Indianapolis Colts Training Camp Battles: Defensive Line
The 2016 Indianapolis Colts defense is gone, but not forgotten. Not forgotten are the last 40 seconds of the opening weekend game at home versus Detroit, the Texans comeback orchestrated by the magnificent Brock Osweiler, the overall performance in Oakland, surrendering scoring drive after scoring drive to the Raiders. Gone.
General manager Chris Ballard stated early on that his vision for the Colts includes “winning up front”. So, let’s take a look at the 2017 version of the Colts defensive line, and who will be battling it out for a spot on the 53-man roster.
Third-year defensive tackle Henry Anderson
Henry Anderson tore an ACL towards the end of his — what was turning out to be a very strong — 2015 rookie season. He never fully returned to form in 2016. When asked if he was ever able to NOT think about that knee last year:
“It’s hard because I try not to think about it, but certain movements hurt really bad. I was constantly having to play conservatively because I knew that certain positions and certain movements, like flipping my hips or turning a corner, would make it hurt pretty bad. My play style had to change a little to adapt to the status of my knee. I guess I was thinking about it more than I should’ve been but hopefully, that is all over with. It’s not even like I was thinking about it and it wasn’t hurting. I am glad it’s over with.”
Anderson now says that his knee is 100% and the work over the coming weeks and months will just bring him more confidence. Assuming his trajectory continues, look for him to be atop the defensive line depth chart following the preseason. Owner Jim Irsay once referred to Anderson as one of the two best players on the team.
10th-year defensive end Kendall Langford
2016 saw Langford’s impressive 135 games-played streak put to an end by a nagging right knee injury. He was missed. The Colts were forced to rely on young players, and the depth of the unit dried up very quickly. It resulted in a trickle down effect that produced the 25th-ranked rushing defense In the league. The elder defensive lineman feels that this unit will be improved over 2016. At voluntary workouts, when asked why he feels so strongly:
“There’s no other choice. We will be better than we were last year – I can guarantee that. We brought some guys in who are adding talent to our group. Guys just have to come in, put in hard work, and we started off today with a great turnout of guys who showed up. I think we probably had about everybody that’s on the roster right now, so that’s a good sign. We’re just going to take these steps and keep chomping and keep chomping. We will be better than we were last year.”
Once again, if Langford’s health is progressing as it should, then one can expect to see him in that starting mix for the Colts. Conversely, Langford is 31 years old. He needs to have a good training camp and be the leader that this unit needs or things may go a differently.
Fifth-year nose tackle Johnathan Hankins
The addition of Hankins cannot be overstated. A top-tier nose tackle can make a 3-4 defensive scheme. We have seen the Colts blow through a laundry list of nose tackles over the past several years. But now, hunched down in the middle of the Colts defense will be the young, yet seasoned and experienced Hankins. Here, defensive coordinator Ted Monachino describes Hankins’ versatility and projections:
“It really is going to depend how it shakes out with Al (Woods) and David (Parry) and Henry Anderson and all those other guys. He (Hankins) does have a pretty wide skill set. We were doing some pass rush things today on the practice field and he is a big, loose athlete and it’s good to have a big, loose athlete in the front so wherever we need to use him. If there’s somebody that’s a better nose (tackle), then he’ll play the three (technique). If there’s somebody that’s a better three, then he’ll play the nose. He’s going to fit right into the depth immediately and he’s going to come in and try to impact our defense as soon as he can.”
Hankins will make life easier for his linemates, and not so fun for opposing offenses. He is a starter, write it in pen.
Second-year defensive end Hassan Ridgeway
The 2016 fourth-round draft pick played well in his rookie season when pressed into action. He played in all 16 games (five starts), recording 21 total tackles and 1.5 sack. Ridgway had his best game in a Week 14 loss to the division rival Texans, tallying 5 total tackles and 1.0 sack. He has an inside track to a roster spot because of his solid play last year and his youth.
