It’s time for another Colts training camp preview. Last week, we looked up and down the depth chart at the inside linebackers, and now it’s time for the other half of the linebacking corps. Bear with me, there are nine players vying for four or five spots.
The Colts face the task of replacing franchise sack-leader Dwight Freeney (107.5), who struggled with an ankle injury last season and finished with just 5 quarterback sacks. Although he didn’t put up big numbers, he was a constant threat to make a game changing play, and just as they did in 2006 (5.5 sacks) and 2007 (3.5), defenses had to plan for him and his game-breaking capabilities, even though he wasn’t full speed.
So, who replaces Freeney in 2013? Erik Walden? Bjoern Werner? An angry badger? Well, as far as the position is concerned, it’ll go to backfield wrecker extraordinaire Robert Mathis, who will slide over to the right side and play the spot vacated by his longtime partner in crime.
On the other side, some, including the Indianapolis Star’s Bob Kravitz, project Werner as a strong side linebacker, thus placing him in competition with penciled in starter Erik Walden, but many others, including Kravitz’s colleague Mike Chappell, have Werner as Mathis’s backup, with former CFL star Justin Hickman backing up Walden on the other side. Either way, like it or not, the Colts plan to start Walden at LOLB. He’s their guy.
However, if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Chuck Pagano as a coach, it’s that he likes to foster healthy competition at nearly every position. Thus begins our quick look at each of those competitors, beginning with the man who should start as long as he’s healthy.
Mathis (32 yrs. old, 6-2, 246…bulked up a bit, eh?) owns the second place franchise record for sacks with 91 as well as a general dislike of quarterbacks. In 2003, scouts thought Mathis was too small to play defensive end and projected him as a 7th rounder. The Colts picked him in the 5th round, and it became apparent very early on that they had found a very special player.
Mathis’s diving, twisting, unrelenting reign of terror on quarterbacks as well as bigger stronger offensive linemen has been driven by his intelligence and hard work as much as it has his incredible athleticism. He may not be in his prime anymore, but go ahead and ask an opposing AFC South quarterback if that makes him less of a concern.
The signing of free agent and former Packer Erik Walden (6-2, 250, 27 yrs. old) has garnered mixed reactions from Colts fans and a collective shrug from fans of his old team, where his popularity took a hit for his 2012 disorderly conduct-domestic abuse arrest. Walden has surely read some of the chatter out there and must realize he faces the task of proving himself and his worth all over again in Indianapolis.
From Pro Football Focus, regarding Erik Walden:
To finish last in our 3-4 outside linebacker rankings once is bad. To do it twice indicates a player who just isn’t ever going to get it. Walden, in comparison to his peers, isn’t a good player. He doesn’t do a great job setting the edge, he’s extremely unproductive rushing the passer, and he’s now getting paid $4m a year. We give the Colts a -1.5 for this deal but his agent deserves a +2.0 for pulling it off. The Colts have fallen into the trap of watching a player have a career game against them (his +4.1 was the highest he ever managed by far) and assuming that is close to the status quo. It’s not and they’re going to be very disappointed with what they get out of him.
Walden may be playing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder as he tries to validate his contract and show his value. If he’s at all up to the task, he’ll be the starter on the other side of Mathis. He’s their guy, and the team sees something in him that they like. With any luck, perhaps the fans will too.
Werner (6-3, 260, 22 yrs. old) was once projected a top 10 draft pick after an impressive career at Florida State. Then there came the Scouting Combine. Werner’s workout numbers, namely a 4.83-second 40-yard dash, caused him to fall to the Indianapolis Colts. Oh well, so he’s not a good track athlete. The kid looks like a wrecking crew on the football field.
Werner is projected as a backup on either side, depending on who is doing the projecting. If this early depth chart from ESPN is correct, Werner could push Walden for playing time and even a starting role. Whether or not Werner starts this year, we should expect the first round pick to see plenty of playing time. Of course, he will have to sign his contract first…
Incumbent backup Justin Hickman (6-2, 249, 27 yrs. old) was an All-American and All-Pac 10 defensive end at UCLA who found himself playing for the Hamilton Tiger Cats (a.k.a. Ti-Cats) of the CFL after not making the Redskins in 2007.
Hickman’s three years with the Ti-Cats (144 tackles, 27 sacks, including 49 and 13 in 2011) landed him another shot at the NFL, and he ended up playing in 12 games last season for the Colts before landing on the Injured Reserve in December 2012.
Hickman is strong, has decent speed for a 3-4 OLB, and he isn’t afraid to crash around on special teams. He even helped down a couple punts inside the 5-yard line last season, according to his Colts.com profile. In short, he looks like he could make the roster and even the rotation, but unless the team keeps a fifth OLB, he’ll have to beat out the next man on the list.
Former Atlanta Falcon Lawrence Sidbury (6-3, 269, 27 yrs. old) may be a bit more athletic than Hickman. He posted a 40 time of 4.64 seconds at the 2009 NFL Combine, as well as 28 bench press reps (I don’t know if it matters much, but the guy can jump, too – a 35-inch vertical for a player who weighed almost 270 pounds).
As a defensive end, Sidbury had 20.5 sacks in 31 starts (52 total games) for the University of Richmond and 5 sacks (4 in 2011) in limited playing time with Atlanta. All the while, he’s been considered undersized for a DE. Now, in Indianapolis, he’ll have a chance to play OLB, a position for which he appears perfectly built.
As a recent free agent signee, Sidbury appears primed to hold one of the four roster spots at OLB and possibly see some playing time with the defense.
