INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The first step has been taken, but leading where? That’s what the next few months will determine.
Before Frank Reich addresses the latest edition of his Indianapolis Colts in April, Chris Ballard and his personnel staff must make the necessary additions and adjustments to a franchise that reached the playoffs following a three-year absence. That means utilizing every option at their disposal: re-signing their own pending free agents, procuring talent on the free agent market, the NFL draft and the post-draft signing frenzy.
Before we get to that, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts. More to the point, we’ll take a look at how they got to where they are – coming off a 10-6 record and a first-round playoff win – and what needs to be done to take them further in 2019.
- Starters: Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, Matthew Adams.
- Backups: Najee Goode, Zaire Franklin, Skai Moore, Ahmad Thomas.
In what would be a feeling-out offseason, first-time coordinator Matt Eberflus was especially curious about the makeup of his linebackers room. One day during a chat with the group, he broached the subject of its unsettled nature.
“I said, ‘Hey, we have 10 guys in here. One through 10, we have no idea who is one and we have no idea who is 10,”’ Eberflus said. “So the competition is up in the air.”
His audience included three draft picks (Darius Leonard, Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin); another coveted rookie (undrafted Skai Moore); Anthony Walker, a 2017 fifth-round pick with two starts as a rookie; and free-agent acquisition Najee Goode, who had started four games in six seasons.
Competition during the offseason, training camp and the preseason increased the unit’s readiness but obviously didn’t boost the collective experience. The six ‘backers active for the opener against Cincinnati shared the six career starts of Walker and Goode. Four were rookies and Leonard and Moore started against the Bengals.
Despite the low expectations, the linebackers proved to be a defensive strength.
Leonard, considered by some draft analysts to be a reach as the 36th overall pick in the draft because of his South Carolina State lineage, proved to be an absolute steal. He joined Vernon Maxwell (1983) and Duane Bickett (1985) as the only Colts selected NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and was named first-team All-Pro.
Ballard gushed over Leonard’s athleticism and sideline-to-sideline speed during post-draft meetings with the media, and that was evident throughout the season. Leonard led the NFL with a team-record 163 tackles, and added a slew of other notable stats along the way: 7 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
“I’ll say this,” Ballard offered last month. “I’ve been around (Brian) Urlacher, (Lance) Briggs, Derrick Johnson, and Darius Leonard has the ability to be every bit as good as all of them.
“He is real-deal good, and he’s got real-deal character.”
While Leonard was the wire-to-wire defensive focal point, he had ample help at the position. Walker started 16 games, including the postseason, and excelled at the MIKE in Eberflus’s 4-3. He was second on the team with 104 tackles, including 10 for a loss, and an interception.
Adams, meanwhile, started five of 18 games and always seemed to do something to draw attention. And we’re not talking about being fined twice by the NFL for inappropriate hits. Adams finished with 19 tackles and his five tackles for loss were tied for the fifth-most by a Colts rookie in a single season.
As far as Leonard is concerned, you’ll be seeing less of him in 2019. Seriously. The second-round draft pick was listed at 234 pounds last season, but has no intention of being that heavy in year 2.
“I want to come in smaller than what I did,” he said. “I came in at 234 and I feel like I was too big. I want to come in at 225 and stay healthy. I got banged up early and I want to take care of my body earlier than I did this year.”
In part due to the wear and tear of the long NFL season, Leonard was at 215 pounds for the Colts’ playoff loss at Kansas City.
“I played 215 in college,” he said. “There’s no such thing as too small. It’s not about the size of the dog in the fight. It’s about the heart that’s in the dog.
“I’m a competitor. I want to compete. I want to beat the guy in front of me. I want to get better every day. That’s the mindset I have.”
High. It’s hard to imagine Ballard and Eberflus being satisfied with their linebacker room. We’re not talking about the presence of Leonard and Walker. We’re talking about the overall depth. Free agency and the draft probably will address that.
One bit of internal business that must be taking care of is determining whether to re-sign Goode. He appeared in all 18 games and contributed just six tackles on defense, but his value transcends raw numbers. Goode is core special teams player – a team-high 10 tackles – and a strong influence in the locker room.