When taking a closer look into the defensive side of the Colts’ roster, things are really interesting. The Colts made a change at defensive coordinator and will be changing a bit schematically over to the Gus Bradley style of defense. The Colts made several upgrades at key positions, which is partially why I think this unit as a whole can be better than what they were last year.
Starting with the defensive line at the two tackle spots are the guys that have been an anchor for the defense the last couple of years: Grover Stewart and former all-pro Deforest Buckner. These two have been phenomenal ever since they were paired together, with Grover being a force in the run game and Buckner excelling in both the run and pass. The Colts will be attacking the QB in this new scheme a lot more, which means their responsibilities aren’t the same as last year when they were a bit more patient before they could get up the field. I think this get-off-the-ball-and-go scheme will benefit Buckner more than a player like Grover. Buckner is more of a natural pass rusher than Grover is, and that’s why I can see him being more effective this season.
The first guy off the bench that will be rotated in is a natural pass rusher from the inside, and that’s Dayo Odeyingbo. This attack front is something that fits his versatility perfectly and allows him to cause complete havoc up front.
Another guy to watch rotating in coming off of injury as a backup 3-tech for Buckner or another spot on the line is Tyquan Lewis. Also, like Dayo, Tyquan has the ability to play multiple spots along the defensive line, but I think he will be most effective rushing from the interior. Lewis was having his best season to date when he went down with a horrific injury on one of the best plays of his career. I can’t stress the importance of him and Dayo to this team because Gus likes to rotate those linemen, so they will get more than enough chances to impact the game on the limited snaps they see.
Another guy to look for who can compete for playing time is the rookie, Curtis Brooks. Although a late-round pick, this guy is extremely polished already. Asked to do multiple things at Cincinnati in college, he excelled at just about all of them. His college coach said he felt like he was the MVP of the defense, a defense that included a Thorpe Award winner and a top 10 draft pick.
Moving on to the edge rushers, I decided to give them their own sections because this group has a lot to unpack. The Colts made one of the biggest off-season additions by trading for Yannick Ngakoue. Yannick is a bonafide stud and has experience with Gus Bradley and will be in the exact same role as he was last year at the LEO position. Yannick has bounced around the league a bit, but it’s not due to his talent. He has produced consistently at a high level his whole career, never having a season under eight sacks. Yannick is a speed rusher who wins in a variety of ways with a bunch of different moves, his signature being the cross-chop.
Returning from last year is the Colts’ first-round pick, Kwity Paye. Paye showed flashes last year and graded out as one of the best rookie pass rushers in the league, according to PFF (I know, I know). Paye will be in the big end role (for a comparison, see Maxx Crosby from last year). This role for Paye fits him very well, considering he was a very good run defender from the second he entered the league. I fully expect Kwity to make a jump this year, and on a defensive line that features Buckner and Yannick, he will see more one on ones than any other defensive lineman, which will allow him to work.
I mentioned Dayo and Tyquan in the tackle section, but it’s very possible they see time on the ends as well. The guy I’m looking for to take a step this year is a guy we’ve seen dominate training camp, and that’s Ben Banogu. A guy that was an athletic freak coming out of college but for a reason I won’t mention, was never really given a shot here. That changes this season with the Gus Bradley hiring. Gus’ defense has a spot at LEO that is tailor-made for Ben’s skill set.
A guy that intrigues me as a sneaky good signing that didn’t make headlines was Ifeadi Odenigbo. This is a guy who has starter experience with the Minnesota Vikings, and we saw be productive before just a couple of seasons ago, notching seven sacks. He is a guy that won’t take long to make an impact if he is put in as a situational pass rusher if guys need a breather.
All in all, this edge group still concerns me a bit when it comes to depth, but the starters are bonafide studs, and I think this unit will be one of the strongest on the team.
Another strong suit of this team is the linebacker group. With the departure of Matthew Adams and Jordan Glasgow, there are certainly a couple of spots to fill in the back part of the room. At the top, you have 4-time All-Pro and arguably the best linebacker in the league, Shaquille Leonard. Leonard was flat-out phenomenal last season despite basically playing on one ankle. He led the league in forced turnovers while also being a force in the run game. Now Shaq is under a magnifying glass because he just had an off-season procedure done on his back that the team feels was part of the reason his calf wasn’t firing off. With no return date set, Shaq is worth monitoring to see when he will be cleared to return to action. Not that I’m worried, but in a new scheme, I would like him to get as many reps as possible before the season starts.
Alongside Shaq is Pro-Bowl alternate Bobby Okereke who played really well in his first season as a full-time starter. Bobby took the next step that Chris Ballard envisioned him taking when they decided to move on from Anthony Walker just one season ago.
