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Colts training camp preview: Linebackers

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Robert Mathis

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The next step in the Indianapolis Colts’ bid to put an unfulfilling 2015 season behind them comes Tuesday when they report to Anderson University for the start of training camp.

Over the next several days, we’ll take a positional look at how they’ve positioned themselves not only to challenge for the AFC South title, but a possible run at Super Bowl 51.

Today we focus on the linebackers.

Projected starters: “Rush’’ Robert Mathis, “Strong’’ Erik Walden, “Will’’ Nate Irving, “Mike” D’Qwell Jackson.

Potential backups: OLB Trent Cole, ILB Sio Moore, ILB Amarlo Herrera, ILB Josh McNary, ILB Edwin Jackson, ILB Antonio Morrison, OLB Trevor Bates, OLB Ron Thompson, OLB Curt Maggitt, OLB Earl Okine, ILB Junior Sylvestre.

  • Still around: Adam Vinatieri is the oldest Colt and the NFL’s oldest active player at 43, but the team’s longest-tenured player is Mathis. The franchise’s career sack leader – 118 and counting – is 35 and entering his 14th season.

Here’s some perspective: Only three players have spent at least 14 seasons with the Colts – Johnny Unitas (17), Peyton Manning (14) and Reggie Wayne (14). Nice company.

Here’s some more: Mathis and Vinatieri are the only holdovers from the Colts’ Super Bowl XLI victory over the Chicago Bears after the 2006 season. Mathis, Vinatieri and punter Pat McAfee are the only ones still around from the Super Bowl XLIV appearance against New Orleans after ’09.

It’s called staying power, and realizing what it takes to remain relevant.

“It’s a marathon, not a sprint,’’ said Mathis, a fifth-round pick in ’03. “Coming in as a young pup, it’s 100 miles an hour . . . just going with the guy guys, deer in the headlights, not knowing what to expect.

“Right now, you know what to expect. You know how to pace yourself and understand it’s a long road.’’

Mathis always has drawn energy from those who have doubted him. It has helped motivate him to the franchise-record 118 sacks, the NFL-record 44 forced fumbles on sacks, the six Pro Bowl selections.

Now, he’s motivated by those who question how the Colts are going to mount a legitimate pass rush this season. They didn’t use a high draft pick to address that area, finally gave up on 2013 first-round pick Bjoern Werner, waiving him in March, and releasing Jonathan Newsome after the team’s 2014 sack leader had another off-field incident.

Mathis is quick to point out he and Cole share 206.5 career sacks. Cole has 88.5 in 11 seasons, but matched a career-low with 3 in his first year with the Colts last season. Walden has generated 12 sacks over the past three seasons.

“Media. They feel a certain way and we feel a certain way, too,’’ Mathis said of the skeptics. “I feel like we’ll be over the top. I don’t doubt out abilities. If the next team feels like they can get to the quarterback, we feel like we can get to the quarterback as well.

“It’s just a matter of doing it.’’

Individually, Mathis is on the downside of a career that’s worthy of consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but no one should bet against him. He’s in the final year of his contract – extension efforts on his part were dismissed by management – and is as healthy as he’s been in a long time. He spent a good portion of last season regaining his “A’’ game after missing 2014 with a torn Achilles.

Mathis said he finally returned to form in late November and early December.

“I would say week 12,’’ he said. “That’s really when I started to turn that corner on really feeling like myself. Prior to that, I was just trying to get it healthy and trying to get it to loosen up with strength worth and things of that nature.

“I feel great. I’m excited.’’

  • Inside job: One of the priorities of training camp is to adequately fill the void left by inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman. The four-year mainstay rode free agency up I-65 to Chicago.

Freeman wasn’t an elite player, but a pretty good one. In four seasons, he averaged 166 tackles and added 12 sacks, eight forced fumbles and four interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns.

“It was one of the positions, you go into the offseason, you go into the draft, you go into the OTAs a little bit concerned about it,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said. “But it looks like a group that’s developing into a pretty solid group.’’

Irving seemed to take the bulk of repetitions with the starting unit during offseason work, but he should anticipate serious camp competition from Moore and perhaps Morrison, a fourth-round draft pick.

“I love where they’re at,’’ Pagano said of the group’s offseason progress. “They’ve got a long way to go. They’d be the first to tell you that.’’

Again, Irving and Moore should be considered the frontrunners. Irving was a free-agent pickup from Denver who spent much of last season fully recovering from a knee injury that forced him to miss the final eight games of 2014. He was limited to eight games and 18 tackles in his first season in Indy. Moore was acquired in a September trade with Oakland, and had just nine tackles in 12 games.

It will be interesting to see how quickly Morrison develops.

“He’s a tough hombre, and he plays like that,’’ general manager Ryan Grigson said. “He plays lights out.’’

Added Pagano: “You just put the tape on and after a couple of plays, it’s like ‘Wow!’ He’s a wow guy and he popped on the tape. It’ll be a great, great competition when he comes in here.’’

Morrison made it clear he won’t back down from competition.

“I love competition,’’ he said. “That’s why I do this.’’

  • Worth noting: The Colts collected 35 sacks last year, a shade lower than the previous two seasons (41 in ’14, 42 in ’13 when Mathis set a franchise-record with 19.5).

But here’s some jarring perspective. Of the 11 teams that finished with 35 sacks or fewer last season, not one reached the playoffs. Those 11 teams combined for a 65-111 record.

Coincidence? We think not.