The pass rush saw some of the biggest turnover of any group on the Colts’ roster this past offseason. With Dwight Freeney heading off to the Chargers, the Colts used their top draft pick on Florida State’s Bjoern Werner, who was my top 4-3 DE prospect going into the draft. Werner will take over the spot vacated by Dwight Freeney opposite Robert Mathis, and the Colts also added some other pieces to fit their 3-4 defensive scheme.
Lawrence Sidbury was brought in from the Atlanta Falcons and Erik Walden was brought on from the Green Bay Packers to help provide depth for the Colts at a position that struggled to produce results in the team’s first year of transitioning to the 3-4.
It was expected the Colts would be serious players for DE/OLB Paul Kruger this year, being that he had experience with Chuck Pagano in Baltimore, but that didn’t turn out to be the case as Kruger signed with the Browns.
As active as the Colts were in free agency, it’s surprising they didn’t come away with a top flight pass rusher like Kruger, Houston’s Connor Barwin, or Denver’s Elvis Dumervil. Each one of those players signed on with a 3-4 defense so you have to think the Colts felt like the way they planned to attack the draft was going to be satisfactory.
The Colts only averaged two sacks per game last year, so this is an area of the team that is going to have to really step it up in 2013 and make some plays. Robert Mathis led the team with eight sacks, and the team got rid of the next two leaders in Dwight Freeney (5) and Jerry Hughes (4). Those three players accounted for over half of the Colts’ sacks last season, so there will undoubtedly be some big changes there this season.
Here is a look at the Colts’ OLB crew, the guys who will be tasked with rushing the passer this season.
Erik Walden, 27
The Colts may have vastly overpaid for Walden, giving him four years and $16 million, but I’m going to have to trust GM Ryan Grigson on this one. He proved in 2012 that he was able to get players that his coaching staff could get the best out of, and perhaps they viewed Walden as a guy who had untapped potential coming from the Green Bay Packers.
Now entering his sixth NFL season, Walden joins the Colts with eight sacks in the last three seasons with Green Bay after starting his NFL career in Miami. Walden has been a relatively durable player the last two years, playing in all but one game, but the production as a pass rusher just hasn’t been there.
That’s pretty concerning, especially because the Packers were looking for ANYONE to step up and be that kind of a pass rusher opposite Clay Matthews.
I’m concerned that Walden could wind up as just a really expensive rotational player this season, but the Colts seem to think he can be a starter if they decide to bring Bjoern Werner along slowly.
Robert Mathis, 32
Mathis is the Colts’ best, most proven pass rusher, but he’s not getting any younger. His sacks have declined from 11 in 2010 to 9.5 in 2011, then to 8 in 2012. The 32-year old made the most seamless adjustment to the 3-4 defensive alignment last year for the Colts, leading the team in sacks.
Mathis is penned in as the starting strongside rush linebacker right now, and should be one of the most critical players on the Colts’ defense this season. Still, if his sacks dip any lower than what they have been, it’s going to be time for the Colts to start thinking about his replacement. Perhaps they believe Bjoern Werner can be a replacement and Erik Walden can wind up starting, but I’m pretty skeptical of that idea until Walden can prove he’s got the ability to put up better than below average sack numbers.
One of the leaders on the Colts’ defense, Mathis is going to really have to step up his game this season and propel the Colts to the next level on that side of the ball.
Bjoern Werner, 22
Werner was one of my top rated defensive players going into the 2012 college season, and he came out as my top defensive player heading into the draft. Werner doesn’t possess elite athletic ability like a Von Miller, but certainly with his work ethic, motor, and ability to make plays behind the line, I think he can be a high impact player for the Colts sooner rather than later.
Compared to some of the other players in the league, Werner is still relatively new to the game of football, but I think he’s gotten into a great situation with coach Pagano and the scheme in Baltimore. I think he may be a bit out of position in a 3-4 defensive alignment, but that will have to be determined on the field.
Werner is a big body with exceptional instincts, and he led one of the most talented defenses in the country last year in both tackles for loss and sacks. I think this was an exceptional value pick by the Colts, also filling a big position of need.
Justin Hickman, 27
The Colts dipped into the CFL pool in getting Justin Hickman last year, and he didn’t make much of an impact on the defense. He didn’t adjust to the NFL as well as fellow CFL star Jerrell Freeman did, but he also made a pretty significant position change.
In year two, the Colts are hoping Hickman can bring some of the pass rush talent that he had in the CFL, where he was named most outstanding defensive player with 13 sacks.
Hickman is a guy with some potential, but he will have to prove that he can make the adjustment to the OLB position. He could be fighting for a roster spot this offseason, but lucky for him, the Colts are still pretty thin at the OLB position.
Lawrence Sidbury, 27
Sidbury’s talent was wasted over the last four years in Atlanta playing in a 4-3 defensive scheme, and I think he can be one of the surprise pickups of the 2013 offseason for the Colts.
Coming out of Troy, I was very intrigued by Sidbury’s ability to rush the passer and I think he was an absolute perfect fit for the 3-4 defensive scheme. With new coaching and a new defensive look, I think the Colts could have unearthed something here. Sidbury played just 31 snaps with the Falcons in 2012, a complete waste of his potential.
Atlanta should have tried to trade him if they weren’t going to use him, but their loss could be the Colts’ gain. If Sidbury has his head straight, he could wind up seeing significant action with the Colts in 2013.
Quinton Spears, 25
Spears was an undrafted free agent last year picked up by the Miami Dolphins, waived, claimed by Cleveland, and then signed by the Colts this offseason. He showed some potential in his senior season at West Texas A&M, but he will have a lot of work to do as he gets his third shot in the NFL with the Colts.
He had eight tackles in 13 games with the Browns last season.
Monte Simmons, 24
The 24-year old from Kent State was extremely productive in college, and after spending much of last season on the Colts’ practice squad, the team signed him to a reserve/future contract this offseason.
The Colts obviously saw enough last year in Simmons’ time on the practice squad to give him another shot this offseason. He has added some weight and if he can display some pass rush talent that he showed in his time at Kent State, he’s a darkhorse to keep an eye on.
Caesar Rayford, 27
The Colts are giving Rayford a tryout, and while he may be a longshot to earn a roster spot, it’s another intriguing situation of the Colts looking to find a gem in another professional league.
Rayford has been dominant as a pass rusher in the indoor league for the Utah Blaze, and GM Ryan Grigson has really had an eye for these kind of players. The Colts aren’t the only team that looks into these players from other professional leagues, but Grigson is especially in tune with them being that he is a former player/scout from the CFL.
Rayford is huge at 6’6″ and over 260 pounds, and he could be one of the more physically impressive camp bodies the Colts added this offseason. This is another name to watch of a guy who has really earned his way onto the NFL radar.