INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There have been a few surprising actions and quick observations as the Indianapolis Colts have transitioned to Matt Eberflus’ 4-3 defense from the previous 3-4 scheme.
The first notable, head-turning personnel move involved the March 17 release of tackle Johnathan Hankins. He was heading into the second year of a three-year, $30 million contract – Hankins was general manager Chris Ballard’s most expensive 2017 free-agent acquisition – but deemed a bad fit in the new scheme.
During the April NFL draft, Ballard shipped tackle Henry Anderson, a 2015 third-round pick, to the New York Jets for a seventh-round pick.
“Scheme fit,’’ Ballard explained. “It’s a better scheme fit in New York than he was here.’’
Conversely, it appears the transition from outside linebacker to end suits Jabaal Sheard and 2017 third-round pick Tarell Basham. Sheard has ample experience at end from his time with the Cleveland Browns and New England Patriots. Basham returns to his natural hand-in-the-dirt position, from which he piled up a school-record 29.5 sacks at Ohio University.
But what of John Simon?
He and Sheard were effective bookend outside ‘backers last season until a neck injury ended Simon’s season. In fact, Simon arguably was the defense’s top performer before suffering what the team described as a “stinger’’ Oct. 22 against Jacksonville.
Despite missing seven games, he still finished with a fat seasonal stat line: 42 tackles, including 27 solos and seven tackles for a loss; 3 sacks, 12 quarterback hits and an interception against the Tennessee Titans he returned for a touchdown.
Simon’s second season with the Colts – he signed a three-year, $13.5 million free-agent contract last offseason – will require him reacquainting himself with a position he last played seven years ago.
“At Ohio State,’’ he said Wednesday, adding he’s “getting used to that three-point stance again. It took about a week or two to get used to it, but I think the transition is going smooth. Been making a lot of strides and feeling good.’’
During much of the Colts’ offseason work, Sheard and Basham have worked as the ends with the starting unit. Simon has rotated in for reps, but those seemed to be limited Wednesday.
Eberflus’ assessment of Simon’s transition to this point wasn’t exactly effusive.
“He’s working hard,’’ he said.
At least from an optics standpoint, Simons appears undersized for the position. He’s listed at 6-1, 250, and the latter figure seems generous. During practice, he occasionally must fend off tackles that include 311-pound Anthony Castonzo, 345-pound Denzelle Good and 330-pound Austin Howard.
Is Simon concerned he’s too small to complete the transition?
“As long as the coaches doesn’t think that, I think I’m in good shape,’’ he said. “We’re a penetrating defense, so to be able to squeeze through some of those holes some guys might not be able to get through is going to be beneficial to me, and a little quicker off the ball than maybe some of the guys.
“Everyone knows their strengths and you have to play to them.’’
“What you have to do is use your attributes, your quickness, your strike, your get-off, all of those types of things,’’ he said. “He’ll figure it out as we go, as all the players will.’’
Somewhat surprisingly, the coaching staff never gave serious consideration to slotting Simon at strong-side linebacker.
Moving him to end, offered coach Frank Reich, “was clear right from the start. Being undersized, you can deal with that with speed, with instincts, with playing fast and that’s what John will do.
“He’ll play to his strengths and he’ll play with relentless effort and motor and that wins a lot.’’
His playmaking ability aside, Simon represents a veteran presence that could be invaluable as the Colts move forward with a young defense. There’s no overstating his influence on the practice field and meeting rooms.
Even so, Eberflus made it clear everyone is fighting for a spot on the depth chart, and the roster.
“I was just talking to the linebackers today and I said, ‘Hey, we’ve got 10 guys in here; 1 through 10, we’ve got no idea who’s 1, no idea who’s 10 . . . so the competition’s up in the air.
“And that’s at every position. It doesn’t matter if it’s D-tackle, defensive end, DBs. And I think that’s a healthy thing.’’
Simon was asked if he’s competing for a starting spot, or a roster spot?
“I hope I’m competing for a starting job,’’ he said. “They want to make it very competitive, and as a player, as a competitor, that’s what you want.
“Our room is very talented. I think we’ve got one of the more talented rooms in the league and every day we go out there and compete against each other and try to help each other.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.