Colts training camp preview: Linebackers

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 02: Darius Leonard #53 of the Indianapolis Colts warms up on the field prior to the start of their game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field on December 02, 2018 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A season of great expectations awaits, as does a second summer at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.
They go hand in hand.

After three months of offseason work and a five-week lull, the Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park July 24 for the start of training camp. They’re on the practice field for the first time the following day.

Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team coming off a 10-6 season and wild-card playoff appearance, and considered by many observers to be one of the trendy picks to make serious noise in the postseason.

TODAY — LINEBACKERS

Starters: WLB Darius Leonard, MLB Anthony Walker, SLB Matthew Adams.

In the mix: Zaire Franklin, Skai Moore, Ben Banogu, Bobby Okereke, E.J. Speed, Ahmad Thomas, Tre Thomas.

Motivated Maniac: Darius Leonard has so many reasons to be pleased – pleased, not complacent or satisfied – following his breakout rookie season.

Remember the Maniac’s introduction to the NFL? Defensive Rookie of the Year, just the third Colt honored and the first since Duane Bickett in 1985. A league-leading and franchise-record 163 tackles. An overall fat stat line that included 7 sacks, 12 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.

Even so, Leonard remains motivated to do more.

“I wasn’t named MVP,’’ he said. “I wasn’t a Super Bowl champion and I wasn’t a Pro Bowler. So there are still goals I hadn’t reached last year. I just go in with the same mindset as proving everybody wrong and just out working everybody on the field.’’

Coordinator Matt Eberflus made certain complacency in year 2 wasn’t an option. Offseason work included reviewing every play from 2018.

“Coach Flus pulled out every bad play tape I had, every single play,’’ Leonard said with a smile. “It kind of made me look at how offenses were attacking the defense. It kind of made me understand the defense – not just my position, but all 11 positions.’’

Leonard’s first season as a pro was one for the ages, but it tested his resolve on a weekly basis. He injured his left ankle in a week 4 meeting with the Houston Texans. Leonard only missed one game, but the injury persisted. He eventually underwent surgery in early May. Leonard missed most of the Colts’ offseason work, but expects to be ready for the start of training camp.

“That’s the plan . . . I’ll be ready,’’ he said.

No one is fearful of a Sophomore Slump. And that includes Chris Ballard, who drew initial criticism for investing the 36th overall pick in the 2018 draft on a productive player out of obscure South Carolina State.

“He is driven unlike many I’ve been around before,’’ he said. “The one thing about him is when he tells you he wants to be the best, he absolutely wants to be the best. He’s always looking for an edge he can get.’’

Keen competition: It would have been understandable if Anthony Walker did a slow burn as the April draft unfolded. He was the starting middle linebacker of the NFL’s No. 11-ranked defense and a key component of what was a young group of ‘backers.

So, what does Ballard and his personnel staff do during the three-day draft? They add three intriguing prospects to the linebackers’ room: Ben Banogu (round 2), Bobby Okereke (round 3) and E.J. Speed (round 5). That comes after Ballard drafted three in ’18: Leonard and seventh-rounders Zaire Franklin and Matthew Adams.

“I didn’t see it,’’ Walker said. He paused, and a widening smile gave him away. Of course he noticed. How could he not?

“It was good,’’ Walker said. “We thrive on competition here. It is the NFL. The team is going to get the best player available and they feel that . . . it is just competition. That is all it is. We are going to have fun doing it. Best player will play and we will leave it up to that.’’

The best player in the room was and is Leonard. But let’s not casually dismiss Walker, a 2017 fifth-round pick. A hamstring injury limited Walker to 10 games and two starts as a rookie, but he took a quantum leap in year 2.

He started 16 of 17 games, including the playoffs, and his 104 tackles trailed only Leonard. Walker also chipped in with 10 tackles for loss, four defended passes and one interception.

He insisted he got his confidence back last season.

“I was hurt my whole rookie year,’’ Walker said. “I wanted to believe I could play on this level. I was able to grow some more confidence last year. I had fun playing with Darius and the rest of the defense. We won games. That was fun. We take pride in bringing the culture back that the old Colts had. They were playoff contenders every year, Super Bowl contenders every year. We wanted to get back to that.’’

Heading into a second year in Eberflus’ system, Walker said, “it going to be fun. Guys understand what it takes to be in a great defense and how we have to play every game. It will be fun to see guys take that step from year 1 to year 2.’’

Worth noting: When it comes to a veteran presence in the linebacker room, we need to lower our expectations. There are 10 seats in the room – Banogu is something of a hybrid and we’ve listed him on the defensive line and at linebacker – and the oldest of the bunch is Ahmad Thomas. He turned 24 in December.

The players with the most NFL experience are Walker, Franklin and Matthew Adams, each entering his third season.

Training camp competition will be heightened by four rookies: Banogu, Okereke, Speed and Thomas.

Rebuilding the linebacker corps was one of Ballard’s priorities when he settled in as GM in 2017. Remember the primary starters in 2017 in Chuck Pagano’s 3-4? That quartet was Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Jon Bostic and Antonio Morrison.

Of the ’17 linebackers, the only holdovers are Sheard (moved to end in Eberflus’ 4-3) and Walker.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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