Also returning is Zaire Franklin, a guy loved in the locker room who plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder. He will be filling the SAM role in base personnel and is tailor-made for it. He will be in that thumper spot mostly needed on early downs against run-heavy teams.
A guy I’m really excited about due to his physical makeup and flashes in the past is EJ Speed. Last season when Shaq missed the Arizona Cardinals game due to COVID, EJ filled in and played great. He led the team in tackles and showed the ability to play sideline to sideline and not get lost in coverage.
The special teams spot vacated by Glasgow is likely to be replaced by special teams ace and 2-time super bowl champ Brandon King. The 6-year veteran was previously with the New England Patriots his entire career, where he was a special team standout
The real position battle I want to see the most is between Sterling Weatherford and Jojo Domann. Both of these guys can be impact players on special teams with the potential to develop into something more. If I had to make a choice, I would lean toward Weatherford just due to his athletic ability at his size. Being a 6’4, 225lb former safety who ran a 4.6 40yd dash gives him an advantage over Jojo as far as coverage ability. When watching the film on Sterling, he was excellent in the box showing great lateral movement skills and being a very physical presence in the run game with legit stopping power.
Heading over to the cornerbacks, the Colts made another splash addition when they signed former DPOY Stephon Gilmore. The former All-Pro is the biggest addition to the cornerback room since Vontae Davis years ago. Watching film on Gilmore last year, and he’s just so technically sound and fundamentally great it’s hard to see a drop-off. Cornerback became a priority after their best corner from last season, Rock Ya-Sin, was traded to Vegas for Yannick.
Of course, the Colts have Pro Bowler Kenny Moore II returning to stabilize the slot position. Kenny, who had contract issues, seems to be past it now and focused on playing some of his best ball yet.
The battle for the CB3 spot is between Brandon Facyson and Isaiah Rodgers. Both guys, I think, are solid options, but they couldn’t be more different with their style of play. Facyson, a bigger corner, likes to play physically and use his size and length to win.
On the other hand, Rodgers is a speedster who likes to use his quickness and speed combined with tremendous ball skills to get it done. This will be an interesting battle to watch moving forward throughout camp, but if I had to guess who has the edge, it would be Facyson due to his history with Gus Bradley.
Competing for the 5th corner spot is a logjam of guys, including Anthony Chesley, Tony Brown Jr, Rodney Thomas, Marcel Dabo, and a few others.
This is a big camp for the guys I mentioned, and they have a chance to solidify a spot on this roster with what they show in camp and preseason.
Finally, we can take a look at the safety spot. It’s been kind of a roller coaster ride at this position so far in camp. The Colts traded a future pick to move into the 3rd round to select Nick Cross in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Colts were in love with Cross throughout the draft process and really had him high on their board.
Colts fans were shocked at the pick, thinking it was more of a developmental guy since the Colts had Khari Willis on the roster. Shortly after minicamp, Willis retired, and we quickly realized this was why the Colts targeted a safety on day 2 of the draft.
Another safety that the Colts added was veteran Rodney McLeod. Rodney is a former Super Bowl champ and has started in NFL for a long time with the Eagles. A versatile safety that can do it all is better served as a rotational guy that comes in to play that center fielder while the other safety plays in the box.
Speaking of center fielders, a man who does that role and more at a high level is Julian Blackmon, who is returning from injury. Many expected Blackmon to miss some time this season recovering surprised everyone when he was out at minicamp running around at full speed. Blackmon is a true playmaker and difference maker on the backend. With the speed to play on the post and the physicality to play in the box, he truly is a Swiss Army knife out there.
His skillset, combined with the big physical speedster Nick Cross raises this safety room’s ceiling, but I think lowers the floor due to Cross’s inexperience and what they lost with Willis. While Willis didn’t make the “wow” plays, he made all the right plays and was rarely ever out of position. McLeod is a great veteran presence to rotate in and fill either spot or sometimes play alongside those guys when Gus deploys his three safety sets.
Another guy the colts bought in for depth purposes, and special teams ability is Armani Watts. I think his role will specifically be special teams unless an injury happens much in the way George Odum was used in his time here. Oh, yeah, and Andrew Sendajo is gone.
My opinion on this Colts defense is I think they can be a top 5 unit. There aren’t many flaws when you look at it on paper. Sure I can nitpick and say yes, they can use more depth on the defensive line or at cornerback, but man, that’s reaching.
The Colts, I feel like, for the first time in a while, finally went out and acquired true difference makers via trade or free agency, and it will pay dividends for them.
I’m excited to see where this team goes; I definitely think 11-12 wins are in the realm of possibility, and nothing less than a division title is acceptable.