One of the most intriguing roster battles the Colts have this offseason is at the inside linebacker position. Over the last two seasons, the Colts have had some really productive tacklers in Jerrell Freeman (145 in 2012), and Pat Angerer (148 in 2011), and they probably have more depth now than they have had in a long time.
Led by Angerer and Freeman, the Colts have some good competition on the second unit in recently acquired Kelvin Sheppard and Kavell Conner.
It will be interesting to see how the Colts utilize their depth this year, so let’s take a look at the key contributors to the middle linebacker position in Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defensive look.
Kavell Conner, 26
Conner had 104 tackles in 2011 as the Colts’ starting weak-side linebacker, and now will fight for playing time with two other tackling machines. The Colts should find ways to be creative and get Conner involved in the defense, but he’s going to have to really fight for time with the Colts’ new scheme and depth. He had a phenomenal 2011 season but took a dip in production last year. His tackles were almost cut in half, but he was still involved.
After being drafted in the seventh round out of Clemson in 2010, Conner has proven to be a more than capable player, even grading out as one of the best run defending weakside linebackers in the NFL in his breakout 2011 season. The only problem is, the Colts have a couple of guys ahead of him on the depth chart who are keeping him from significant playing time.
Conner will be a key reserve in the Colts’ defense, and could se action in different packages as well as special teams. At best, I think Conner can push fellow class of 2010 ILB Pat Angerer for a starting job this year.
Kelvin Sheppard, 25
After Pat Angerer and Jerrell Freeman, I think Kelvin Sheppard is third in line to see significant snaps. The 2011 third round pick was part of a trade that sent former first round pick Jerry Hughes to the Buffalo Bills, and he has been a starter for the Bills the last few seasons.
Sheppard isn’t a great run defender, but he’s been able to be a productive tackler with 150 total tackles through his first two seasons in the NFL. Despite his shortcomings, I really liked Sheppard coming out of LSU and I think he has a chance to contribute for the Colts significantly in 2013 with the health of Pat Angerer seemingly in constant question.
I think Sheppard’s athletic ability makes him a much better fit for the 3-4 defense even though the Bills felt like he had a chance to be a breakout player in 2012. Sheppard is getting a fresh start with the Colts in a defensive scheme that I think better suits his talents.
Pat Angerer, 26
Angerer is still young, but he’s already having a ton of injury issues in his career. After missing the first six games of the season last year, Angerer managed just 28 tackles, 120 fewer than he had back in 2011.
Certainly Angerer is one of the more talented players on the Colts’ defense, but his inability to stay healthy is somewhat troubling. In fact, it’s probably the primary reason the Colts felt like they could upgrade at ILB and trade for Kelvin Sheppard.
Angerer had another foot surgery in January, leaving his status up in the air. If he can come back fully healthy, he is one of the most productive tacklers in the NFL. The Colts could really use a healthy Angerer alongside Jerrell Freeman this year. That’s something that would significantly upgrade the middle of their defense.
Jerrell Freeman, 27
Freeman is the Colts’ leading returning tackler from last season, racking up 145 tackles in his first NFL season after the Colts picked him up out of the CFL. Freeman was so impressive in his first year as a member of the Colts that his teammates started calling him “Baby Ray.” Thats a pretty lofty complement for a rookie.
At 27, Freeman is the elder among Colts linebackers, even though he is the least experienced in terms of NFL seasons. This is a guy who can be an every down player for the Colts, and who gives them a stud in the middle of the defense.
If he can duplicate his 2012 production in 2013, the Colts could have a fearsome group at the inside linebacker position. Freeman was part of a stellar rookie group with the Colts last year, one of the best rookie classes I have ever seen.
With his emergence as a star player on the Colts’ defense, Freeman has become something of a household name and will have to work to prove that his first year in the NFL was not a fluke.