2010 State of the Colts Franchise: Defense

In the second part of the Colts “State of the Franchise” series we will take a look at the defensive side of the ball, position-by-position.  Then fans can speculate about which positions might need more work with potential free agents before training camp and preseason play begins.

Defensive Tackle:

US Presswire | Getty Images | AP Photo

Antonio Johnson – Mississippi State
6’3″, 310 lbs.
DT
Fourth Season
Fifth Round Selection – 2007 (acquired from Tennessee practice squad 2008)

Daniel Muir – Kent State
6’2″, 312 lbs.
DT
Fourth Season
Undrafted – 2007 (signed off of waivers from Green Bay 2008)

Eric Foster – Rutgers
6’2″, 265 lbs.
2008 Starting NT!
DT
Third Season
Undrafted – 2008

Fili Moala – USC
6’4″, 303 lbs.
DT
Second Season
Second Round Selection – 2009

John Gill
6’3″, 302 lbs.
DT/DE
First Season
Undrafted – 2009

Ricardo Mathews
6’3″, 294 lbs.
DT/DE
Rookie Season
Seventh Round  Selection – 2010

Mitch King
6’2″, 280 lbs.
DT/DE
First Season
Free Agent – 2010
Originally Undrafted (Tennessee)

Marlon Favorite
6’1″, 317 lbs.
DT
First Season
Free Agent – 2010
Originally Undrafted (Carolina)

Analysis:

No other position on the Colts defense went through such a drastic transition as the defensive tackles in 2009.  Many were convinced that when the Colts trade up to select Fili Moala in the first half of the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft, they did so because they not only expected Moala to be a key contributor along the defensive interior as a rookie, they required it.

Then, in a way no one could have foreseen, Antonio “Mookie” Johnson and Daniel Muir developed into a solid pair of starters, and helped the Colts finish fourth in the NFL against opponents who attempted to run up the gut.  Eric Foster, in his third season, became a dynamic player who played both inside and as a defensive end, showing improvement generating pressure as pocket collapsing defensive lineman.  The trio combined to give the Colts the most complete rotation of defensive tackles the team has had in a long time.

Now Moala is almost a free gift for the team, and has an opportunity to develop into the system in such a way that he can amount to a “free” draft pick for 2010.  Early signs indicate that Moala has a very positive attitude this summer and has made noticeable progress.  The other players who are new to the roster and provide intriguing options to round out the Colts defensive tackle depth are Mitch King and Ricardo Mathews, primarily.

Mathews was drafted in the seventh round to fill the dynamic role left void by the departure of Raheem Brock.  He is listed primarily as a defensive end but is someone who the Colts hope can moved inside on passing downs.  Similarly, the Colts signed King because he has a reputation for being a fierce fighter in the trenches with enough speed to get penetration.  He is also the kind of player who can possibly move outside if needed on running downs.  King comes from the bigger collegiate conference and was more productive at Iowa than Mathews was a Cincinnati.  In fact, Iowa coach Luke Ferentz referred to him as one of the most successful defensive tackles to come through Iowa’s program.

John Gill and Marlon Favorite are players that may have a steeper uphill climb to stay on the roster, but Gill particularly earned the interest of the Colts very early, officially visiting Indianapolis before the 2009 NFL Draft.  As soon as he was available, the Colts snagged him up and gave him a lot of time on the field at the end of preseason last year.  He stuck around on the Colts practice squad and could be a project that Colts believe will pay dividends, possibly as early as this year.

However the competition for final spots turns out, one thing seems very likely, the Colts should be better across the board at defensive tackle in 2010.  Muir and Johnson have completed their first full years as starters, Foster is continuing to develop, Moala has a chance to make his second-year leap after learning the system and spending a season under the tutelage of John Teerlinck, and whomever wins the competition for a final spot will bring even more talent to the Colts defensive front.

Defensive End:

AP Photo

Dwight Freeney – Syracuse
6’1″, 268 lbs.
Colts All-Time Career Sacks Leader
Five-Time Pro Bowl Selection
Ninth Season
Second Round Selection – 2002

Robert Mathis – Alabama A&M
6’2″, 245 lbs.
Two-Time Pro Bowl Selection
2nd Colts All-Time Career Sacks
Eighth Season
Fifth Round Selection – 2003

Jerry Hughes – TCU
6’2″, 255 lbs.
DE
Rookie Season
First Round Selection – 2010

Keyunta Dawson – Texas Tech
6’3″, 254 lbs.
2008 Starting UT!
DE
Fourth Season
Seventh Round Selection – 2007

Ervin Baldwin – Michigan State
6’2″, 260 lbs.
DE
Second Season
Free Agent – 2009
Originally Seventh Round Selection – 2008 (Chicago)

Ricardo Mathews
6’3″, 294 lbs.
DT/DE
Rookie Season
Seventh Round  Selection – 2010

