State of the Colts Franchise: Preseason Defense

The Indianapolis Colts have run just over 80 players through an absolute gamut over the last three weeks of training camp and the early preseason.  During this process the front office and coaching staff have assessed and developed players who will eventually fill the Colts regular season roster and practice squad.  All of the hard work, sweat, long days, and intense studying will come to a head on August 31 and September 4, when the NFL mandates that teams cut their rosters down to 75 and 53, respectively.

I had the amazing opportunity to watch eight of the Colts training camp sessions in-person, along with two preseason games on television — which I have broken down more than once.  With this backdrop, the following story will discuss which players Colts fans can expect to make some noise in the remaining preseason games, and which players may surprise by making the final roster, or by failing to make it.

[media-credit name="Brett Mock | Coltzilla" align="aligncenter" width="412"][/media-credit]

If anything has been clear from the beginning of training camp, it is that that the Colts defense will be better and deeper at every position this year than it was in 2009.  The defensive line will compete with safety as the most developed area on defense, with more options than the Colts will be able to retain.

At defensive end, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Jerry Hughes are obviously going to make the regular season roster.  Temper expectations for Hughes, as he clearly looks like a rookie who will need a little time to develop.  Best case scenario for Hughes is for the light to come on midway through the season, with some experience rotating late in games for Freeney or Mathis.  If he is ready to make contributions late in the regular season and in the playoffs, fans should be happy with his development.

Where the position gets crazy is when players like Eric Foster, Fili Moala, John Chick, and Ervin Baldwin are thrown into the mix.  These players do not even include Keyunta Dawson, who has missed much of training camp and the preseason with an injury.  Foster looks like an improved pass rusher, Moala looks much better in his second year, Chick has been an excellent pass rushing option, and Baldwin plays very hard on every down.  The fact is the Colts will probably retain only five true defensive ends.

Even if Foster and Moala are retained as defensive tackles on the depth chart, Chick, Baldwin, and Dawson would be competing for the final two spots.  Dawson’s move outside has not been confidence-inspiring, so fans should not be surprised if Chick and Baldwin round out the roster.  It would be disappointing if Baldwin was the odd man out due to a dearth of roster spots at other positions.  Notice that Ricardo Mathews has not even been mentioned.  He has done little to stick out during training camp and preseason, so may be a prime candidate for the practice squad.

On the inside of the defensive line, Antonio Johnson and Daniel Muir look like a formidable one-two punch.  With Moala progressing from his disappointing rookie season, Foster continuing to improve as an interior pass rusher, and Mitch King making a strong impression, this unit could be the best the Colts have seen for years.  None of these players will look like weak links on the defensive line in 2010.  It has been a long time since the Colts have had anything other than patchwork fill-in players behind the starters (when the starters were not already patchwork fill-in players themselves).

This group of linebackers is also fiercely competitive.  Clint Session, Gary Brackett, and Philip Wheeler have the inside track to hold down the starting spots in the season opener.  What is less certain is if Wheeler will hold onto his starting spot with tough players like rookie Pat Angerer, Cody Glenn, and Ramon Humber all pushing hard for playing time.  This second string unit of linebackers will wreak complete havoc on special teams coverage units, push the starters hard to stay sharp, and may all be future starters for the Colts.

Kavell Conner seems to be clearly ahead of Vuna Tuihalamaka and Trevor Anderson for a potential seventh linebacker roster spot, leaving his competition to play for a practice squad spot.  It is possible that Conner would not make the final roster, which says more about the talent level of the players ahead of him than it is an indictment of him.  Either way, the Colts have not been this strong from top to bottom at linebacker for a long time.

The secondary is full of talented players, but they are all dropping like flies to knee injuries.  This trend needs to stop.  If it does, the Colts will boast one of the most talented young secondaries in the NFL.

The safety position is stacked three-deep with starting caliber talent — Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, and Melvin Bullitt.  Even rookies like Mike Newton and Terrell Skinner have done things to impress in their young careers.  Skinner’s performance against Buffalo, given his brief time in Indianapolis, was extremely impressive.  Newton has the inside track for a fourth safety position but works primarily as a strong safety.  This could mean the Colts choose to retain Skinner for free safety depth.  This competition will be decided in the final two preseason games.

Even the corner position, the defensive position garnering the most concern heading into training camp, has developed immensely over the last three weeks.  Kelvin Hayden, Jerraud Powers, and Jacob Lacey all look ready to build on their 2009 performance.  Deshea Townsend has looked like a solid addition to the roster in training camp practices.  Terrail Lambert has been very active in training camp and looked great in Toronto.

The mess at cornerback revolves more around seventh round draft pick Ray Fisher’s future with the team, and whether free agent acquisition Marcus McCauley will stick as a special teams coverage specialist.  With Jordan Hemby recently losing his season to a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), there will probably be a new face brought into the mix as well.  No matter how the competition sorts out, the Colts will be four or five deep with cornerbacks who are capable of performing on defense when or if their time is called.

Watching this team over the course of eight training camp practices and two preseason games, this looks like the best defense the team has had since 2007, when the Colts boasted the third ranked defense in the NFL.  Combine this with loaded offensive weapons, and what promises to be a noticeably improved return game, and Colts fans should have a pretty big grin on their faces right now.