Colts offseason depth chart: Defense
Defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said he won't be patient in 2017. (1070 the Fan photo)
There was no point disputing the obvious, so Ted Monachino did not try.
The Colts defense simply wasn’t good enough last year, and that’s being kind.
“Oh, absolutely. We all know that it wasn’t,” said the defensive coordinator. “A lot of it had to do just with everything that we tried to accomplish with the group that we had. Those guys were all in and they worked as hard as they could work. It’s just that where we were defensively with a new system and some new concepts that went in it took a little bit of time.”
Well, the group they had is mostly gone now. Robert Mathis retired, Mike Adams, D’Qwell Jackson, Erik Walden, Arthur Jones, Trent Cole, Zach Kerr, Josh McNary and Patrick Robinson were either released or not re-signed.
In their places are a mixture of relatively young veteran free agents (Johnathan Hankins, Jabaal Sheard, John Simon) and high draft picks (the first three picks and six of eight overall were defensive players) in a unit that looks to have at least seven new starters in 2017.
“I think that change is good,” Monachino said. “I think that’s the only thing that stays the same in our league is change. I think that needing it – there was a need there for some change. … We were at a point with several players that we needed to move and that’s what Mr. (Chris) Ballard decided to do. ....
“I think that hopefully we’ll be what we’ve talked about all along – we’ll be faster, we’ll be more physical, we’ll be bigger. We’ll be, hopefully streamlined and smarter about how we approach what we do. Just by the nature of the football character of some of the guys we have brought in we should change a little bit.”
A little bit won’t get it done. The Colts were 30th in total defense (382.9 yards per game) and 26th in takeaways (17), and most of the statistics in between were comparably discouraging.
Ballard has said he isn’t expecting miracles, that he wants the defense to get to the middle of the pack. Even with the infusion of younger legs and fresher talent, that could be asking a lot.
“We’re not going to have any patience,” Monachino said. “We’ll try to streamline as much as we can and then hold them accountable to that standard about how we play. We won’t be any more patient just because we have a bunch of new faces. When we’re out there, there is a certain standard that we expect them to play to and it doesn’t matter if we play one front and coverage, that’s what we’re going to ask them to do.”
Here’s a look at how the defensive depth chart stacks up, now the the vast majority of roster moves have been made.
The three best players are Hankins, Kendall Langford and Henry Anderson. Whether those three can fit together remains to be seen. As the highest-paid free agent addition ($30 million over three years), Hankins will be an every-down player and should be able to start at nose tackle. Although more of a three-technique tackle in the Giants’ four-man front, Hankins should fit in nicely in the middle of the hybrid 3-4 front, which is really only a 3-4 on first down -- and sometimes not even then.
“To say what (Hankins) is right now, it really is going to depend how it shakes out with Al (Woods) and David (Parry) and Henry Anderson and all those other guys,” Monachino said. “He does have a pretty wide skill set. We were doing some pass rush things today on the practice field and he is a big, loose athlete and it’s good to have a big, loose athlete in the front so wherever we need to use him. If there’s somebody that’s a better nose (tackle), then he’ll play the three (technique). If there’s somebody that’s a better three (technique) then he’ll play the nose (tackle). He’s going to fit right into the depth immediately and he’s going to come in and try to impact our defense as soon as he can.”
Both Langford and Anderson need bounce-back seasons after dealing with knee issues last year. Langford had seven sacks in 2015 but was never fully healthy last year. Anderson showed immense promise as a rookie before tearing an ACL in 2015 and battling a number of minor setbacks last season. It’s common for a player to return to form two years after that type of injury, which means Anderson should be back on track this year. Langford is best-suited at end, which means Anderson will need to play tackle if he is to maximize his reps.
Depth will be provided inside by Al Woods, a part-time starter for two seasons with the Titans, and outside by 2016 fourth-round pick Hassan Ridgeway and ex-Bengal free agent signee Margus Hunt. Ridgeway showed some impressive flashes last season and could push for a bigger role. If David Parry can’t stick, it will be more for the influx of talent at nose tackle, and less for his offseason arrest. Fourth-round pick Grover Stewart has intriguing size and athleticism but also a steep learning curve.
The infusion of talent here is such that Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison, who started the last four games a year ago, face a fight just to make the roster. The most likely scenario is for veteran Jon Bostic to open the season at the Mike spot previously occupied by D’Qwell Jackson. Bostic has the experience to step in right away and hold the position down until rookie Anthony Walker is fully prepared to take over.
Though a fifth-round pick, Walker has the ideal makeup for the position -- strong leadership, sound instincts, sharp football mind, excellent communication skills -- so if he can fill the gaps against the run, he could be a real steal.
At the Will spot, Sean Spence could have the inside track. The former Steeler and Titan is an excellent athlete with a reputation for being able to pursue sideline to sideline while providing capable coverage on backs and tight ends. Edwin Jackson was a revelation last season. Though undersized, he plays with his hair on fire and was a strong special-teams contributor.
