It is easy to overlook the significance of Jerry Hughes’ impact on the Colts defensive line rotation. At first glance, getting caught up in the fact that he brings a third true pass rushing defensive end can hide the fact that Hughes is the first defensive end the Colts have drafted since Bill Polian selected Dwight Freeney in the first round of the 2002 NFL Draft. In fact, the Colts have not selected a defensive end before the fifth round of each subsequent draft, striking gold in 2003 when Robert Mathis joined the franchise.
Since that time, the Colts have relied upon strong contributions from players like Raheem Brock and Josh Thomas to round out the depth at defensive end. Brock’s contributions should not be overlooked, as he is arguably the most valuable defensive lineman the Colts have had other than Freeney since he joined the team in 2002, signed from waivers from the Philadelphia Eagles. What made Brock so valuable was that he was capable of starting at defensive tackle and defensive end, and was a strong pass rusher early in his career.
Since returning to defensive end from defensive tackle, Brock’s effectiveness as a pass rusher has slipped and he is now getting to a point in his career that, even had he not requested his release, many fans were starting to question whether Indianapolis was getting a good value at defensive end for Brock’s relatively large contract. Brock may yet return to the team, though no direct signs have indicated interest from either party, but his loss should be considered only at defensive end.
One thing Brock brought to the team, or at least attempted to bring, was the ability to line up at times in a “joker” role, standing up along the defensive line to create another look for opposing offenses, to utilize his speed and versatility to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks in a unique way. Hughes will also be asked to potentially fill the “joker” role, and his young legs and speed could make him even more dangerous than Brock in this role.
Not unlike many Colts defensive ends, Hughes was initially projected as one of the top linebackers in the 2010 NFL Draft. At 6-foot 2-inches tall and 255 pounds, Hughes is right between Mathis and Freeney in size. He is large enough to be a handful for offensive linemen if he can dictate when and how confrontations occur. His ability to set an edge and change direction also makes him a handful for offensive tackles who attempt to drop and slide to keep him from getting leverage.
Under defensive coordinator Larry Coyer, two things have changed. First, there has been a greater emphasis on size along the defensive line. Second, defensive linemen have become more active in stunts, where players will move around, change positions, or slide behind another defensive lineman to attack the offensive line in a far less predictable way. Hughes is built to take advantage of these changes, and could not only increase the flexibility of the defensive line and give the Colts new options to generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks, he could also free up players like Bob Sanders to play back in the secondary.
One of the biggest concerns for Sanders has been staying healthy, and it certainly was more difficult to do so when the Colts required his skills in the box, acting more as a linebacker than a safety, requiring him to engage offensive linemen to stop an opponents’ ground game. Hughes can play in that role, should the Colts want to stiffen against the run while maintaining speed and versatility. This would allow Sanders to sit back and use his speed and vision to wreak havoc against ball carriers unfortunate enough to get to the second level, and take advantage of his speed in the passing lanes.
Ultimately, the Colts added a new dimension to the defense when they selected Hughes in the 2010 Draft. Head Coach Jim Caldwell agrees, “He does give us more options. We can create maybe some situations where all three of them are in the ballgame at the same time that may be pretty unique. It also gives us a buffer if we’re in a situation where either one can’t play. We still can have two edge rushers that can do some damage. We don’t place any limitations on anybody.”
Hughes will be asked to get acclimated quickly and to be an active part of the defense fater than most draft selections. He will also have a lot of pressure to deliver early in his career, to make up for the loss of a player like Raheem Brock. If Polian and the Colts history at drafting defensive ends early in the NFL Draft is any indicator of what fans should expect, Hughes is in good position to have a positive start to his career.