Mitch King
6’2″, 280 lbs.
DT/DE
First Season
Free Agent – 2010
Originally Undrafted (Tennessee)

John Chick – Utah State
6’4″, 248 lbs.
DE
First Season
Free Agent – 2010 (Sasketchewan Rougriders)

Trevor Anderson – Michigan State
6’0″, 241 lbs.
DE
Rookie Season
Undrafted – 2010

J.D. Skolnitsky – James Madison
6’5″, 255 lbs.
DE
First Season
Waivers – 2010
Originally Undrafted – 2009 (Washington)

Analysis:

At no time in Peyton Manning’s career in Indianapolis have the Colts had the luxury of three full-time speed rushers at defensive end.  The closest the Colts have ever been is when Raheem Brock was on the team with Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis during his prime years, but that was ruined when the Colts had such a dearth of talent at defensive tackle that Brock had to move inside.

With the Colts selection of Jerry Hughes in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, they added a third legitimate pass rusher on the outside.  If Hughes develops as the team hopes, and is used both as a backup to Freeney and Mathis, and on the field at the same time as the perennial Pro Bowlers, the team could have the same kind of pass rushing prowess as the New York Giants did when they defeated the undefeated New England Patriots to win Super Bowl XLII.

The team has attempted to find their third pass rush specialist for some time, drafting playing like Marcus Howard, Philip Wheeler, and picking up undrafted players like Curtis Johnson.  None of those plans panned out in the way the team may have initially hoped but now Polian has selected only the second first round defensive end in his tenure in Indianapolis, and the last one seemed to turn out pretty well.

What could be even more exciting is the progression of many options on the outside of the Colts defensive line.  Eric Foster and Keyunta Dawson both spent some time on the outside in the big defensive line sets for goal-line and running situations.  Ricardo Mathews and Mitch King could also develop into a similar role.  Ervin Baldwin also showed some promise in his limited regular season experience and might be able to surpass a player like Dawson for a roster spot, should space permit.

Even more intriguing, the Colts picked up John Chick, the Canadian Football League’s 2009 defensive player of the year.  If he can develop and prove dynamic enough to hold up against the run, he may give the team a fourth pass rushing option on the outside.  The is more talent, more upside, and more options for the Colts at defensive end than there was at this same time a year ago.  What comes out of the group should allow the defensive line to be considered as one of the best units in the NFL.

Linebacker:


Gary Brackett – Rutgers
5’11″, 235 lbs.
Starting MLB
Defensive Captain
Eighth Season
Undrafted – 2003

Clint Session – Pittsburgh
6’0″, 235 lbs.
Starting WILL
Fourth Season
Fourth Round – 2007

Philip Wheeler – Georgia Tech
6’2″, 240 lbs.
Starting SAM
Third Season
Third Round – 2008

Pat Angerer – Iowa
6’0″, 235 lbs.
Rookie Season
Second Round – 2010

Ramon Humber – North Dakota State
5’11″, 232 lbs.
Second Season
Undrafted – 2009

Cody Glenn – Nebraska
6’0″, 240 lbs.
Second Season
Free Agent – 2009
Originally Fifth Round – 2009 (Washington)

Kavell Conner – Clemson
6’0″, 242 lbs.
Rookie Season
Seventh Round – 2010

Vuna Tuihalamaka – Arizona
6’0″, 230 lbs.
Rookie Season
Undrafted – 2010

Analysis:

One position that is undergoing a great deal of development and restructuring is linebacker.  Some would argue that the position has never been one of Indy’s strongest but this season could be interesting because the front office has allowed much of the experienced depth to move on, including former starters Tyjuan Hagler (still unsigned) and Freddie Keiaho (Jacksonville).  The one major development for the position this season is that this could be the first time the team has a legitimate backup for Gary Brackett at the middle linebacker position.

In the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft the Colts selected Iowa linebacker Pat Angerer.  Bill Polian introduced Angerer to fans by suggesting that if the fanbase likes how Gary Brackett players, they will like how Angerer plays.  Still, he is a rookie and may be limited on the field in his first season with the team.  Outside linebackers Cody Glenn and Ramon Humber return from last season but neither spent a great deal of time getting regular season experience with the defense.  They both showed promise and may develop but until they step onto the field this summer it could be difficult to know exactly what to expect out of either player.

The Colts added another linebacker, Kavell Conner, in the seventh round in this year’s draft.  He could compete immediately for a roster spot and earn a primary backup role on the outside.  He will also need to standout on special teams coverage units.  Undrafted free agent Vuna Tuihalamaka has very impressive tape and seems like a player that could press for a spot on the roster or at least the practice squad to develop.

The point is, the team enters 2010 without a great deal of experienced depth behind the starting group.  There is a chance that the team could re-sign Tyjuan Hager after the final eight exception expires on July 22nd if they feel it necessary.  If they do not re-sign Hagler though, there is a reason to believe that the team feels the players on the squad give the team more talent than the former starters would have.  Nothing would have stopped the team from retaining Keiaho and Hagler if they wanted but without those players, those who remain have a lot of proving to do before fans are comforted.