Third-year nose tackle David Parry
Parry will face steep competition this summer. Ballard’s defensive front is part of a new overall defense. Parry isn’t just competing with his pals on the defensive line, but he is competing with the last cornerback on the roster. Ballard elaborates:
“Whether we keep five defensive linemen or six defensive linemen, you want to try to keep the best 53 you can on the roster and then don’t pigeon-hole yourself into, ‘well, I’m going to keep five wideouts, I’m going to keep three quarterbacks.’ No, you want to keep the best 53, and if David’s one of the best 53, then he’ll be on the roster.”
Parry will likely be competing primarily with Woods, T.Y. McGill, Grover Stewart and Jhaustin Thomas. Parry is 5-8… okay, I’m joking, he’s 6-2, but Ballard has been putting a premium on versatility, size, length and that ‘unique trait’ that makes for an advantage in winning your 1 -on-1 battles. Point being, will Parry be able to change what he has been over the last two years and become a versatile piece of a revamped defense? I hate rhetorical questions… No, he won’t.
Third-year defensive tackle T.Y. McGill
McGill has flashed for the Colts over the last two years. He has been that “next man” when talking about a “next man up” mentality on the D-line. McGill has performed better against the pass rather than the run, but he has shown the ability to contribute in both facets. I think it will come down to McGill or Parry for a roster spot in 2017. The edge, right now, has to go to McGill in this instance. He has shown the ability to play nose as well as slide out to a 3-tech alignment and be effective against the pass. Rest assured, a roster spot is not ready and waiting for McGill, as he will need to impress Monachino and Ballard to earn his keep in 2017.
Second-year defensive tackle Kristjan Sokoli
Technically, Sokoli is returning for his second year with the Colts. He was a member of the practice squad for the duration of the 2016 season. After playing defensive line in college for Buffalo, the Seahawks drafted Sokoli to play center. He has had a unique road to, and in, the NFL. The practice squad is where I would expect he returns if he is a Colt in 2017.
In the Mix/New Faces
Fifth-year defensive end Margus Hunt
Hunt signed a two-year deal with the Colts as a free agent coming from Cincinnati. He seems to project as a 5-tech in the Colts’ defense. This should be a better position for him than in Cincinnati, setting him up for a potential higher level of success. That being the case, if Hunt is on the 53-man roster come Week 1 — expect him to be a rotational player and an impact special teams player. His tantalizing measurables (6-8, 82″ wingspan, 4.6-second 40) brought him to Indy. If the new position pays off for Hunt, great! If not, maybe he will block a couple of field goals.
Eighth-year nose tackle Al Woods
The Colts bring over the vet from Tennesee to compete at nose tackle. At 6-4, 307 pounds, you can see the overall size of the defensive line continue to grow. Woods is a run-stuffer, something that the Colts have desperately needed. He will push Parry, and I expect he will push Parry to a different sort of line (the unemployment line). Depending on how things shake out, trait :Woods may need to show some versatility to warrant a roster spot, as he can be released with a minimal financial loss.
Rookie defensive tackle Grover Stewart
Ballard on Stewart’s trait: “Grover is a big man with strength, good initial quickness and he can run.”
The little amount of film available on Stewart does show him beating the rest of the defense off the ball, albeit inconsistently. He will be working on his hand usage in camp. He is making a jump in competition, but it sounds like the Colts believe in Stewart and what he can become. Ballard continues:
“Our scout, Jamie (Moore), did a great job with him (Stewart). We think he’s got great upside… So, when we took Laurent Duvernay in Kansas City, now we took Laurent in the sixth round. We took this kid a little bit higher, but we believe in him and we have conviction that he’s going to turn into a player. At the NFLPA game, I thought he was the best defensive lineman there. Stood out. For a big man, he can move. He can get off the ball. He’s got strength. We think there’s a lot of upside, and we think he can play three different spots.”
