Colts’ training camp preview: Linebackers

Jabaal Sheard (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An offseason of major change ramps up July 29 when the Indianapolis Colts report to their Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center for the start of training camp.

Over the next several days, we’ll take a positional look at how general manager Chris Ballard has structured the roster. Is the team equipped to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 or will it miss the postseason in three consecutive seasons for the first time in more than two decades (1988-94)?

Today: Linebackers.

Projected starters: OLB Jabaal Sheard, OLB John Simon, ILB Jon Bostic, ILB Sean Spence/ILB Anthony Walker.

Backups: ILB Antonio Morrison, ILB Edwin Jackson, ILB Luke Rhodes, OLB Tarell Basham, OLB Barkevious Mingo, OLB Akeem Ayers, OLB Deiontrez Mount, OLB Lavar Edwards, OLB Garrett Sickels, ILB Jeremiah George.

Inside job(s):

No area with the team – inside linebacker – involves more uncertainty, evidenced by our listing three starting candidates in free-agent acquisitions Bostic and Spence, and Walker, the Colts’ fifth-round draft pick. Shoot, we could have added Morrison and Jackson, who finished last season as the starting tandem.

It’s that murky at a position that must show marked improvement.

“We’re going to let those guys compete,’’ Ballard said during the offseason.

Coordinator Ted Monachino agreed, and is upbeat regarding the physical makeup of the entire ‘backer corps. Gone are inside fixture D’Qwell Jackson (released) and outside ‘backers Robert Mathis (retired), Erik Walden (not re-singed) and Trent Cole (not re-signed).

“We’re bigger. We’re younger. We’re stronger,’’ Monachino said. “We’re big where we need to be in there. We’re explosive where we need to be in there.

“And with our inside linebacker group, just bringing in Jon and Sean Spence has ramped up the competition level in that group.’’

Bostic is on a mission. A second-round pick of Chicago in 2013, he started 17 games in his first two seasons before being traded to New England in 2015. After a lackluster season with the Patriots – 11 games and primarily a special teams contributor – he was shipped to Detroit. That third stop never got off the ground. Bostic suffered a foot injury during training camp and spent the season on the injured reserve list.

The Colts offered a fresh start in April with a modest one-year, $690,000 contract. It’s a chance for Bostic to push the reset button on his career.

“It’s a big opportunity,’’ he agreed. “For me, it’s just finally being healthy. It took awhile, but sometimes the body has to go through it. I went a long time not missing a game, not missing practice.

“At the end of the day, the body feels good, feel fresh. So, I’m ready to go.’’

Chuck Pagano described the 6-1, 245-pound Bostic as “an athletic guy and he can run.’’

Added Monachino: “This Bostic character, he’s a guy that can do an awful lot of things very well.’’

Spence represents another one-year investment, but at a heftier price: $2.5 million. He’s entering his fifth season after appearing in 46 games, 19 as a starter, with Pittsburgh and Tennessee.

If youth prevails following camp competition, no one should be surprised if it’s in the person of Walker. The coaching staff has been high on the Northwestern product after reviewing a collegiate career that included 33 starts, 39.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, four interceptions and a knack for being around the football.

“Any time I get out there on the field,’’ Walker said, “I want to have the opportunity to go out there and make a play. You can say it’s open competition and everything like that, but . . . the guys got to go out there and make plays and the best players are going to play.’’

Outside:

As we mentioned, the cast of characters at outside ‘backer has changed dramatically. Adios, Mathis, Walden and Cole. Welcome to Indy, Sheard, Simon and Mingo. You, too, Basham.

The Colts’ busy offseason on the free-agent market included luring Sheard and his pass-rush potential from New England and Simon and his all-around skills from Houston. Each has been a solid complementary player who has been surrounded by quality talent. Now, each must show he can be front-line player and lead a defense that a year ago was one of the worst in franchise history and might feature as many as seven different starters.

“We signed Sheard and Simon for a reason,’’ Ballard said.

Each is considered the complete package: able to stand up against the run while also representing a pass-rush threat. Simon notched 10 sacks in 45 games with the Texans while Sheard’s resume includes 36 career sacks while appearing in 89 games with the Patriots and Cleveland.

One thing to keep in mind when regarding Sheard and Simon as the Colts’ top pass-rush threats heading into the season: they combined for just 8.5 in 2016.

Basham might be the X-factor if the Colts are to field a legitimate pass rush. The third-round pick probably will see extensive reps as a designated pass rusher after a 51-game career at Ohio during which he set school records for sacks in a season (11.5 as a senior) and a career (29.5).

“I expect to be able to pressure the quarterback,’’ Basham said. “I know that’s what they got me here for, to be a good pass rusher, but also set a good edge. I plan to affect the game.’’

Worth noting:

Inside instability contributed to sub-standard performance by the entire linebacker group a year ago. Five different players started at least one game: D’Qwell Jackson, Antonio Morrison, Sio Moore, Edwin Jackson and Josh McNary. D’Qwell Jackson’s season ended in December when he was suspended for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substance policy. Moore was released in early October.

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