Video: Sidbury as a Richmond Spider DE. Watch out for #2, and the offensive linemen he keeps abusing, poor guys. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cPydgMoTs04
Competing against Sidbury and Hickman for the last one or two roster spots are a mix of younger players, former defensive ends, one former Arena Football star, and possibly even a 25-year old Army officer.
Rayford (6-7, 267, 27 years old) is another former college defensive end who turned out to be a better fit as an OLB. After being cut from the Detroit Lions, Rayford had brief stints with the CFL’s B.C. Lions and the AFL’s Spokane Shock before breaking out with the Utah Blaze.
Some stats from our earlier write-up on Rayford:
In 2012, Rayford totaled 21 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 7 tackles for a loss, three passes defensed, a forced fumble, and a blocked kick. In his three years with the Blaze, Rayford had 68 tackles, 22.5 sacks, 26.5 tackles for a loss, 16 passes defensed, 7 forced fumbles, 7 fumbles recoveries, and 2 touchdowns off interceptions. He also blocked 5 kicks in 2011 in addition to the one last year.
Rayford will face a steep uphill battle to make the roster, but he did manage to harass quarterbacks in a league designed for utter quarterback dominance. Rayford reportedly isn’t very fast (4.86 40 time), but he’s been honing his coverage skills for three years while most of his competition has been playing defensive end. His basketball player-like height could also help him considerably, keeping him in range to bat down passes even when he’s a little out of position.
Video: There aren’t many videos of Rayford out there, but here you can see him dispatching a 425-pound tire with relative ease: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppKdjr3g2f4 (lift with the legs, man)
Simmons, like many of the linebackers fighting for the last couple of spots, is listed simply as an “LB.” At 6-3, 248 pounds, he looks like an inside ‘backer, but in actuality he is an undersized former small college defensive end (Sound like another Colts player?) making the transition to OLB.
Here’s what we know about him aside from his cool 1970s pork chop sideburns. Simmons finished his career at Kent State ranked 3rd in school history in sacks with 21.5 in 19 starts (45 total games). He didn’t receive a combine invite in 2011, but he ran a respectable 4.7-second official 40 yard dash time at his pro day with a low of 4.64. Since entering the league as an undrafted free agent, Simmons has spent time on the practice squads of the 49ers and Eagles before signing a reserve/future contract with the Colts in January.
Quinton Spears, a former Prairie View A&M defensive end, is listed at 6-4, 230 pounds. He originally signed as a UDFA with the Miami Dolphins and was cut in September 2011 before spending most of the season with the Browns. After spending most of 2011 on the active roster in Cleveland, Spears was cut in August 2012. The Colts picked him up in late December according to his team bio.
Spears had 70 tackles and 4.5 sacks his senior year and ran a 4.7-second 40-yard dash at his pro day two years ago. He is no stranger to special teams play, and his tall, lanky build (with a 34-inch vertical jump) could be great for defending field goals, batting down passes, and downing punts, though it’s hard to say how he’ll do against big offensive tackles.
Video: Unlike Simmons, someone was kind enough to upload some highlights for Spears. He looks mean, relentless, and…tall. Also, the guy can definitely bat down a pass. Watch for # 90: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91L4alGiJeU
McNary has not yet been released from his Army duty. For some info on him, we’ll go back to when he signed in April:
McNary racked up 12.5 sacks in 2011 including 4 in one game with career totals of 28 sacks and 49 tackles for a loss; all school records. Indianapolis signed McNary – on his birthday, no less, after his standout performance in the NFL Super Regional Combine in Texas. He expects to be able to join the team sometime after May 21, when his two-year enlistment is finished. We'll have quotes from the newest Colt after the jump.
McNary had calls from other teams, but the Colts made a strong impression on him by contacting him right from the top of the organization. “I did have other opportunities,” he said of signing with the Colts. “But the Colts were just unique in their eagerness and enthusiasm to get me on board. I got a call from the general manager himself to sign with the organization. That was huge.
“Then getting a call from Coach Pagano, it was basically like an overwhelming amount of attention and enthusiasm that they showed toward me so it definitely wasn’t matched by any other teams. These guys saw things in me that only I thought I knew I had. They really sound like they really know what they’re going to do with me. They sound like they’re going to put me in a place that’s going to optimize my potential, kind of like I was in college filling a role on defense. So I thought it was a pretty safe choice.”
McNary, of course, didn’t join the team back in May and remains with the Army. His chances will diminish greatly if he misses training camp, but certainly for admirable and respectable reasons.
After the top three players (Mathis, Werner, Walden), the main competition for the last spot looks to be between free agent signee Lawrence Sidbury and last year’s backup Justin Hickman. If the team keeps a fifth OLB, the chances for the players listed as simply “LB” (Rayford, Spears, Simmons, and McNary) get a little better. If they only keep four, my money’s on first day free agent signee, Sidbury. As far as unseating him, I would watch for Hickman first and then Rayford.
The players at the bottom of the roster have a particularly uphill battle at outside linebacker, but remember this is the level from which players like Pierre Garcon, Jerrell Freeman, Gary Brackett, and Nick Harper have risen in the past.
As far as the starter opposite Mathis, my personal preference is that Werner looks like a star right from the start, giving the coaching staff no choice but to play him early and often. Walden is the guy they signed to start, but with his age and career production, his upside is very limited. While I would like to see him succeed, my hope rests with Werner, the younger player with more potential (Sign the contract Bjoern).
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