays than bad. Unfortunately for him, if Bobby Okereke continues his trajectory, it will be tough for Walker to hold him off, although as with the other linebackers, improvement on the defensive line will undoubtedly benefit him as well.
A downhill thumper who has a nose for blowing up backs in the backfield and drawing penalties, Matthew Adams is typically slotted in as the Colts’ starting SAM backer. Unfortunately for Adams, that translated to just 10% of the defensive snaps in 2019, and while he did well contributing on special teams, he is far from a lock to make the final roster in 2020.
Limitations in his ability to cover as well as his size and length make it tough to see him getting a great deal more defensive snaps, and the competition for time on special teams will be tough. Adams will certainly be in a fight to make the roster.
Another young linebacker who will face tough competition for work is E.J. Speed. The electric athlete out of Tarleton State proved early on that he had the speed and athleticism to match with NFL talent. In year two it will be time to see if he can put that together to take another step.
A raw player and relative unknown as a rookie, Speed has the length and athletic profile the Colts look for. His instincts were not the best, and like many undersized linebackers, he struggled to get off his blocks at times. It is clear that he is a talented player, and if he can become a menace on special teams, he has the potential to stick as a rotational player and develop behind some very good guys.
The Colts drafted rookie linebacker Jordan Glasgow with the goal of bolstering their special teams. Glasgow is a high motor player who earned special teams player of the week honors six times throughout his career at Michigan. His size and skill likely lend themselves to a backup role to the SAM position, and like Zaire Franklin in 2019, Glasgow will need to make himself an asset on special teams to carve out a role on the roster.
He earned a scholarship for his play on special teams after walking on to the team, and eventually worked his way into a starting linebacker role. If he can do the same kind of work with the Colts, they stand to improve in an area of real need.
This linebacker room is young, talented, and driven. DC Matt Eberflus has figured out how to put them to work, and LB coach Dave Borgonzi deserves credit for developing that talent and helping them grow. This is a defense that typically starts only two linebackers for the majority of their defensive snaps.
Despite two solid seasons for that position, the 2020 NFL season could be the best yet for the Colts linebacker room. If Okereke emerges, they should have both talent and depth. What are your thoughts on the Colts linebackers?