According to ESPN’s Bill Barnwell, ‘one of the NFL’s most vulnerable spots’ is the Indianapolis Colts’ defensive line depth surrounding First-Team All-Pro DeForest Buckner:
DeForest Buckner, DT, Indianapolis Colts
Next up: Antwaun Woods, Robert Windsor
The Colts sent a first-round pick to the 49ers to acquire Buckner before the 2020 draft, and the former No. 7 overall pick delivered on expectations. He racked up 9.5 sacks and 26 knockdowns in his first season in Indy despite missing a game while he was on the COVID-19 list. Buckner is one of the most expensive defenders in the league, but that’s the sort of production teams are hoping to get from their top interior pass-rusher.
With question marks on the edge after Justin Houston left in free agency, though, the Colts desperately need Buckner to be that sort of force once again in 2021. Their sack rate and pressure rate were both unsurprisingly higher with Buckner on the field, while the passer rating they allowed rose from 85.3 with him on the field to 107.2 without their star tackle. Fellow starter Grover Stewart isn’t a pass-rusher, and the Colts lost useful interior rusher Denico Autry to the Titans in free agency.
Now, with his combination of power, quickness, athleticism, and freakishly long tentacle arms that consistently disrupts opposing backfields, the Colts cannot simply replace Buckner off the bench—in fact, no NFL team reasonably could.
He’s arguably the second best player at his position in the sport—and a dominant interior force at that.
It’s not as though the Colts’ defensive line depth is horrible here either.
Both Antwaun Woods and Taylor Stallworth are competent veterans, and there’s a possibility that a younger developmental player like Kameron Cline, Chris Williams, or Rob Windsor could also emerge in 2021 as a quality rotational defensive tackle.
I wouldn’t say it’s great, but it’s not even their weakest position as far as depth.
However, I think the bigger issue, which Barnwell alludes to, is how much Buckner right now drives the Colts’ pass rush as its catalyst. The team saw two proven starters depart along the defensive line through free agency, Denico Autry (Titans) and Justin Houston (unsigned), and the Colts younger pass rushers such as Kwity Paye, Tyquan Lewis, Dayo Odeyingbo, Kemoko Turay, and Ben Banogu will be significantly counted on for meaningful production this upcoming year.
It’s also worth noting that once healthy, rookie 2nd round pick Dayo Odeyingbo, who’s rehabbing from a torn Achilles, could be utilized in Autry’s old role—kicking inside on obvious passing downs, which would provide the Colts some additional interior pocket push along with Buckner.
Starter Grover Stewart’s pass rushing from the 1T is also better than advertised and is deserving of more credit than Barnwell gives—although yes, he’s more of a run stuffer.
Barnwell’s logic here is largely sound, but I can’t help but look at a position like the Colts’ starting left tackle spot, where the team is heavily relying on recent signing Eric Fisher to make a full recovery from a torn Achilles suffered late last season. While backup Will Holden is a name to also watch there, veterans Sam Tevi and Julie’n Davenport could eventually be exploited if forced to fill in for Fisher for an extended period of time for Indianapolis.
Left tackle might be a critical position that is arguably ‘more vulnerable’ right now for the Colts (given Fisher’s currently uncertain injury status), despite how much Buckner drives the success of the team’s much improved defense—and is pretty much irreplaceable.