INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield July 26 for the start of training camp.
Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team that must rebound from its crushing loss in Jacksonville and return to a serious playoff contender.
Today: defensive line.
Starters: RE (LEO) Yannick Ngakoue, T DeForest Buckner, T Grover Stewart, LE Kwity Paye.
Depth: DE Dayo Odeyingbo, DE/DT Tyquan Lewis, DE Ifeadi Odenigbo, DE Ben Banogu, DT Chris Williams, DT Curtis Brooks, DT R.J. McIntosh, DT Eric Johnson II, DE Kameron Cline, DE Scott Patchan, DT Caeveon Patton, DE Bryan Cox Jr.
The need was evident throughout 2021 – and seasons before that, truth be known – and on the front burner as soon as Chris Ballard set his sights on ’22.
“We’ve got to be able to rush the passer better,’’ he said in January. “It’s a passing league. You have to be able to affect the passer . . .’’
The Colts finished with 33 sacks, down from 40 the previous season. They ranked 26th in sacks per pass attempt.
It’s paramount to come up with sacks or pressures or putting the fear of either in the quarterback’s head. Make him do things at a quicker rate than he likes.
That’s the genesis of the March trade with the Las Vegas Raiders that delivered Yannick Ngakoue to the defense. Yes, Ballard invested his first two picks in the 2021 draft on pass-rush potential: Kwity Paye (round 1) and Dayo Odeyingbo (round 2). But the team decided not to re-sign Justin Houston and Denico Autry, its top two edge rushers.
And the Colts paid the price. The young talent collectively failed to step up at a high enough level, and the pass rush was hit-and-miss, too often the latter. The defense had 2 or fewer sacks in 12 games.
Ngakoue is expected to be that veteran presence. He’s 27 and heading into his seventh season, and has been one of the NFL’s more consistent edge rushers. Since entering the league as a 2016 3rd-round draft pick of Jacksonville, he ranks 9th with 55.5 sacks and 10th with 119 quarterback hits. Ngakoue also has 57 tackles for loss and 20 forced fumbles.
And then there’s the neighborhood he resides in regarding consistency. Ngakoue is one of three players with at least 8 sacks in each of the last six seasons. The others: Aaron Donald and Von Miller.
It often takes an acquired player time to acclimate himself with a new defense and coordinator. That’s not the case. Ngakoue is reunited with Gus Bradley. They shared time in Jacksonville and last season in Las Vegas.
Bradley was somewhat prophetic in February when he was introduced as the Colts’ new defensive coordinator.
“Someone that’s 6-3, 250 pounds has a place in our defensive scheme . . . like a Chris Clemons or a Yannick Ngakoue,’’ he said.
A month later, Bradley was reunited with Ngakoue.
“I’ve been in this defense since I was a rookie,’’ Ngakoue said. “So, that’s self-explanatory. It’s just easy.’’
The 6-2, 246-pounder will play Bradley’s LEO position – split out wide at right end and commissioned to create havoc every snap. Last season, Ngakoue generated 10 sacks, 23 QB hits and 60 pressures for the Raiders.
“The LEO position is super, super special to be able to take part of,’’ he said. “That guy has to be the guy that can run sideline to sideline, a guy that can get to the quarterback, a guy that can stuff the edge, a guy that can hammer blockers and things of that nature.
“I feel like it fits my personality and my playing style super perfect.’’
It’s worth noting Ngakoue is due $13 million 2022 and will be a free agent at the end of the season. He’ll command a big payday from some team if he remains a steady pass-rush presence.
“I’m definitely going to find a home here,’’ he said.
DeForest Buckner has done nothing to diminish the magnitude of the March 2020 trade with San Francisco that gave the defense an interior enforcer. Look at the first-team All-Pro nod his first season in Indy. Consider his 9.5 sacks in ’20 and 7 last season, both team highs. Take note of the 44 QB hits and 20 tackles for loss. Among tackles since 2016, Buckner is tied-3rd in sacks (45) and is 3rd in tackles for loss (57).
A recent ESPN poll that surveyed 50 NFL executives, players, coaches and scouts listed Buckner 4th among defensive tackles, trailing the Rams’ Donald, Tennessee’s Jeffery Simmons and Kansas City’s Chris Jones. He was 3rd on the list in 2021.
Buckner was the engine that drove Matt Eberflus’ defense. He was that imposing 6-7, 295-pounder who routinely shed blockers and crashed the pocket, and generally lifted the play of those around him.
And that shouldn’t change with new leadership.
“Any time you have a really good player on the inside, it helps the perimeter,’’ Bradley said. “He brings a presence, a mentality.’’
Buckner, just 28 heading into his seventh season, is a self-motivator and always grinding to find an edge, first during the offseason and once the season begins.
He’ll be driven by the way 2021 crash and burned. We won’t bore you with the details.
“Nobody wanted to play us going into the playoffs, the way we were playing,’’ Buckner said. “Just for the two-game stretch at the tailend of the season, it sucked.
“Definitely got to make sure that doesn’t happen again.’’
Time to Emerge
The investment was made during the ’21 draft, and the heavy returns should be realized this season. Paye’s relentlessness and athleticism became more evident as his rookie season unfolded. He finished with 4 sacks, 10 QB hits and two forced fumbles. The only appropriate rookie grade for Odeyingbo is “Incomplete.’’ Rehab from a torn Achilles limited him to 10 games, six tackles, a shared sack with Buckner and a critical forced fumble by Jacksonville quarterback Trevor Lawrence.
Much more is expected from each in Year 2. And that will involve a switch in the defensive alignment. With Ngakoue situated at LEO, Paye is the starting left, or “big’’ end. Odeyingbo is behind him.
Bradley certainly got glimpses of Paye during offseason work, but a true gauge of all defensive players will come during training camp.
“You see his skillset and his speed and overall athleticism,’’ he said. “What he’s been asked to do up to this point has been good.’’
The addition of Ngakoue and continued interior influence of Buckner and tackle Grover Stewart should present Paye and Odeyingbo with one-on-one opportunities.
By the Numbers, Part I
We mentioned Ngakoue’s 55.5 career sacks in 95 games, but here’s some perspective. The other seven ends have combined for 26 sacks in 143 games. The leaders of that pack: free-agent acquisition Ifeadi Odenigbo (10.5 in 41 games with four teams) and Tyquan Lewis (8.5 in 41).
By the Numbers, Part II
The Colts’ pass rush has been lacking since Robert Mathis led the NFL with a franchise-record 19.5 sacks in 2013. Since 2018, it ranks 18th in the league with 152.
By the Numbers, Part III
Buckner has led the team in sacks in each of the last two seasons. The last time a tackle accomplished that: Never. His 9.5 sacks in ’20 were a franchise record for a tackle.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.