Nov 24, 2013; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Indianapolis Colts linebacker Lawrence Sidbury (52) and linebacker Jerrell Freeman (50) against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Colts 40-11. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Indianapolis Colts Linebacker Battle Will Be One to Remember


 

The Indianapolis Colts walked away with five new rookies from the 2014 NFL Draft on Saturday night. While many fans were calling for Ryan Grigson and staff to draft a high-caliber WR, the Colts blocked out the noise and drafted based on positions of weakness. The Colts continued to get as much offensive line help by selecting Jack Mewhort and Ulrick John with second and seventh-round choices. After getting steamrolled for 234 rushing yards by the New England Patriots in the playoffs, the Colts continued to show the need to sure up the run defense by selecting DE Jonathan Newsome and LB Andrew Jackson.

The Colts showed the importance of building a better run defense early in free agency by signing veteran LB D’Qwell Jackson to a four-year deal worth $22 million, including $11 million guaranteed. Jackson has had a rough time in Cleveland, dealing with two serious chest injuries early in his career and having to play under four different head coaches and defensive coordinators.

Although Jackson racked up 141 tackles last year for his 5th career 100 tackle season (and third in a row), he has never been known as a true run stopper. Jackson has arguably been slown down due to injury, can be taken out of the play against the run, and seems to be a better player in a 4-3 defensive scheme. Jackson played in a 3-4 defensive scheme, a scheme the Colts run, last year in Cleveland and had the highest amount of assisted tackles of his career, and third best in total tackles with 141 since 2008 (154) and 2011 (158). 3-4 linebackers are not only asked to stop the run but be able to defend the pass and thankfully, D’Qwell has consistently play the pass well. While Jackson isn’t the guy to push the Colts to the Super Bowl on paper, he certainly is an upgrade at the position and is more athletic and hard hitting than Pat Angerer and Kelvin Sheppard. While the Colts will hope the frontline will help Jackson sniff out the ballcarrier, the Colts already know that they are getting a veteran leader not only on the field, but in the locker room.

With D’Qwell’s age and run stopping weaknesses, there is arguably still a starting position up for grabs at ILB next to Jerrell Freeman. Enter rookie 6th round pick ILB Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson is a 6-1 254 lb LB from Western Kentucky. Jackson is a great fit for a 3-4 defense, especially one where depth is weak. During his sophomore and junior years, he had 231 combined tackles and 34.5 tackles for a loss along with 5.5 sacks. As a senior in 2013, the 6-1, 254 pound linebacker racked up 95 tackles (8.5 for loss) and a sack with 2 passes defensed while starting 10 of 11 games at middle linebacker (the other game he was suspended for). Jackson started 33-of-37 games at middle linebacker, totaling more than 300 tackles, 6.5 sacks and 43 tackles for losses. Jackson prides himself on being a run stopper on defense, and at this point, that is all the Colts are asking from him. Jackson’s ability to play the run and reputation as a “hammer” and a guy who will attack the line of scrimmage plays nice with the likes of Mario Harvey, Kelvin Sheppard and Josh McNary, but his lateral agility and ability to blitz, get to the QB, and make solid defensive stops behind the line may just push him over the top.

Jackson lacks coverage ability and will have to spend considerable time in that field to be a solid starter on the field. Jackson has had his off-the-field problems during his playing days and as said before, was suspended a game last year. His character concerns are his biggest knocks, but thankfully for Jackson, he is now paired with a veteran locker room of Robert Mathis, Cory Redding, and D’Qwell Jackson. The inside linebacker battle will be fun to watch, especially since Andrew Jackson played well against big time competition at a small school like Western Kentucky and has been of Grigson’s radar for  awhile.

“We knew about him (for) a couple of years,” said Grigson of Andrew Jackson. “All (his) grades were high. He’s a really tough, hard-nosed player. He’s physical, all about business on the field. He plays with an edge. He’s a 255-pound thumper. You need to have size in there. You have to stop the run, and he’s tailor-made to stop the run. He’s cat-quick in a short area.”

