A few weeks ago, I took an in-depth look at the state of the Colts’ wide receiver room, a group that has a chance to be one of the most improved position groups on the roster. Today I look at another contender for the title of most improved, the defensive line.
By now, we know that Chris Ballard went into the draft with the single thought of upgrading the defensive side of the trenches at all costs. You would be remiss to look back on the Colts’ 2021 draft haul and say they didn’t get better at the defensive line on paper, as they spent their two top picks at the position. What remains to be seen is what type of impact these rookies can have this season, and it will be enough for the Colts to have an effective pass rush once again. According to PFF, the Colts ranked 14th last year in total pass-rush rankings. However, Deforest Buckner was the only player to have a pass-rush rating above 70.0. As you are well aware by now, the Colts lost their next two most effective pass rushers in free agency with Justin Houston and Denico Autry, which left a gaping hole in sack production.
While I don’t expect Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo to be able to step into those shoes’ year 1, the Colts’ long-term outlook for their defensive line as a whole saw a bump this off-season. Let’s now dive into the 15 players currently on the Colts roster listed as defensive linemen.
Last year the Colts’ kept 9 players from the defensive line on the active 53-man roster after cutdowns, plus Kemoko Turay, who was on the PUP list. This year there aren’t many obvious locks out of the 15 options, making it difficult to predict who will be left standing come August. If you want an idea of who my fellow writer, Lucas Robins, believes will make the final roster, you can check out his predictions here. The most obvious lock-out of the group is all-pro defensive tackle Deforest Buckner. The Colts saw a significant increase in interior disruption last year after trading for Bucker, as he made his presence felt often. Buckner will need to continue to provide pressures and sacks as well as solid gap penetration and tackles for loss if the Colts have any hope of improving this unit from last season. Next, we have Bucker’s running mate at nose tackle, Grover Stewart. Big Grove may be one of the most underappreciated Colts by the fans and national media alike. Not just your typical gap-eating nose tackle, Grover gets regular penetration and is often seen pursuing quarterbacks as they leave the pocket. Buckner and Stewart are an underrated 1-2 punch as interior defensive lineman that is a top 5 tandem in the league.
Beyond Buckner and Stewart, it’s hard to find other obvious locks for roster spots. Both Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo are givens, although the ladder will most likely start the year on the PUP. That leaves 3 “locks” that I’ve identified who will definitely be on the Colts’ 53 man roster come August.
The Question Marks
It seems Ballard is banking on development and maturation from younger players who have yet to turn the flashes we see into regular production. Tyquan Lewis, Kemoko Turay, and Ben Banogu are all players waiting to break out. Whether it was an injury in Turay’s case or an unknown reason for loss of playing time for Banogu, the pair of recent second-round picks will need to prove to the Colts’ decision-makers that they have what it takes to be third-down sack artists. I predict an uptick in Ben Banogu’s playing time this season as he finds his professional grove making the roster alongside Turay. Many are excited about Kemoko Turay’s return next season after another off-season of healing from the gruesome injury he suffered on Sunday Night Football two years ago. After talks of double-digit sacks going into last season, when Turay finally did get on the field, it was clear he wasn’t quite himself. The best-case scenario for the Colts is both of these players developing rapidly and providing production this season. Both players have the potential to terrorize opposing quarterbacks in passing situations, and it’s just a matter of catching that lightning in a bottle consistently.
Tyquan Lewis surprised last year after coming off a season where he was more often than not a healthy scratch. Lewis recorded 4 sacks backing up Denico Autry but will now most likely be asked to be a starting base defensive end. I considered putting Lewis in the “lock” category, but there are still question marks surrounding how he will be able to replace a quality player in Autry. If Lewis continues on the trajectory he set last season, the Colts can rest easy at night knowing they have found their future at defensive end.
With the addition of Antwaun Woods late in the Free Agency process, Chris Ballard ensured that the defensive tackle position would be secure with depth. Taylor Stallworth proved to be a great third defensive tackle last season while Grover Stewart was taking a breather, but he will have stiff competition in camp from several challengers. Antwuan Woods was a good depth player on the Dallas defensive line last year who could easily give Stallworth a run for his spot. Along with Woods is last year’s 6th round pick, Robert Windsor, Kameron Cline, who saw a little playing time last year in the second Titans game when Buckner was out in COVID protocol, Chris Williams, another undrafted free agent out of Wagner from last year, and Andrew Brown, a 5th round pick by the Bengals in 2018 who has been on multiple practice squads since. A bold prediction from this group, Kameron Cline will make the roster. Cline is a tweener who showed a high motor when he did get on the field. I think the Colts will find a use for him as the fourth defensive tackle on the roster behind Taylor Stallworth, and we’ll see him bring some juice to the pass rush when his name is called.
The depth at the defensive end position behind the players I have already mentioned is bleaker. The other two players, Isaac Rochell and Al-Quadin Muhammad, have NFL experience but little production. Muhammad has 5 career sacks in 4 seasons and three with the Colts. While Muhammad can be an effective run defender, he hasn’t proven to be a starter worthy player so far in his career. The Colts should not willingly start Muhammad this year, or else I don’t think they will see any improvement in overall d-line play. Rochell is a similar player, a base defensive end who should primarily be a backup and will produce little in the pass rush while being an average run defender. I could see a path for Muhammad to make the roster, but I have a hard time seeing Rochell doing so. When you have two similar players like Rochell and Muhammad, I think the Colts will stick with familiarity, which Muhammad offers.
I look at what the Colts have at defensive line and find it hard to see anything other than a boom or bust group. Between the unknown rookie variable and the numerous question marks surrounding the players the Colts are seemingly counting heavily on this season, I find it hard to believe there will be a lot of consistency in this group. They will be young, and with that will come various opportunities for growth. The highs and lows may frustrate fans this season as the pass rush will disappear at times, but those flashes will be there, and when they do, fans can dream of the dominant pass rush we have been craving since the days of Freeney and Mathis. Soon, it may finally be time to let those ghosts go, in favor of the future youth movement Chris Ballard has created.