What A Difference A Year Makes: D-Line

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Remember the 2007 training camp?  The defensive line was coming off of a strong playoff performance, and it was the only group to not lose a starter in free agency.  There were some new faces, but the core players were still there.  The defensive line was supposed to bring stability to the defense.

Oops.

At the beginning of training camp, the Colts lost their first starter in Anthony “Booger” McFarland.  Booger tore his patella tendon in his knee, which took him out for the season.  A sense of panic set in.  The Colts did draft Quinn Pitcock out of Ohio State in the third round, but there was no big defensive tackle to fill the hole left by Booger.  The Colts needed someone to step up.  Someone who was big and could stop the run.  That someone was Edward Johnson.

Ed Johnson was an undrafted free agent out of Penn State.  He was a first round talent, but he had serious character issues with sexual misconduct charges at Penn State.  Ed Johnson is a big, strong, and talented tackle, but no one was willing to take a chance on him.  He needed to prove his worth.  He did that in training camp.

Johnson beat out Quinn Pitcock for the starting job at tackle, and Big Ed became Polian’s diamond in the rough.  Johnson led the defensive line in tackles, and he was the only player to start all 17 games.

At the ends, Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis were the best pass rush tandem  in the league coming into the 2007 season.  However, bad luck hurt them as well.

In the San Diego game, the weirdest game of last season, Freeney suffered a lis franc fracture in his foot.  This injury normally takes a year to heal if the surgery is done.  That means Freeney, the league’s best pass rusher, was done for the year.  Shortly after, Robert Mathis too suffered injuries and missed the last quarter of the season.  That left Josh Thomas and Jeff Charleston as the starting ends.  That really strikes fear into the heart of the QBs.  Two slow ends that can’t get to me even if if the offensive tackles had their hands behind their back.

With the Raheem Brock injuries, the starting defensive line for the Oakland Raiders game was Josh Thomas and Jeff Charleston at end, and Ed Johnson and Keyunta Dawson at defensive tackle.  That’s two slow ends and a converted defensive end on the line.  Needless to say, the Raiders ran all over the line.

The inept defensive line was exposed by BILLY VOLEK in the San Diego playoff game, and the Super Bowl repeat pursuit was over.  During the offseason, changes were made to the depth of the defensive line.  Now instead of it being a weakness, it will be a strength.

This draft, the Colts had a clear target for defensive end: Marcus Howard out of Georgia.  Howard is very small for an end (6-2, 237), but he is the fastest defensive end in the league.  He ran a 4.4 forty, and he was being scouted as an outside linebacker in the 3-4.

He surprisingly dropped to the 5th round, and the Colts picked him up.  Marcus Howard has the potential to be a faster Robert Mathis.  He had 10.5 sacks last season, and the production should be similar.  Howard will be used as a 3rd down rush end, and he will never face a double team because of Freeney or Mathis playing on the other side of the line.  Howard is expected to do wonders playing behind Mathis or Freeney.  I fully expect him to be a Justin Tuck-esque defensive end.

Undrafted free agency is an area where Polian works wonders.  The Colts normally are able to get one future starter out of the UDFA group.  There is a chance that there will be multiple starters coming from this group.

Three undrafted defensive linemen caught my eye this year: Curtis Johnson out of Clark, Eric Foster out of Rutgers, and Colin Ferrell out of Kent State.

Johnson sounds very similar to Mathis.  Comes from a small school down south.  Check.  Small but speedy.  Check.  Unheard of by everyone outside of the Deep South.  Check.  Johnson is about the same size as Howard (6-3, 242), but he is a little bit slower (around a 4.6 forty).  However, Johnson is a much better run stopped, getting 27 tackles for losses last season.  Level of competition is clearly a concern, but he has great athleticism.  He played outside linebacker at the East-West Shrine Game, so don’t be surprised if he gets a shot there as well.  Johnson will be fighting for a roster spot, but he could be a great defensive end that takes Charleston or Thomas off of the roster.

Ferrell and Foster are easy to group together. Frankly, they are almost identical besides size.  Ferrell is 6-1, 293, and Foster is 6-2, 277.  Foster would be placed as an under tackle and a backup to Raheem Brock.  Ferrell would be a nose tackle and a backup to Ed Johnson.  Foster has impressed Dungy in practice, showing good run stopping and pass rushing from the inside.  Foster a 4.89 forty, but that does not show his athleticism.  He has a great burst from the line, and his footwork is top notch.  He is expected to make the roster.  Ferrell is more of an enigma.  He runs a 4.88 forty.  He’s 293 pounds and runs a forty lower than 4.9!  I’m not sure how many defensive linemen have that skill in the pros now, but I’m sure it is not many.  When I see that combination of size and speed, I think, “We’ve got a special teams star on our hands.”  He only benchpressed 225 pounds 16 times, which explains his drop to undrafted free agency, but he has enough speed to make the roster.  If the Colts can turn him into a Darrell Reid-like special teams star, the Colts won’t have to worry about giving up multiple kick returns for a touchdown in a season.

Last year, this line was expected to do great things.  It didn’t.  The expectations are the same, but I know for a fact that they will have better success this year.  I expect the Colts to lead the league in sacks.  With Freeney’s return and the pickup of four young studs, the Colts are looking good.  Here is what the defensive line roster should look like:

Left End: Robert Mathis/Marcus Howard/Josh Thomas
Under Tackle: Raheem Brock/Keyunta Dawson/Eric Foster/Darrell Reid
Nose Tackle: Ed Johnson/Quinn Pitcock/Colin Ferrell
Right End: Dwight Freeney/Curtis Johnson/Jeff Charleston

I don’t expect all of them to make the roster.  Colin Ferrell and Jeff Charleston may fight it out for the final spot on the roster.  I expect Freeney and Mathis to combine for 20 sacks, Marcus Howard to get 7, and the defensive tackles combine for another 10.  The linebackers will get a combined 5 sacks, and the Colts will lead the league in sacks.  The defense has been rejuvenated, and the new, young talent is to thank.

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Tags: Colin Ferrell Curtis Johnson Defensive Line Eric Foster Marcus Howard Undrafted Free Agents

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