Things started to come together for the Colts linebacker position in 2010. While starting weak side linebacker Clint Session missed much of the year with a fractured forearm and dislocated shoulder, a seventh round rookie replacement — Kavell Conner — did an excellent job in his place. When defensive captain Gary Brackett missed some time, second round rookie Pat Angerer filled in — he performed well enough to remain a starter on the strong side in place of Philip Wheeler. Former starter Tyjuan Hagler signed and played an important role in the rotation and on special teams.
Between Session, Brackett, Angerer, Conner, Hagler, and Wheeler the Colts have two players at each position who have shown enough skill to start. At least four of those players are proven difference makers. The only other linebacker on the Colts roster — Cody Glenn — was one of the Colts best special teams players when he was healthy. If he returns to the field, the Colts have seven players at linebacker, and all but one of those players has meaningful starts on their resumes.
It is rather likely that if Session is retained — and he was extended an offer prior to the lockout — that the Colts may have very little immediate need for a linebacker. Finding another player to develop as depth, assuming Brackett’s career will draw to a close within the next couple of years, is something Polian and the Indy front office may have in mind. Accordingly, one can assume that only a player who drops into the Colts lap much later than expected will have a good chance of getting selected.
Round 1 – Pick 22
Akeem Ayers - UCLA – Ayers is a talented linebacker but he may be better suited to play for 3-4 teams. Many analysts think he could be a pass rushing specialist in the NFL. He may be a bit of a reach for the Colts with the 22nd pick, while he most certainly will not be available in the second round. Low to moderate value.
Round 2 – Pick 53
Quan Sturdivant – North Carolina – Sturdivant projects to be a middle or weak-side linebacker in the NFL. He is a talented player who could fit into the Colts system. In the second round, however, the likelihood that his value will be as high as players at other positions is relatively low. In the third, his value would increase. Low to moderate value.
Martez Wilson – Illinois – Wilson is a middle linebacker and completely outside of the Colts mold at 6-foot 4-inches tall and 250 pounds. Add in Angerer’s selection in the second round in 2010. Low value.
Round 3 – Pick 87
Mason Foster - Washington – Foster projects as a strong-side linebacker, arguably the Colts greatest need area if Session returns. Watching this kid play shows that he has an outstanding motor, gets off of blocks well, has incredible vision, takes good angles, is solid in coverage, and makes plays. How he is not rated higher on a lot of draft boards is baffling. If he falls to the third and gets selected by the Colts, it could be a big improvement for the defense. Moderate to high value.
Bruce Carter – North Carolina – Carter is another promising North Carolina player who projects as a middle or weak-side linebacker. Where Carter’s value fluctuates is that he suffered an ACL tear late in the 2010 season. This limits the likelihood that he will return soon enough in 2011 to be a factor right away. How players will be affected after their recovery to an ACL tear is also uncertain. Low value.
K.J. Wright – Mississippi State – Wright does not fit the Colts mold. Like Wilson in the second round, he is 6-foot 4-inches tall and 242 pounds. Low value.
Round 4 – Pick 119
Greg Jones – Michigan State – Jones has the size and skillset that make Indianapolis a likely destination. At 6-foot tall and 242 pounds he is undersized for most NFL teams. He excelled in coverage and took great angles to tackle ball carriers at Michigan State. He could play on the weak-side and slide over to the middle if needed. If he slipped to the fifth round, he would be a no-brainer. In the fourth, it depends who is on the draft board. High value.
Casey Matthews – Oregon – Matthews will get a lot of attention because his older brother Clay has been big for the Packers. Casey does not project to be as much of an impact player as his brother but he could be a reliable linebacker, has the same work ethic that has helped make Clay great, and enjoys the same blood lines that project positive NFL development. Moderate to high value.
Colin McCarthy – Miami – McCarthy is the kind of linebacker the Colts would typically show a great deal of interest in. He thrives on his natural abilities to read and react and be in good position on the football field. The biggest mark against McCarthy could be that he has an injury history. If he is prone to injuries, that could scare Polian and the injury-riddled Colts away. Low to moderate value.
Kelvin Sheppard – LSU – Although Sheppard is a highly rated linebacker in the 2011 draft class, nothing specific stands out about his game on film. He looks like a serviceable player in college but his 6-foot 2-inch height and 250 pound weight makes him seem very similar to Philip Wheeler, who has not excelled as well as Indy would have liked. Low to moderate value.
Round 5 – Pick 152
Nate Irving – N.C. State – Irving could be a steal in the fifth round. He plays with a lot of on-field speed, tenacity, and shows impressive vision pursuing ball carriers. How well he will do in coverage is a bit uncertain and he looks really good as a 4-3 middle linebacker but would likely get work at strong side for the Colts. He battled back after suffering severe injuries in a car accident that cost him his 2009 season. High value.
Ross Homan – Ohio State – On film Homan looks like he is much better suited for a 3-4 middle linebacker. In a 4-3 NFL scheme he does not look like he has the foot speed laterally to be as effective as teams like the Colts would require. However, he did have some success getting pressure on the quarterback blitzing up the middle. Low to moderate value.
Lawrence Wilson – Connecticut – Although some have Wilson going as early as the third round, the tape does not support it. He looks a lot like Clint Session did in 2010 on film, including a tendency to engage blockers too early and an inability to find the ball before entering his gap. Unfortunately, he does not have Session’s speed. Low value.
Round 6 – Pick 188
Brian Rolle – Ohio State – Rolle is the kind of player that could drop into the Colts lap in the sixth round. Very few teams will pick him as a linebacker earlier in the draft because he is only 5-foot 10-inches tall and 229 pounds. He could be a very high value player this late because he could be used as a passing down weak-side linebacker specialist on defense, will be a special teams contributor, and also could be used as an emergency strong safety (or developed as a strong safety from the get go). High value.
Adrian Moten – Maryland – Moten is another late round high value player who should contribute immediately on special teams. Additionally, he has Larry Coyer’s coveted ability to blitz with the speed and length to affect the quarterback close to the line and the height and ball skills to do well in coverage. At 6-foot 2-inches tall and only 228 pounds, he will need to spend time in the weight room if he hopes to contribute regularly on defense. His 4.55 40-yard dash does make him an excellent athlete. High value.
Mario Harvey – Marshall – Harvey was the best defensive player for Marshall in 2010. His physical attributes are stunning. At 6-foot 1-inches tall and 257 pounds he ran a 4.43 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. He was an excellent special teams player and could offer value immediately as a special teams ace. With development, his physical attributes and speed could make him a dangerous defensive weapon. How long that will take, however, is hard to know. High value.
As has been common at a lot of positions where the Colts need is relatively low, most of the high value players could be late round steals. Giving Mason Foster a moderate to high value grade could be slightly unfair, in that he certainly is a high value player for a third round pick — but picking at a position that is relatively low need that early in the draft could drop him into a moderate value range. In rounds four through six there are players who may be available who could be impact players as rookies, even if they start out as special teams contributors.
If there are prospects not included on this list that should be — or if readers have comments about any of the players reviewed — feel free to add them below.