2010 Colts: Is the Defense Better or Worse?

The ultimate goal during the off-season for any NFL franchise is to improve the team.  There are many ways to evaluate whether a team improves or takes a step backward, the most common of which is only possible at the end of each season; record and playoff run.  For the Colts, improving on the 2009 version of the team by this measure is only possible if Indianapolis brings home its second Lombardi Trophy.

There is another time that it is worthwhile to consider where a team stands compared to its prior season, the off-season.  What is fun about this time is that the evaluation is far more subjective but the ultimate importance of it could have greater implications, it gives fans a reason to be excited about the coming season or a reason to temper expectations.

Paul Sancya | AP Photo

While the Colts did not re-sign Dominic Rhodes at the end of the 2008 season, bringing in Donald Brown in the first round of the 2009 NFL Draft certainly left many feeling that the running backs would be superior to the 2008 group, particularly by the time the team reached the post-season.  Likewise, it can be expected that while losing Raheem Brock in the defensive end rotation hurts depth, many will probably feel that drafting Jerry Hughes in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft improves the pass rushing threat from the front four from a year ago.

This story will take a look at each position and discuss whether it is likely that the Colts will have more or less talent as a team, by the time training camp and preseason play ends, than it had at the same time last season.

Defensive Tackle

Last year the Colts defensive line was in a state of transition.  In 2008 the Colts acquired Daniel Muir and Antonio Johnson from the Packers and Titans, respectively.  How Muir and Johnson would develop was in-question, with some had Muir on the bubble at the end of camp, while others thought Adrian Grady had shown such great ability that he had earned a starting spot.

Muir stayed with the Colts as a starter and Grady was cut.  Goes to show you how different the Colts front office can see things than the team’s fan base does.

This season the Colts are bringing back four defensive tackles who should inspire a great deal of confidence.  Both Muir and Johnson combined to be the best run-stopping pair of tackles the line as seen since Booger McFarland played for the Colts.  Additionally, Eric Foster and Daniel Muir both showed a quick first step off of the snap and the ability to penetrate the offensive line.

Foster developed a great deal as a pass-rusher last season and should be poised to have his best year yet in 2010.  Both Muir and Johnson got their first full seasons as NFL starters under their belts and should likewise be the better for it.

In the 2009 NFL Draft the Colts selected Fili Moala in the second round.  While Moala’s progress was and may still be slower than what the fans might like, there is reason to believe that if Moala will develop into a starting caliber defensive tackle in the NFL, this season he should begin to show signs of it.

The lone loss amongst the defensive tackle rotation is Raheem Brock, who played sparingly in that role and only on passing downs.  Foster, in many ways, had taken over Brock’s role on the inside and even spent a significant number of snaps on the outside as well.

Where things look really good for the Colts defensive tackles is the young talent they have acquired.  Last year, many Colts fans hoped that Polian would draft Mitch King out of Iowa.  Unfortunately he became and undrafted free agent and signed with the Tennessee Titans.  The Colts were quick to sign him after the Titans released him following the 2009 season and it should be exciting to watch his development.

The Colts also selected Ricardo Mathews in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and hope that he can bring the kind of versatility the team lost when Brock departed.  He will be joined by former undrafted free agent acquisition John Gill, from Northwestern, which the team has shown some confidence in and developed on the practice squad for the duration of the 2009 season.

It is safe to say that there are far fewer question-marks and much more known talent for the Colts at defensive tackle this off-season than there was at the same time last year.  Even the players who are competing for spots are higher profile and could show greater promise of having an impact in 2010.

Defensive End

For the first time since Robert Mathis joined the team, drafted in the fifth round of the 2003 NFL Draft, the Colts head into camp with what they hope will be a three-headed pass rushing monster on the outside of the defensive line.  When the Colts drafted Jerry Hughes in the first round of this year’s draft they were securing what they hoped would not only be insurance for Freeney or Mathis should they suffer an injury, but an immediate impact player who could play with his hand down or standing up and immediately become a facet of the Colts defense.

While Hughes’ addition is unfortunately paired with long-time veteran Raheem Brock’s departure, the thing the Colts ask most of their defensive ends is the ability to generate a pass-rush and the skill to defend the run on their way to generating that pressure.  If Hughes proves less capable than Brock of getting pressure on an opposing quarterback, even as a rookie, he will be a disappointment.

That said, the entire defensive end position has seen a major overhaul in the past year.  Former fifth round draft pick (2008) Marcus Howard and former undrafted free agent Curtis Johnson were both let go heading into the 2009 season.  Those moves suggested that the Colts were no longer satisfied with having severely under-sized speed rushers as their lone options on the outside of the defensive line.

With the changes on the inside, the Colts moved Keyunta Dawson out, had Brock take a starting spot, and rotated Eric Foster outside as well.  This “big” defensive end unit would take the field in pure running and short-yardage situations and ensure that opponents would not attempt to take advantage of Freeney and Mathis as they moved quickly into the backfield.

If anything made itself completely clear last year it is that Keyunta Dawson is not an NFL caliber defensive end.  For the most part he really is not an NFL caliber defensive tackle either, though he has made critical contributions to the team when it had no other options on the inside, faring better than many would have expected.