“Wide-open,” said Monachino, describing the battle for jobs inside. “There are six good players in there right now, five of them that are working for us. Wide open. I think that the experience that Antonio and Edwin got a year ago puts them in a place that our new guys and even Luke (Rhodes, a 2016 college free agent from William & Mary) they are not at that place. But I will tell you, when you put them out there they are all cut from the same cloth. They all look the same and they all practice and prepare the same. It’s wide open. I know that Jon and Sean are great additions to the group. I know that Luke is a guy that continues to take strides to find himself in the depth.”
If you’re expecting one player to step in and become a dominant edge rusher, you may be disappointed. No one on the roster has that trait, although there are more players fully capable of contributing from both outside spots. Sheard has 36 sacks in six seasons and proved a strong contributor to the Patriots’ Super Bowl run a year ago, so he’ll step into the Rush linebacker spot vacated by Mathis. Simon steps in on the other side, where Walden posted 11 sacks last year but failed in his primary task -- setting the edge against the run. Simon can apply pressure but will be much more responsible for outside containment.
Third-round pick Tarell Basham had 29.5 sacks as a four-year starter at Ohio U., including a school-record 11.5 last season, and will no doubt get a long look. He isn’t a one-trick pony by any means, also displaying a mean streak against the run and in fact could evolve into strong-side complement to Sheard. Barkevious Mingo’s spectacular athleticism earned him the No. 6 pick in the 2013 draft, but has yet to translate into anything more than elte play on special teams. Curt Maggitt hasn’t played regularly since injuring his hip at Tennessee early in the 2015 season, and thus remains very much a wild-card.
“I am confident the pass rush will improve,” said Monachino. “I know that you take some excellent rushers out of the mix in the three outside guys that we lost, but you’ve added some youth to the group. You’ve added some speed and some power to the group that maybe we didn’t have a year ago. It would be our expectation that that part of our game would improve.”
Entering the final year of his contract, and sixth as a starter for the Colts, Vontae Davis has established his talent but still has some things to prove if he is to join the truly elite at his position. He must show more playmaking ability and more durability. Davis had just one interception last season after totaling eight the previous two. He’ll be 29 when the season starts and is still the unquestioned leader of the secondary -- for now. Whether he plays well enough to command one more big contract, however, is very much up in the air.
The ongoing search for a stabilizing starter at the other corner led the Colts to invest a second-round pick in Quincy Wilson, a big (6-1, 213), strong jammer from Florida who may lack deep speed definitely has the ability to knock receivers off routes early. It’s a tough position for a rookie to start, but it appears the Colts already have ceded the job to Wilson.
“He’s a big, physical corner,” said Monachino. “He can play press. He can play off. He’s a willing tackler. All the things that you look for in those corners. He’s a top competitor. All those things that you look for in those guys when jump off the tape at you with Quincy on college tape. So we would expect him to continue to do those things. He’s still going to be tackling the same body types. He’s going to be playing off the same type of blockers so we would expect him to take the next step now and be able to do it as a professional.”
Fifth-round pick Nate Hairston and undrafted collegian Reggie Porter are expected to push veterans Rashaan Melvin, Darryl Morris, Tevin Mitchel and Chris Milton for jobs.
Unresolved is just exactly what role awaits veteran Darius Butler. A solid nickel corner for years, Butler re-signed with the intention of moving to safety, but the first-round selection of Malik Hooker could push Butler back into his old job.
The Colts didn’t necessarily need to use their first-round pick on a safety but when Hooker -- a top-five talent -- was available 10 spots later they could hardly believe their good fortune. A defense desperate for playmakers suddenly landed one of the most productive in college football with seven interceptions, returning three for touchdowns. Of course, he’ll start at free safety, despite the fact he won’t be able to participate in the offseason program while recovering from surgeries on his hip and sports hernias in January.
“I think that the learning curve will be in the run fits,” Monachino said. “It probably will be something that he’ll have to spend a little extra time with Greg (Williams) and Jeff (Popovich) on. I think that some of the things that we will ask him to do occasionally, the kid is so dominant in the deep parts of the field it’s hard to take him out of there. It’s not like we’re going to spend a lot of time teaching him to rush the passer and blitz because that’s silly.
“You have your best player do what he does. There will be some learning there. I think there is conceptually some things that pro defense is different than college defense and he’s going to have to learn terminology, where he fits with other guys in coverage, route matches, some of those things. I think that will be the steepest part of the learning curve.”
With Hooker at free safety, another emerging young talent should anchor things at strong safety. Clayton Geathers was making big strides a year ago, particularly in run support but missed the final six games due to a concussion and neck injury. Geathers also factors in as a dime linebacker.
The mystery man is T.J. Green, a second-round pick in 2016 who struggled mightily as a rookie. Green has the speed, size and athleticism necessary for the position but showed real issues with decision-making and open-field tackling, two areas critical to success at the position. If Green shows growth in his second season, he could force his way onto the field because of his physical gifts.
“It sure is fun to start looking at the depth chart and seeing where we can use guys and what skills they can bring on a down-by-down basis,” Monachino said of the safety group. “We did that last year with several different packages and we’ll do the same this year.”