Corner Back:

Gary Cameron | Reuters

Kelvin Hayden – Illinois
6’0″, 195 lbs.
Returned the Super Bowl XLI sealing interception for a TD in 2006
Starting LCB
Sixth Season
Second Round Selection – 2005

Jerraud Powers – Auburn
5’10″, 192 lbs.
CB
Second Season
Third Round Selection – 2009

Jacob Lacey – Oklahoma State
5’10, 177 lbs.
CB
Second Season
Undrafted – 2009

Kevin Thomas – USC
6’0″, 192 lbs.
CB
Rookie Season
Third Round – 2010

Terrail Lambert – Notre Dame
5’11″, 195 lbs.
CB
First Season
Free Agent – 2009
Originally Undrafted – 2009 (San Francisco)

Ray Fisher – Indiana
5’9″, 185 lbs.
CB/KR
Rookie Season
Seventh Round – 2010

Jordan Hemby – North Carolina
5’11″, 190 lbs.
CB
Rookie Season
Undrafted – 2010

Brandon King – Purdue
5’10″, 194 lbs.
CB
Rookie Season
Undrafted – 2010

Thad Turner – Ohio
5’11″, 188 lbs.
CB
Rookie Season
Undrafted – 2010

Pete Ittersagen – Wheaton
5’10″, 191 lbs.
CB/PR
First Season
Free Agent – 2010
Originally Undrafted – 2009 (Jacksonville)

Analysis:

The Colts cornerback situation is not too different from linebacker.  The starting corner spots are secure and provide the team with a great deal of confidence.  Experienced depth is lacking, and the early injury to third round draft pick Kevin Thomas does not help to provide Colts fans with a great deal of confidence heading into the season.

That said, the Colts did retain Terrail Lambert, who has spent a season learning the Colts defense on the practice squad.  They have also been impressed early by the development of Brandon King, and he could step up to be a Jacob Lacey-like surprise in 2010.  Absent shocking development of Ray Fisher, who enters 2010 in only his second year playing cornerback, or major contributions from undrafted players the Colts are thin behind the starters.

King is joined by Thad Turner, another promising undrafted prospect who could develop faster than people expect.  Pete Ittersagen is more of a return specialist but could also develop quicker defensively than the team could foresee.  Overall, though, the starting unit is stronger this year than it was at this time a year ago.  The depth is a much bigger question and if any position is ripe for a potential free agent signing on July 22nd or before the beginning of the regular season, cornerback is it.

Safety:

Getty Images

Bob Sanders – Iowa
5’8″, 206 lbs.
SS
2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year
Seventh Season
Second Round Selection – 2004

Antoine Bethea – Howard
5’11″, 203 lbs.
FS
Two-Time Pro Bowl Selection
Fifth Season
6th Round Selection – 2006

Melvin Bullitt – Texas A&M
6’1″, 201 lbs.
SS
Fourth Season
Undrafted – 2007

Jamie Silva – Boston College
5’11″, 204 lbs.
SS
Third Season
Undrafted – 2008

David Caldwell – William & Mary
5’11″, 212 lbs.
SS
Rookie Season
Undrafted – 2010

Mike Newton – Buffalo
5’10″, 197 lbs.
SS
Rookie Season
Undrafted – 2010

Donye’ McCleskey – Indiana State
6’0″, 225 lbs.
SS
Rookie Season
Undrafted 2010

Analysis:

Some teams seem to have far more than their fair share of talent at certain positions.  For the Colts defense, that position would probably be safety.  The last time Bob Sanders was healthy for a significant portion of the regular season, he earned NFL defensive player of the year honors (2007).  Antoine Bethea was just signed to a lucrative contract extension and earned his second Pro Bowl selection in three years in 2009.  Melvin Bullitt has far exceeded his highest expectations to be a solid replacement for Sanders while he recovered from a variety of injuries.

Even behind those three, Jamie Silva is one of the headier backups on the team, a pure football player who uses his instincts and intellect to be in the right place at the right time.  He has been one of the team’s top special teams coverage players and emergency punt return specialist when he has been asked as well.  To add young, impressively athletic prospects like David Caldwell, Mike Newton, and Donye’ McCleskey to the mix is almost unfair.

The Colts do not need any of those players to develop into regular starters to field a full and loaded depth chart at safety.  If any of the young players prove to develop quickly and manage to overtake Silva or otherwise earn a spot on the roster, the position will get nothing but stronger.

If there is any area that could be weak for the safeties it is that Bethea has no true backup, unless Sanders stays healthy and moves to free safety for spot duty.  None of the young players is an ideal free safety prospect.  Still, it is doubtful that the Colts would have any problem with the players on the roster should they need to fill in for the starters.

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