Colts’ camp preview: Linebackers
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.
Projected starters: SLB Antonio Morrison, MLB, Najee Goode, WLB Darius Leonard/Anthony Walker.
Backups: Skai Moore, Zaire Franklin, William Ossai, Jeremiah George, Matthew Adams, Tyrell Adams.
No position is more unsettled as the team heads to Westfield this week. But don’t take our word for it.
During an offseason meeting with his new linebacker corps, coordinator Matt Eberflus offered a message that resonated at both ends of the spectrum.
“‘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,’’’ he told his players. “So the competition is up in the air and that’s at every position.’’
Ballard reinforced that notion while meeting with reporters last week in Westfield.
“We’ve got a bunch of young bodies,’’ he said. “It’ll be fun to watch that group and see what comes out. We’ve got guys that have traits. They have the athletic skills set to play in the scheme.
“Let’s see if they can do it.’’
On the plus side, that means the offseason settled nothing. Camp competition figures to be fierce as the Colts settle on the second line of their defense. On the negative side, the open competition means no one stepped up to secure a starting spot.
At various times during the offseason, returnees Antonio Morrison and Anthony Walker and free-agent acquisition Najee Goode worked with the first unit. Morrison has started 19 games in two seasons and led the defense with 108 tackles a year ago, and might be a viable option at strong-side ‘backer. He’s a liability in coverage, but serviceable and a good hitter in confined spaces.
Walker, a 2017 fifth-round draft pick who played sparingly as a rookie in the 3-4 scheme, could emerge as a major contributor in the 4-3. It remains to be seen if that’s at middle linebacker or as a weak-side ‘backer. Goode comes over from Super Bowl champion Philadelphia, so Reich is well aware of his ability to contribute on defense and special teams. He’s most comfortable in the middle.
A sleeper to watch? Skai Moore. The undrafted rookie comes to Indy following a productive career at South Carolina. He started 37 of 50 games and piled up 353 tackles, including 20.5 for a loss. Moore also was active in coverage with 14 interceptions and 20 defended passes.
“Nobody has a job,’’ Walker said, “so we’re all taking it as another job interview. That’s the mindset right now in the whole room.’’
Playing catch up:
The prospect with the most perceived upside is the one we saw the least of during offseason work. Leonard, the recently signed second-round draft pick out of South Carolina State, first injured a quad at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. He aggravated it while working out for teams prior to the draft, and tweaked it again on the first day he participated in the Colts’ rookie minicamp in May.
“We finally said, ‘Let’s get him healthy,’’’ Ballard said last week. “(We) shut him down and rehabbed.
“He’s good to go.’’
Leonard needs to live up to the hype that followed him after being taken with the 36th overall pick. Ballard praised Leonard’s “speed, his athleticism, his ability to cover. When the four ‘backers went (ahead of Leonard), we thought Darius was the fifth-best ‘backer in the draft and we think he’s got big upside.’’
Leonard projects as a three-down playmaker, but there’s work to do after already having missed so much practice time.
“When you are implementing a new system and a new style,’’ Eberflus said, “I think that every rep is important. So to diminish that would be disrespectful to the game and I think to the players that have been in here.’’