Preparing for the Colts Future: Defensive Tackle

Perhaps no position has been more critically analyzed on the Indianapolis Colts than defensive tackle. Outside of brief effective stints with players like Corey Simon and Booger McFarland, Indianapolis has fielded the league’s smallest defensive tackle rotation in the NFL for the better part of a decade.

The end result of this practice has been a primary reliance on linebackers for run defending purposes — another unit that has consistently been undersized. The issue, of course, is that the linebackers have a hard time performing their role in run support when offensive linemen dispose of undersized defensive tackles and push forward through running lanes.

Interestingly enough, the 2011 Colts started the season with possibly the best group of defensive tackles the team has had since winning a Super Bowl in 2006. Third round rookie Drake Nevis was very effective and played a major role in springing defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis on pass rushing downs by commanding the attention of two interior offensive linemen.

Once Nevis suffered an injury to his tailbone — later listed as a back injury — the defensive line’s performance suffered significantly. Nevis joined a growing group of Colts starters who landed on the injured reserve and would not return until 2012.

One of the unsung heroes of the group is an undersized player who played above his size. Eric Foster joined the team as an undrafted free agent following the 2008 NFL Draft. In his first season, Foster was actually asked to play nose tackle — a job typically reserved for players who are above 310-320 pounds. Foster weighs 265 pounds.

In a very short time, Foster learned to play both defensive tackle positions, and even started flexing out to defensive end on run downs in 2009. In each of his seasons, Foster’s ability to generate pressure and earn sacks has improved. Even his run defending abilities have noticeably improved.

Unfortunately, Foster suffered a catastrophic ankle injury early in the 2011 season and quickly found himself on the injured reserve. The severity of the injury was so obvious on televised replays that his future in the NFL will be in question until news of his full recovery becomes official.

2009 second round pick Fili Moala has not developed into the starting-caliber talent the Colts hoped they were getting when he joined the team. While he has started since 2010, his run stopping abilities are below average and his ability to collapse the pocket is average at best. He could improve playing next to Nevis in 2012, but his own performances warrant him only an “average rotational or backup” grade at this point in his career.

In 2009 and 2010, the Colts sported two larger defensive tackles — at least in terms of the players Indianapolis typically has on the roster — Mookie Johnson and Daniel Muir. Muir was unable to hold down a roster spot when the season opened, and even failed to keep a roster spot when he was brought onto the team after Nevis and Foster both had to miss time.

Johnson is arguably the best run stopping defensive tackle on the team — though arguments could be made for Nevis here — but is not large enough or strong enough to consistently handle double teams. At this point in his career, he can only be considered a stop-gap starting nose tackle in the NFL — in a 4-3 configuration.

Another player who has worked hard to get an opportunity to contribute in the defensive tackle rotation is 2010 seventh round selection Ricardo Mathews. Mathews entered the NFL playing under 290 pounds for Cincinnati, and was used more as a pass disruptor than a run stopper. Since joining the team, he has added bulk — though his listed weight is only 294, I’m not buying it — and should compete in 2012 for the opportunity to get snaps at nose tackle (in a 4-3 configuration).

The most promising young prospect already on the team is 2011 undrafted free agent Ollie Ogbu, who led Penn State’s defense in his senior season. He has enough size and quickness to be disruptive and has managed to remain on the Colts practice squad throughout the entire year — a notable accomplishment in the face of continual roster moves. He may be ready to take a leap in his second season and push for a spot on the 2012 roster.

There are four issues at defensive tackle:

1. Player Health and Development.

Maybe Foster will recover from his ankle injury, Johnson my improve next to more talented players like Nevis, Moala could continue to develop, and Mathews might make a case for more playing time. Ogbu might be a solid rotational defensive tackle after he has had a season to get acclimated to the NFL. The only player who inspires absolute confidence is Nevis, and he will be a second-year player coming off of the injured reserve.

2. Money

Talented free agents who will improve the line will take up some cap space. With so many marquee players coming up for new contracts — like Robert Mathis and Reggie Wayne — and with Eric Foster set to enter free agency, there will be only so much money to spread around. Of course, this is not even mentioning the much-discussed quarterback controversy and how it might affect Indy’s pocket-book.

3. Draft Class

The 2012 NFL Draft does not sport a really strong defensive tackle class. The two players who have a chance to make an immediate impact on the team — and who might actually be available when the Colts go on the board in the second and third rounds — are Washington’s Alameda Ta’amu and Memphis’ Dontari Poe. 

4. Scheme Change

When the Bill Polian/Jim Caldwell era ended in Indianapolis and Jim Irsay chose Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano to take over for their predecessors, the likelihood that significant defensive changes were on the way spiked significantly. There is no doublt whatsoever that regardless of who Pagano brings in to coordinate the defense, Indianapolis is about to see 3-4 looks that will require a different kind of personnel — and a shuffling of the personnel that are already on the team.

In 2011 the entire list of defensive tackles on the team’s roster are likely incapable of filling the nose tackle role in a 3-4 defensive scheme. Only Mathews and Johnson make sense as make-shift potentials. That’s not to say that every defensive tackle on the roster in 2011 will be listed at another position in 2012, but some of those players will be brought in only situationally — and some of those situational players will be 2011 starters.

The real challenge for Chuck Pagano and whoever he brings in to coordinate the defense is that they are inheriting too many defensive linemen that do not fit in a 3-4 scheme.

Nevis is arguably the brightest defensive tackle prospect the team has seen since Booger McFarland joined in 2006. Where does he play in a 3-4? At 6-foot 1-inch tall and 294 pounds he is shorter than a typical 3-4 DE and significantly too light to be a nose tackle. He would be an excellent rotational player in 4-3 pass rush packages as an interior penetrator. But getting a player with his talent on the field more often probably a higher percentage of 4-3 looks than 3-4 looks.

Former undrafted free agent Ollie Ogbu is built similarly to Nevis and seems like the kind of player who could develop into a contributor in the defensive tackle rotation of a 4-3 team. Where does Ogbu fit in the future plans of a 3-4, 4-3 hybrid defense? Does he line up next to Nevis? Would a pass rushing 4-3 line be better suited by retaining a player like Eric Foster and putting him next to Nevis?

There are so many questions that surround how the new Colts coaching staff will plan to address defensive change that knowing which direction the team will take at defensive tackle is hard to figure. Look for the team to add one of Poe or Ta’amu in the draft if they are available to for a 3-4 option. Look for some defensive tackles to move outside and others to be released.

There is a good chance that the future of the interior of the Colts defensive line will be up in the air heading into 2012 training camp. There’s an even better chance that the defensive transition in Indianapolis will not go as smoothly as it did in Houston and will require a couple of seasons to have the personnel it needs to take final form. *Don’t be surprised if you see more 4-3 looks than you expect from a Pagano led team in 2012.