2022 is shaping up to be an exciting year for the Indianapolis defense. Gus Bradley replaced Matt Eberflus as Defensive Coordinator, with several new positional coaches also joining the team. Yannick Ngakoue and Stephon Gilmore promise to be impactful free agent signings, whilst there’s genuine excitement about rookie Nick Cross’s arrival and Julian Blackmon’s return from injury. The retirement of Khari Willis will be a blow, but this is still a defense that was good in 2021 and should be great in 2022.
If the defense is to take the leap it needs to this season, the pass rush will have to drive that improvement. Chris Ballard let a lot of experience walk away from the defensive line last offseason as Justin Houston and Denico Autry ultimately joined the Ravens and Titans, respectively. Their absence was a major factor in the Colts’ defensive line being one of the less effective units in the league.
The arrival of Ngakoue should go a long way to making the Colts’ pass rush a more formidable force. But Ballard, Reich, and Bradley will be counting on Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo taking a leap in their second years in the league.
Odeyingbo’s second year could be particularly interesting, given he spent so much of his debut season recovering from the injury that allowed him to slide down the draft board. But I want to focus on what Colts fans can reasonably expect Paye to achieve in 2022.
In particular, I want to look at how other first-round edge rushers since 2017 have faired in their second years. That will indicate how high our expectations for Paye should be for 2022, but we will also have to assess whether he can under or overperform that average.
Twenty edge rushers (I’m including both DEs and OLBs) were drafted in the first round between 2017 and 2020 and so have had at least two years in the NFL. The headline picture for their second-year performance is mixed. There certainly isn’t the significant across-the-board improvement in year two that would suggest a glut of sacks for Paye this season is a foregone conclusion.
It is notable how many edge rushers get far less productive in year two. Some of the most dramatic drop-offs can be attributed to injuries. This is most noticeable for Nick Bosa, who missed almost all of his second NFL season due to injury before promptly racking up 15.5 sacks in 2021.
However, some players, most noticeably Myles Garrett and T.J. Watt, did produce the major second-year improvement every team is hoping for. The fact both turned strong debut seasons into elite second seasons showcases why they're two of the very best edge rushers in the NFL.
There are a number of edge rushers who were lackluster across their first two NFL seasons who have to be considered busts. There's a temptation to discount players we now know are busts as outliers. But that would be a mistake. How many sacks they achieve is probably the single best indicator of whether or not an edge rusher is a bust.
At this stage, we can't confidently say that Paye will be a successful pick; how many sacks he can secure in 2022 will help tell us just how good he can be.
Paye secured four sacks in his debut season, which is slightly less than the average for first-round draft picks since 2017. Many of those pass rushers who put up the best debut seasons were top-five draft picks, but the young Colts' debut season was also less impressive than the likes of Brian Burns and Montez Sweat. One of the encouraging signs is that all four of his sacks game after week 9, suggesting he improved throughout his rookie season.
If we take the average difference in sacks between years one and two, Paye would actually end up with only 3.5 sacks in 2022. However, providing he can stay healthy and avoid being a bust, an increase in sacks of 2-3 would be a good result for the season. That would give him 6-7 sacks for 2022, which would mark a solid second season for the University of Michigan graduate, especially if Buckner and Ngakoue have the ten sack seasons many (myself included) are expecting.
Taking the percentage increase in sacks between years one and two yields a slightly different result. Applying the average 28.58% increase in sacks to Paye’s first season would give him five sacks for 2022. Therefore, recording 6-7 sacks would be outperforming the average but is achievable. If he can match Jonathan Allen’s 700% increase in sacks, Paye will end the season with a record-breaking 28 sacks. Alongside presumably an MVP award and a Super Bowl ring.
There are, of course, limitations to predicting Paye’s 2022 performance based on the recent average. General managers don’t draft players to be average, even compared to others drafted in the same round. GMs draft players to be better than average, and great GMs back their ability to evaluate talent better than their peers. If Paye is the player Indianapolis thought he was when they drafted him, he has every chance to outperform the average comfortably.
At this point, we have to consider why we think Paye can be better than average. I've already alluded to the main reasons the second-year DE could significantly improve his production in 2022. One 6-2, 246-pound reason he can be better is Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue's arrival should make the entire Colts defensive line significantly better in 2022.
Ngakoue and Buckner should both have close to 10 sacks if they can stay healthy. Having Buckner and Ngakoue on the defensive line forces offensive lines to devote significant attention to stopping them. This should prevent offensive lines from double-teaming Paye and give him more opportunities to get to the QB.
A strong defense overall should also help by increasing the chances of coverage sacks, choking the run game, and keeping opposing offenses under pressure.
The new defensive scheme led by Gus Bradley should also be favourable to Indianapolis' pass rushers. The message from Bradley and Defensive Line Coach Nate Ollie this offseason is that defensive linemen will be given the opportunity to pin their ears back and get at the quarterback. Paye was strong against the run in college, but freeing him up to focus on pressuring the QB should help him and the entire defensive line get more sacks.
I am expecting Paye to be a starter in 2022, alongside Bucker, Stewart, and Ngakoue. That being said, Bradley will allow the likes of Tyquan Lewis and Dayo Odeyingbo to get on the field and showcase what they can do. However, both Odeyingbo and Lewis are capable of taking snaps in both the interior and exterior of the defensive line.
It's also unclear whether Ben Banogu can significantly improve on the limited role he's played for Indianapolis in his career so far as he enters a contract year. As a result, the Colts are likely to rotate their defensive lineman to keep them fresh and hopefully healthy. Despite this, I anticipate Paye getting plenty of snaps in 2022 and playing enough of them alongside great teammates to give him the opportunity to get sacks.
The quality of the rest of the Colts' defensive line and the entire Indianapolis defense should give Paye an excellent opportunity to improve his sack total in 2022 significantly. Whether he can seize that opportunity and have a 7 or 8 sack year will help tell us whether he can be the transformational edge rusher Colts fans were counting on him being when he was drafted in 2021.