In the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, the Colts selected not an offensive lineman to protect Andrew Luck, but a linebacker — Bjoern Werner, out of Florida State. That’s how much the Colts needed to improve the depth at the position.
Since the draft, the Colts further added to the linebacker corps by signing free agent Erik Walden to a four year, $16 million contract ($8 guaranteed). Walden won a Super Bowl ring with Green Bay in 2010, and expectations are high for the linebacker to live up to his new contract.
But what can we realistically expect from the Colts linebackers in 2013?
Currently listed at the top of the depth chart at outside linebacker are Walden (strongside) and Robert Mathis (weakside). Mathis, known for his dominance at defensive end, where he recorded 83.5 sacks in the first nine years of his career, was moved to the linebacker position last season when the Colts switched to the 3-4 defensive scheme. Originally at strongside linebacker, Mathis recorded just 8 sacks last season. Moving to weakside linebacker should give Mathis more opportunities to get to the quarterback. He is taking over the spot that Dwight Freeney held last year before he left for the San Diego Chargers this offseason.
While Mathis has his position locked up, there is more competition at strongside linebacker between Walden and Werner. Walden’s strength lies in defending the run, but he struggles with the pass rush. Werner could provide the Colts the boost they need in that area, but right now he is listed as the backup. This could be due to inexperience and a lingering knee injury that held him out of some of the preseason. Werner recorded just three tackles all preseason, but he did also record one sack.
Pat Angerer and Jerrell Freeman, both now Colts veterans, head the inside linebacker positions. Angerer was the Colts’ leading tackler in 2011, and Freeman led the team in tackles last season. These two men are very reliable linebackers. In fact, both are capable of playing at a Pro Bowl caliber level when healthy. However, Angerer is currently suffering from concussion symptoms (He suffered a concussion on an early hit in the preseason finale against the Bengals). What’s concerning about this is that he was not diagnosed until a week after the concussion occurred. This means that Angerer played almost an entire game and then fully participated in several days of practice before being properly evaluated by a doctor. It is unknown when he will be cleared again to play.
Angerer’s backup Kavell Conner is even more likely to sit out Sunday’s game with an ankle injury. Conner was also injured in the preseason finale and could be out several weeks. This leaves the Colts with third-stringer Kelvin Sheppard and few options to back him up should he too suffer an injury. Unfortunately, the Colts traded what was likely their most promising pass rusher in Caesar Rayford earlier this week. The former CFL and AFL veteran was the Colts’ feel-good story of the preseason, and he actually led the entire league in sacks during those four games. The Colts received a conditional 2015 draft pick for Rayford, but to me, having him around on the roster would seem like a more valuable option at this point in time.
The Colts have some of the right pieces in place at the linebacker position, but the quartet of starters will need to perform well as a group to be successful this season — Mathis and Freeman can’t do it all. The group as a whole will need to up their game in both the pass rush and in defending the run, an area in which they have really struggled for several seasons now. I’m sure Andrew Luck and the high-powered offense will make up for some of the defense’s deficiencies on the field, but Colts fans will need to hope for some speedy recoveries and some quickly established chemistry if they want the linebacker corps to excel in 2013.