This means that whatever the Colts get from players like John Gill, Mitch King, Eric Foster, and Ricardo Mathews will likely be the future of the Colts big defensive line packages.  With the confidence in King and development of Foster, it may be that the Colts will be able to keep the same level of run defending talent at defensive end as it had a season ago.  Still, the big question-mark is who will step up to replace Raheem Brock.

Linebacker

Similar to defensive end, the Colts linebackers have a better reason to be confident in the first four linebackers in the starting rotation this year than they had at the same time a season ago.  While I believe Philip Wheeler still has proving to do before he will inspire confidence as a starting linebacker in the NFL, he did show improvement late in the 2009 season.

In the second round of this year’s draft the Colts selected Pat Angerer, from Iowa, who could have the greatest promise of starting as a rookie linebacker since the Colts drafted David Thornton in the fourth round of the 2002 NFL Draft.  Even if he does not start, Angerer inspires more confidence as a back-up to Gary Brackett than has been on the squad since Brackett has been a starter.

Where things become a bit more uncertain is with the Colts depth at linebacker.  Last season Tyjuan Hagler was eventually picked up from waivers and earned his starting position back from Freddie Keiaho.  Keiaho likewise was a player that the Colts initially allowed to enter free agency only to later re-sign him as one of the team’s primary back-ups.  To date, the Colts have allowed both players to go back to free agency and have yet to bring them back on the squad.

Accordingly, the Colts most experienced depth is Roman Humber, former undrafted free agent acquisition following the 2009 NFL Draft, and Cody Glenn who the Colts picked up off of waivers, following the 2009 pre-season from Washington (selected in the fifth round of the 2009 NFL Draft).  Only Humber has started an NFL game (2) but neither player has seen extensive action against NFL opponents in the regular season, and both saw most of their time in the final two games of the 2009 regular season while the Colts rested starters.

The Colts do have Kavell Conner, a seventh round draft pick from this year’s draft, and Vuna Tuihalamaka, an undrafted free agent acquisition, who both look promising.  However, the proven depth is currently in the free agent market and unless they join the youngsters in camp, the level of experience behind the front four will be significantly lower than it was at this time a year ago.

Corner Back

Believe it or not, the Colts corner back position is in much better shape this year than it was at the same time a season ago.  This is said even after allowing former first round pick Marlin Jackson to leave via free agency.

Last year, at his time, the Colts had both Hayden and Jackson potentially returning from injuries, an uninspiring Tim Jennings, a third round draft pick that fans either knew little about or generally thought was a reach, an undrafted free agent, and some carry-overs who never really showed the ability to start in the NFL.

This year the Colts have three players who are proven-capable NFL starters.  Jerraud Powers, the third round pick that people were unsure of, has proved to possibly be the best cover corner on the team.  Jacob Lacey has also proven to cover well, be aggressive, make a lot of tackles, and was names to the NFL All-Rookie team last season.  Kelvin Hayden finally returned from injury but did not look as strong as he did in previous years.

Hayden now enters camp healthy and so the Colts seem to be at least three deep with starting-caliber NFL corners.  It is past this point that things get a bit more uncertain.  With Jennings, Jackson, and Rushing all gone, the Colts are left with seventh round selection Ray Fisher, undrafted free agents Brandon King, Thad Turner, Jordan Hemby, and pontially David Caldwell for depth.  First year player Terrail Lambert is also in the competition.

All of the youth is inspiring that solid contributors can be found, but when the Colts lost their third round pick in this year’s draft, Kevin Thomas, to a potentially season-ending knee injury, it was not a good omen.  With both Marlin Jackson and Tim Jennings currently on other NFL rosters, it leaves the Colts thin in proven NFL capable corner talent.

The good news is that Brandon King has impressed coaches already, even though he only had rookie mini-camp to do so.  Colts President Bill Polian has stated confidence in Ray Fisher’s ability to play corner.  Thad Turner also looks like he has potential, even though he went undrafted.

The reality is, though, that Colts fans should temper their expectations for corner depth.  Players like Jacob Lacey are extremely rare, so expecting Polian to find another gem that is capable of starting multiple games as an undrafted rookie may be unrealistic.  Still, the importance of having a proven rotation of three starting-caliber corners should be considered a far superior situation than the team was in at the same time a year ago.

Safety

The Colts have been loaded at safety for some time.  Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, and Melvin Bullitt could be the most talented and deep three player rotation at safety in the NFL.  If Sanders stays healthy, the safety position will compete with defensive ended for the strongest defensive position on the team.  If Sanders does not, it will be back to Bethea and Bullitt who were both capable of getting the Colts to the Super Bowl in 2009.

Behind these three things are less certain.  Jamie Silva is a solid football player, has all the intangibles and instincts you could ever want on your roster, but he is somewhat limited physically and could be replaced by a player who is faster, stronger, or more athletic.

David Caldwell, Mike Newton, and Donye’ McCleskey are promising undrafted free agent safety prospects who will push Silva for his roster spot.  Caldwell and Newton probably inspire the most confidence of the three, and there is a real possibility that Silva will be replaced by one or both players on the 2010 roster.  It’s too early to tell but if Sanders remains healthy and the team is confident that one of this year’s rookies is more capable than a very talented and savvy Jamie Silva, the safety position will be stronger this year than last year, and quite possibly stronger than it has ever been.

What are your observations regarding the Colts defense this year compared to last year?

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