Confident Johnathan Hankins remains staunch supporter of Colts’ defense

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Johnathan Hankins

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It doesn’t take much to move the hype needle during the NFL’s offseason.

That in mind, Johnathan Hankins nearly nudged it to the extreme during a recent interview on NFL Network. The topic was the veteran tackle joining an Indianapolis Colts defense that a year ago was one of the league’s worst. It ranked 30th in total yards allowed, 25th against the run and 22nd in scoring.

And those numbers don’t truly reflect the overall ineffectiveness of the unit. The 382.9 yards allowed per game were the second-most in franchise history.

Hankins, the most expensive of general manager Chris Ballard’s free-agent acquisitions with a three-year, $27 million contract, didn’t flinch.

“Right now, I feel like we got probably the best defense in the AFC,’’ he said.

Honestly, he said that. The audio’s available.

Several weeks later, Hankins isn’t dialing down the bravado.

“I think we’ve got the right guys,’’ he said Tuesday. “We’ve just got to put the work in and continue to grow.

“It’s going to take some time, but you always want to have high standards and set high goals.’’

There’s only one downside to puffing out your chest and predicting big things from a defense that hasn’t come close to meeting expectations the past few seasons.

“If you’re going to do that, you’ve got to back it up,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said. “When you put it out there, you’d better show up.

“Guys can use whatever they want to use; bulletin-board material. I don’t sit there and promote that. I don’t think any coach at any level promotes that. I just know if you’re going to talk, you’d better walk it.’’

Again, Hankins didn’t flinch.

“I ain’t got a problem with that,’’ he said.

Regardless how Hankins’ confidence strikes you, his is a refreshing voice and a much-needed one in the defensive meeting room. There could be as many as seven new starters, and someone – Hankins, Kendall Langford, Darius Butler, Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, someone – must emerge as the emotional and physical leader of the group.

Hankins understands that’s part of his job description. He gradually evolved into a leader in four seasons with the New York Giants, appearing in 52 games with 41 starts.

The Colts need him to earn his paycheck. Ideally, they need him to become the first interior defensive lineman to be named to the Pro Bowl since – brace yourself – Mike Barnes in 1977.

“I feel like being more of a leader and you’ve just got to have that confidence,’’ Hankins said. “If you don’t set goals or have high standards, what are you working for?’’

His statement on NFL Network, he added, “was necessary for me to do with the new GM and the new atmosphere they want around here.

“That’s why they brought me in here. Just got to go out and prove it.’’

Hankins casts a big shadow. He’s 6-2 and conservatively listed at 320. He brings the versatility to play nose in Pagano’s 3-4 base, or end and tackle in the “sub’’ packages.

But more than that, Hankins can speak to how a defense can transform itself from god-awful to more than adequate in the blink of an eye.

In 2015, the Giants defense was an NFL laughingstock. It ranked 32nd in total yards (420.3) and passing yards (298.9) allowed per game, 24th against the run (121.4) and 30th in scoring (27.6).

The 6,725 total yards yielded were the third-most in NFL history. The 4,783 passing yards surrendered were the second-fattest total ever.

That season under first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, Hankins admitted, “was a little rocky . . . Man, it was pretty bad, but I don’t like saying that.

“But the (next) year everybody had a feel for playing with each other and we built a nice bond.’’

Credit an active offseason. Management went on a spending spree and invested more than $204 million in free-agent deals that added, among others, end Olivier Vernon, tackle Damon “Snacks” Harrison and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. It also didn’t hurt that safety Landon Collins, a 2015 second-round pick who was so-so as a rookie, enjoyed a breakout season in ’16 that included All-Pro recognition.

The result of the influx of talent? The ’16 Giants defense ranked 10th overall (339.7), tied for 3rd against the run (88.6) and 2nd in points (17.8). It shaved its per-game averages by nearly 81 yards and 10 points.

The Colts took a similar approach during the offseason, minus the massive free-agent deals. Ballard was committed to getting his defense younger, faster, better. Of the 12 veteran free agents signed, eight addressed the defense.

Having been part of one quick turnaround, Hankins believes he could be part of another.

“Just knowing what a good defense is, being a part of the Giants and seeing the guys that we brought in and knowing them and knowing we all have the right goal in mind of being one of the good defenses and getting to the ultimate goal which is winning the Super Bowl,’’ he said.

“I feel we brought in the right guys to come in and do it.’’

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