Assessing the Colts: Linebackers a top priority for the offseason

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Robert Mathis

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – By any standard, the Indianapolis Colts weren’t good enough in 2016.

The only bottom line that matters: finishing 8-8 (again) and missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98.

It’s going to take significant personnel changes during the offseason if the Colts are going to return to relevancy. That includes prudent investments in veteran free agency, which begins March 9, and further bolstering a flawed roster through the April 27-29 draft.

Before we consider outside solutions, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts.

Today: Linebackers

Under contract: D’Qwell Jackson, Antonio Morrison, Edwin Jackson, Curt Maggitt, Akeem Ayers, Deon King, Chris Carter, Deiontrez Mount, Lavar Edwards, Luke Rhodes.

Pending free agents: Robert Mathis (retiring), Erik Walden, Trent Cole, Josh McNary (restricted).

Looking back: What a mess. The leading tackler, D’Qwell Jackson, missed the final four games after being suspended for violating the NFL’s performance-enhancing substances policy. Two players expected to play prominent roles were jettisoned. Nate Irving was released in September as the team opted to go with Sio Moore as Jackson’s running mate inside. Moore held the position for four games, then was waived. The so-so successors were Josh McNary, Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morris. McNary and Jackson weren’t drafted. Morris was taken in the fourth round of the 2016 draft.

One pass-rush veteran, Trent Cole, missed eight games with back surgery. Another, Robert Mathis, battled elbow and toe injuries in what proved to be his 14th and final season as a Colt. At least he went out in style with a patented sack/forced fumble in the finale against Jacksonville. Mathis heads into retirement with 123 sacks, 17th-most in NFL history, and a league-record 43 sack/forced fumbles.

The Colts’ run defense ranked 30th in the league, and a good portion of the blame rests at the feet of the linebackers. For what it’s worth, Pro Football Focus ranked Indy’s front seven – linemen, linebackers – the worst in the league. Too often, linemen weren’t able to occupy blockers, allowing them to take on the ‘backers. Too often, the ‘backers missed tackles at the point of attack or made them after a sizable gain.

While Edwin Jackson and Morrison appear to be viable options against the run, each was a liability coverage. That was especially true of Morrison. Ideally, Jackson and Morrison are top backups and key special-teams contributors, not starters.

The bright spot? Erik Walden. One of Ryan Grigson’s high-profile free-agent acquisitions in 2013 – a four-year, $16 million contract – enjoyed a career year and set himself for a nice payday in March. The free-agent-to-be notched a team-best and career-high 11 sacks and added nine tackles for loss and 17 QB hits.

Looking ahead: Some unsolicited advice to whomever is pulling the personnel strings in the offseason: blow up the position. Start over. We could argue the four starters for the 2017 season opener shouldn’t be on the current roster.

As we mentioned, Walden is going to cash in on the best season of his nine-year career. Some team will pay handsomely, confident he can do for them what he did for the Colts in ’16. The Colts would be foolish to re-invest in Walden, if for no other reason than he turns 32 in August. The idea is to get younger.

It will be interesting to see how the team deals with D’Qwell Jackson, and that’s only partly due to his four-game suspension. More of a concern are his age (33), the decline in him making plays that make a difference and the fact he’ll count $5.75 million against the salary cap. He’s due a $5 million base salary, which might be deemed a bit too steep. The team can free up more than $5 million by terminating his contract.

No position demands more of an overhaul. Veteran free agency and the April draft must produce a couple of proven pass-rush threats and competent inside ‘backers.

Offseason priority: High. Very high.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51