Recapping the 2019 Colts: Linebackers

Colts

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA – NOVEMBER 10: Darius Leonard #53 of the Indianapolis Colts reacts after a play against the Miami Dolphins in the third quarter at Lucas Oil Stadium on November 10, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – All’s quiet, or so it seems. Players have scattered and practice fields at the Farm Bureau Football Center are vacant.

But don’t kid yourself. There’s no such thing as an offseason with the Indianapolis Colts or the NFL.

“We are building a foundation of players that can have sustainable success,’’ Frank Reich said. “We just need to continue to fight to get better. Everything will be evaluated and everything is held accountable.’’

Chris Ballard described the 7-9 record “a stain that does not easily wash away.’’

He quickly added, “We’ve got to get better.’’

No one’s asked for our input, but we’ll offer it anyway. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts, including what went right, what went wrong and what might occur.

Today: Linebackers

  • Starters: WLB Darius Leonard, MLB Anthony Walker, SLB Bobby Okereke.
  • Backups: Matthew Adams, Zaire Franklin, E.J. Speed, Skai Moore.

The good

Year 2 for Darius Leonard fell short of matching his rarified rookie season. Blame a concussion that forced him to miss three games. Even so, the NFL’s 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year and first-team All-Pro selection made his mark.

“He’s a natural playmaker,’’ Ballard said. “You saw it in college. He took the ball away and made plays in college, and that hasn’t changed . . . reminds me of Charles Tillman. Tillman was the same way in college, they found ways to strip the ball, take the ball away.’’

In 13 games, Leonard once again piled up a busy stat line: 121 tackles, including 7 for a loss; 5 sacks, 6 quarterback hits, 5 interceptions, 7 defended passes and 2 forced fumbles. The NFL is all about making plays that make a difference, and Leonard has personified that in two seasons. He became the first player since at least 1982 with at least 10 sacks and 5 interceptions in his first 25 games.

Leonard’s 5 interceptions were the most by a Colt since Mike Adams in 2015 (5) and the most by a Colts linebacker since Cato June in 2005 (5).

“We all know what a great playmaker Darius is and a great leader he is on our defense,’’ Reich said. “He’s in a perfect scheme for a guy with his ability.’’

A byproduct: a first trip to the Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro recognition.

It should surprise no one Leonard isn’t satisfied.

“The only goal I met was the Pro Bowl,’’ he said. “I probably set 15 goals this year and that’s the only one I’ve met. I have so much room for improvement.’’

Among those goals?

“Two hundred tackles,’’ he said. “Ten sacks, six interceptions, eight forced fumbles, Defensive MVP, Super Bowl MVP. My name’s not at the top of any of the goal sheets I want. I’m not Super Bowl MVP. I’m not Defensive MVP. I’m not none of that stuff.

“There are so many things I want to be great at. Right now I’m just a good linebacker and I’m aiming to be great.’’

One of Leonard’s points of emphasis heading into 2019 was being better at shedding blocks and being quicker to the ball carrier. That’s an area that still needs work.

More good

Anthony Walker. And Bobby Okereke. Most of the defensive focus gravitated toward Leonard, but Walker was the anchor at Mike and Okereke settled in at Sam in what was a challenging rookie season. The latter occurred after Okereke started three games at Mike when Leonard was out and Walker slid out to Will.

Walker led the team with 123 tackles, including 6 for a loss, and added his first career interception. Okereke started eight games and generated 58 tackles, 1 sack and 1 forced fumble.

“Really encouraged,’’ Ballard said of the pair. “Anthony Walker had a good season. Bobby Okereke has some real special in his body. Saw the flashes.’’

Added defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus: “We trust Bobby. Bobby is one of those guys that executes well, has high functional intelligence, plays the game at a high rate and learns at a high rate. He is one of the guys that we put in there and increased his role.’’

Another rookie, fifth-rounder E.J Speed, saw limited action in 12 games.

“Even though we didn’t see a bunch of him because he’s young and raw, it’ll be fun to watch him develop and see if he can become what we think he can become,’’ Ballard said.

The offseason

This will be a time for continued growth, from Leonard to the last player in the room.

A number that jumps out at you: 25. That’s the age of the oldest ‘backer, Skai Moore.  And another: 3. That’s the longest-tenured ‘backer, Anthony Walker.

“(Matthew) Adams and Zaire (Frankling), we had Skai Moore. We have good depth at the position, good competition,’’ Ballard said. “It’ll be fun to watch that group compete here during the offseason and in training camp to see how it fleshes out. We feel good about it.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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