The Colts will bring back the monster that is Robert Mathis at ROLB next season. While there is no denying his spot is guaranteed, the Colts will have some interesting candidates to battle for the starting LOLB and backup OLB positions in camp. Last year’s starter at LOLB, Erik Walden, and last year’s first round draft pick, Bjoern Werner, are in the mix for a starting position come Week 1. While many fans were very critical of the Walden signing during the 2013 offseason, Walden managed to fight off a lot of that criticism in his first year in Indianapolis. The 6-2, 250 lb 7 year pro managed to have his third best year of his career coming off a three year stint in Green Bay in arguably a different defense with much better talent across the board. Walden managed one combined and total tackle less than he did in 2012 with 45 combined and 26 total in 2013 in the same amount of games played (15) in 2012 as 2013. Walden continued a three year average of 19 assisted tackles and 3 sacks since 2011 while recording a forced fumble and fumble recovery for the Colts. Walden also recorded his second career best 3 pass deflections in a season and a career high 4 stuff season last year. While Walden managed to play well late last season and showed the ability to set the edge on run defense, the low sack numbers left a lot to be desired, especially with all the single teams coming his way with Mathis on the other side.

With another solid pass rusher in need, the Colts will look to last year’s first-round pick Bjoern Werner and some new faces and unlikely candidates this offseason with 5th round pick Jonathan Newsome, Justin Hickman, and Daniel Adongo. Werner, who many thought could start immediately over Walden last season, didn’t quite have the rookie season he wanted. Werner only played in 13 games last season and managed 18 combined tackles, 14 total and 4 assisted. When compared to Walden, Werner managed the same amount of pass deflections with 3 and got 2.5 sacks as compared to Erik’s 3. After spending a lot of the season dealing with a foot injury, Walden will have a lot to prove in his second year of camp. Hopefully he has now mastered the art of rushing from a standing position.

Don’t be surprised if Jonathan Newsome is starting week 1. Coming into the draft, Newsome drew comparisons to Robert Mathis, an undersized DE who has a knack to get to the QB. Newsome is undersized, weighing just 247-pounds and will likely transition to outside linebacker, but he’s still underweight for that position as well. He played both positions for Ball State and his versatility will be valuable to the Colts. Newsome finished last season with eight sacks, 11.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, and an interception. Newsome had 16.5 sacks over the past two seasons for the Ball State Cardinals and was All-MAC First Team in 2013. Unlike Werner, Newsome’s pass rushing strengths lie in his ability to make plays from a standing position or with his hands on the ground. Newsome can burn blockers or use his power moves to bull rush his way through and has a tendency to go for the strip sack. Newsome also has the speed and ability to set the edge and make plays as a run stopper and has flashed to ability to drop back in coverage and make great plays on the ball. While being from a small school like Ball State, Newsome like Andrew Jackson has played well against bigger competition and drew the praise of Ryan Grigson.

“This guy’s a player,” said Grigson. “He played against some pretty good tackles. He’s done it against good competition. He can run, a good special teamer. There’s a lot of value there. He’s able to rush the passer. He can bend the edge. He’s athletic,” said Grigson. “We think he has good flexibility (at) rush or sam. He can really drop, rush. He throws his face in there, can set the edge some.”

The linebacker battle in camp sure will be fun, especially for guys young guys like Werner, Jackson, Newsome, and Adongo. Robert Mathis talked highly about how ready and excited he is to not only mentor, but watch the young guys grow.

“They’re humble guys. They’re empty vessels. They just came wanting to learn the game,” said Mathis of Werner and Adongo. “It’s a big brother, little brother type deal. They know the game. They can play a lot faster now. Last year was just trying to learn, find their way. They know what they’re doing.”

While we don’t quite know what Adongo will bring to the Colts on the field, we know that he is a physical freak and according to Mathis, has a lot of potential.

“I enjoy it a lot. He reminds me of myself a lot my first year, just eager to learn, ready and willing to work and just wanting to get after it,” said Mathis of Daniel Adongo. “He looks like a buck, a big buck. He’s definitely ready. He mentally has it. We know what he can do. He has maximum work ethic, and he’s going to be a big surprise in the league, I feel.”

While many will Colts fans will have their eyes glued to the battle at Safety, Offensive and Defensive Line, and even Running Back, no position excites me more than that of the Indianapolis Colts Linebackers. As always, let the best man win.

Chris Fultz is a Staff Writer at Naptown’s Finest. Follow Chris at @cafultzISR and Naptown’s Finest on Twitter.

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