The Colts have their new Defensive Coordinator in Gus Bradley, a story that was proudly broken by my colleague Rashaad. The hiring of the veteran coach has generally been met with excitement and approval by the fanbase.
His first task will be working with Frank Reich and Chris Ballard to build his coaching staff. Almost all the Colts defensive coaches followed Matt Eberflus out the door. Whilst that does mean Indianapolis said goodbye to some quality coaches, it does give Bradley significant leeway to hire his own people and assemble a coaching staff that will implement the scheme he wants for the defence.
My colleague Zach has explored potential Colts defensive line, linebacker, defensive back and safety coaches, but it’s the defensive line coach vacancy that I want to focus on today. The position was made vacant prior to Eberflus’ departure to Chicago and the hiring of Bradley as Brian Baker’s contract was not renewed at the end of the season.
The fact Baker wasn’t retained isn’t all too surprising. The Colts racked up only 33 sacks last year, the same as the number of turnovers they forced and significantly less than their total sacks the previous year. It was only good enough to rank 25th in the league, significantly behind the 43 sacks racked up in the regular season by the Tennessee Titans.
Indianapolis’ pass rush simply wasn’t good enough for a team with their ambitions. A team that has to beat the likes of Burrow, Mahomes, Allen, Herbert, and Jackson if they even want to make a Super Bowl in the next decade. There were some understandable reasons for the unit’s regression. In particular the decision to not resign Houston or Autry in free agency and rely on Paye and Odeyingbo to replace them rather than a veteran free agent.
Indianapolis needs their pass rush to take a big step forward in 2022, but there are good reasons to believe it can take that leap if it does hire the right defensive line coach. This is partly why that vacancy is likely to be sought after across the league.
Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo were never going to seamlessly replace Houston and Autry in their first years in the league, especially given Odeyingbo’s recovery from his serious Achilles injury. There were encouraging signs for both players in their first year to suggest they can become the impactful edge rushers they were drafted to be. We know that it is between years one and two that players tend to make the biggest leap in performance so we could see both players improve significantly in 2022.
Young, Talented edge rushers like Paye and Odeyingbo make the Indianapolis defensive line coach position an attractive job. A successful coach can mold the two talents into elite players, turning a below average pass rush unit into one of the better groups in the league. A coach that was able to do that would justifiably receive a lot of plaudits. This also underlines the importance of hiring the right defensive line coach for the Colts. Without knowing what plans Chris Ballard has for free agency, it looks like Indianapolis will be banking on Paye’s and Odeyingbo’s development to drive the much-needed improvement in the defensive line’s performance next year. That will only happen if the right coach is training them.
Dayo Odeyingbo isn’t the only 2nd round edge rusher on the Colts roster at the moment. Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis are both members of the 2018 draft class and have unfortunately failed to make anything near the impact made by Braden Smith, Darius Leonard, and Quenton Nelson. Both are free agents this offseason, but as I discussed last month, I expect them to be resigned, albeit not on big or long-term contracts. Injuries and ill fortune have contributed to neither player fulfilling their potential so far in their careers, but some blame has to be attributed to the players.
Given their decision not to renew Baker’s contract, it’s possible that the Colts felt that coaching played a part in the fact Turay and Lewis haven’t developed as they hoped. Perhaps they feared Paye and Odeyingbo’s talents would be wasted. Kemoko Turay was looking good before his 2019 injury against Kansas City but struggled since his return. He did however quietly put up a career best 5.5 sacks in 13 games last year. Tyquan Lewis has shown himself to be a versatile and reliable pass rusher who Chris Ballard seems keen to bring back. I haven’t yet mentioned Ben Banogu because the extremely limited playing time in his career so far means expectations for Banogu’s improvement are low. I’m not even convinced he’ll still be on the squad next year.
If Bradley and the next Defensive Line Coach can get the training and scheme right to get the best out of Turay, Paye, Odeyingbo, and Lewis, the Colts could have a much-improved pass rush next year. Suddenly, the significant draft capital Ballard has invested in the position could start to pay off.
You may have noticed that I’m yet to mention the jewel of the crown of the Colts pass rush in Pro Bowler DeForest Buckner. Buckner will no doubt continue to be an effective and explosive pass rusher as well as a team leader and mentor for younger peers. However, Buckner is already playing at a high level so his performance isn’t likely to change greatly next year. What can change is Buckner’s stats if better players around him reduce the double and triple coverages he faces and allow him to get more sacks and pressures.
We saw in San Francisco how destructive Buckner can be when playing alongside elite edge rushers like Nick Bosa. Few edge rushers reach Bosa’s level, but it is a reminder of what Buckner can do if he has a better supporting cast on the defensive line. The opportunity to coach a player like Buckner is an attractive prospect for any defensive line coach. Not only is Buckner an elite player, but as any teammate will tell you, he’s an elite character to go with it.
I still think the Colts should look to acquire a veteran edge rusher in free agency. Ballard may still be rueing not trying to sign Trey Hendrickson last offseason and I do think a player like Emmanuel Ogbah could make all the difference to that unit without breaking the bank.
The defensive line can’t be viewed entirely in isolation and any defensive line coach will want their team to also be strong at linebacker and in the secondary. It makes such a difference to a pass rush unit if linebackers can shut down the run game and the secondary can force coverage sacks or pick off the Quarter Back. Whoever is the next Defensive Line Coach in Indianapolis, they’ll no doubt be excited to have Darius Leonard and Kenny Moore playing behind their unit, alongside young talents like Julian Blackmon and Rock Ya-Sin.
If the Colts can improve their defensive line next year the way we all hope they do, this defense that managed 33 turnovers with a below-average pass rush this season could find another level. That would go a long way to erasing the hurt of the defeat to Jacksonville and put the Colts on course to return to the playoffs.