A high ceiling, the psyche to get to that ceiling and position versatility are traits that Ballard obviously covets. Stewart fits the bill for the Colts, he wont be starting Week 1, but look for him to start on special teams and work into a rotational role. After Day 1 of rookie mini-camp, Pagano reiterated his excitement regarding Stewart’s “traits” and referenced him getting to the quarterback while over the guard. Stewart will be a Colt following the preseason.
Rookie UDFA defensive end/tackle Jhaustin Thomas
Thomas is 6-5 and 292 pounds out of Iowa State. He played two years for the Cyclones after transferring from Trinity Valley Community College to begin his junior year. Thomas’ plan to play both basketball and football for the University of South Carolina was derailed by academic issues. His sophomore year at Trinity Valley, he was awarded All-American status after amassing 55 tackles, 12.5 sacks and a fumble recovery. Thomas played defensive end as a junior with Iowa State. During his senior year, he would move inside when the team went dime. He was doing so well that the team moved him there full-time. He thrived. Cyclones defensive coordinator Jon Heacock:
“He’s (Thomas) really physically strong and he’s a big-bodied guy. He’s got long arms, he can get off a block, he can push the pile, he can get separation, he can take two gaps — those kinds of things, which inside, is huge.”
Thomas is an intriguing prospect that has some buzz around him. He will have his chance to compete and looks to be in line with what Ballard is trying to create in Indy. Thomas will push for a rotational D-Line spot. And, if he makes this team, then Parry and potentially Hunt do not.
Fourth-year defensive tackle Josh Boyd
Boyd was a fifth-round draft pick by the Packers in 2013. He registered 29 tackles in 26 total games. He was cut by the Packers in May 2016 and signed by the Colts on May 12, 2017. Boyd was not on an NFL roster for the 2016 season, but the Colts are giving him a chance and have added him to the 90-man roster. Once again, the Colts have a versatile lineman added to the group. Green Bay’s Coach McCarthy spoke about Boyd:
“I think Josh has a flexibility. He’s shown he can play the nose and he can play the three-technique.”
Boyd contributed in the run game in Green Bay, but lack of consistency and an ankle injury that plagued most of his 2015 season landed him out of work. Ballard has said in the past that he does not subscribe to the notion of “camp bodies,” so we will see what Boyd brings to the competition in Indy.
Mixin’ It Up
Barring any unexpected issues, the top of the depth chart is fairly straightforward.
DE: Kendall Langford — NT: Jonathan Hankins — DT: Henry Anderson
The second spot on the depth chart is not quite as predictable. The “defensive end” and “defensive tackle” labels will shift from player to player, perhaps play to play. The team is looking for versatility, among other things. It will come down to keeping five or six out of this group. Four of the spots are as close to a lock as you can get. So, that leaves two spots (maybe one).
DE: Ridgeway will be the early favorite here (one of the “locks”). With a year in an NFL strength program, I don’t think he gets caught and pushed below the “two” spot here. Actually, I expect Ridgeway to push Langford significantly. Langford was shut down after Week 7 in 2016 after a knee scope to start the season. Langford’s ability to regain the power in his lower half versus the growth and maturity of Ridgeway bears monitoring.
NT: This comes down to Parry, Woods and potentially McGill. The conventional thinking here is that Woods beats Parry for the backup nose spot, and McGill makes the team as a three/five-tech. The wild card here would be Woods not showing any versatility and losing his spot to McGill or even Boyd.
DT: Hunt, Stewart, McGill and Thomas will be the main combatants for this group. This is a compelling group and, on paper, Stewart, McGill and even Thomas bring more versatility to the unit than Hunt. I would like to see the Colts go younger here and forgo The Margus Hunt Project while opting for Stewart and McGill.
DE: Hassan Ridgeway — NT: T.Y. McGill — DT: Grover Stewart
The Colts D-Line will be better than last year because of Hankins. It will be interesting to see how the line shapes up around him. While the line competition may not be as wide open as others, the combination of players returning, returning from injury and those new to the organization is compelling. The Colts gave up the 10th-most points in the league last year. How different will this 2017 version look? Will it erase the memories of 2016?