Colts’ camp preview: Defensive line


INDIANAPOLIS, IN – DECEMBER 31: Jabaal Sheard #93 of the Indianapolis Colts celebrates against the Houston Texans during the second half at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 31, 2017 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The wait is nearly over. Months of speculation – how much progress did general manager Chris Ballard actually make in his offseason upgrade of the Indianapolis Colts’ roster? – will give way to some type of reality.

Players report Wednesday for the start of training camp at Grand Park in Westfield, and then we’ll get some answers.

“Let’s just wait until training camp, get everybody out there, be at full strength,’’ coach Frank Reich said.

Between now and then, we’ll take a look at some positions of interest.

Today: Defensive line.

Projected starters: DE Jabaal Sheard, DE Tarell Basham, DT Al Woods, DT Hassan Ridgeway.

Backups: DE John Simon, DE Margus Hunt, DE Denico Autry, DE Kemoko Turay, DE/T Tyquan Lewis, DT Grover Stewart, DT Rakeem Nunez-Roches, DT Caraun Reid, DT Tomasi Laulile, DE Anthony Johnson, DE Chris McCain.

Strength in numbers:

What the Colts boast up front on defense is a clear strength. The top-to-bottom depth is undeniable, and includes an intriguing mixture of veterans and young talent. When rosters are cut to the regular-season limit of 53 on Sept. 1, the Colts likely will part ways with a few viable players. It’s been quite a while we could make that statement with a straight face.

The veterans in the room include Jabaal Sheard and John Simon, each of whom is moving from outside linebacker in the discarded 3-4 scheme to end in coordinator Matt Eberflus’ 4-3.

The 6-3, 255-pound Sheard appears an ideal fit in his new position, and has played it before. He represented one of the Colts’ premier defenders a year ago; solid against the run with 52 tackles and a steady force in pressuring the quarterback with 5.5 sacks and 14 hits, both team highs.

We’re interested to see how Simon makes the switch. He was arguably the Colts’ best defensive player in ’17 until a neck injury Oct. 22 against Jacksonville sabotaged his first season in Indy. The problem? Simon is listed at 6-1 and 257 pounds, but the latter seems generous. There were occasions during the offseason work when he appeared to be overmatched coming off the edge by the larger offensive tackles.

Simon summarily dismissed the notion he’s undersized to play end. He last played that spot at Ohio State.

“We’re a penetrating defense, so to be able to squeeze through some of those holes some guys might not be able to get through is going to be beneficial to me, and a little quicker off the ball than maybe some of the guys,’’ he said. “Everyone knows their strengths and you have to play to them.

“I hope I’m competing for a starting job. They want to make it very competitive, and as a player, as a competitor, that’s what you want.’’

The competition on the edge figures to be fierce. Ballard anticipates Tarell Basham, the 2017 third-round draft pick, to excel as a 4-3 end after never settling in as a 3-4 outside ‘backer. The same goes for Kemoko Turay, a quick 6-5, 253-pounder who believes he’s at his best with his hand on the ground. Turay had 7.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman at Rutgers, but just 7 the rest of his career. Surgery on both shoulders slowed his progress.

Another veteran to watch is Denico Autry, one of Ballard’s free-agent acquisitions (a three-year, $17.8 million contract). The 6-5, 270-pounder generated 10.5 sacks in four seasons with the Raiders, including 5 in ’17. Autry also led the league by knocking down 7 passes at the line of scrimmage.

Who’s the leader?:

While the depth is impressive, no player even remotely represents the type of pass-rush threat who’s going to keep offensive coordinators up at night. Maybe Basham makes that big leap from year 1 to year 2 after managing just 2 sacks as a rookie. Maybe it’s Turay. Perhaps Sheard’s pressure will increase with better talent around him.

This much we know: no one on the roster has reached double-digit sacks in a season. Sheard’s 8.5 as a rookie with the Cleveland Browns in 2011 tops the list.

Eberflus might have to rely on a sacks-by-committee approach.

Disruptive D:

Eberflus didn’t mince words when asked to describe the style he brought to Indy.

“The defense is built on the athletic, speed players that can affect the pass,’’ he said. “You always want to build it on rush and cover, for sure. When you have four guys humming, the ball comes out fast and then your athletic, speed players in the passing game affect the pass.’’

Players have been quick to embrace the new approach.

“I love it,’’ Basham said. “It’s simple, easy math. It allows you to play to your full speed and your full ability. We’re bringing the fun back into it, being able to run and just play football.’’

Nunez-Roches could emerge as a disruptive 3-technique tackle. He won’t be asked to hold up blockers so linebackers can flow to the football.

“I am a disruptive guy who can get up the field, penetrate, blow up, disrupt everything,’’ he said. “That’s what this defense is about . . . going to a 4-3, getting up the field and letting the D-line off the leash.’’

Worth noting:

The Colts’ defense was categorically one of the NFL’s worst a year ago. It ranked 30th in yards (367.1) and points ( 25.3) allowed per game. It was 31st in allowing third-down conversions. It also ranked 31st with 25 sacks.

The sack total is tied for the 3rd-fewest in team history. The two seasons with fewer sacks were equally as forgettable: 24 in 1986 (3-13) and 21 in ’93 (4-12).

Of course, there’s always an exception. The ’06 Colts also finished with 25 sacks en route to winning Super Bowl XLI.

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