Opinion: Colts' Thinnest Positional Groups

By Sam Sinclair |
Opinion: Colts' Thinnest Positional Groups

Every NFL team has holes in its roster. Some have more than others. And some have more glaring needs, while others have small holes.

A lot of NFL media outlets believe the Indianapolis Colts have one of the more complete rosters in the NFL. Colts general manager Chris Ballard has done an amazing job building, no question.

Yet, while a strong roster is coming together for Ballard, the Colts still have holes. In this article, when defining "thinnest," think less talent than the rest of the roster and that position has a lot to prove their worth. 

Interior Defensive Line

This group outplayed its expectations last season. There were a lot of unknowns going into last season.

Namely (Tyquan Lewis, Margus Hunt and Denico Autry. just to name a few), that Colts fans had no clue how they would perform under the new 4-3 defense. Once the group was fully healthy, week one starter Al Woods would be relegated to the bench, hardly ever seeing time on the field for the rest of the season. 

Lewis was a second round pick by the Colts in the 2018 NFL draft. He missed the first half of the season with a foot injury, but once he came back in, he was productive. In his eight regular season games last year, Lewis, had two sacks (both against the Cowboys), 13 total tackles and eight quarterback hits.

This coming season the Colts expect Lewis to play both the three-technique, as well as play outside as an edge rusher. If we go off of last season's performance, though, Lewis still has a bit to prove, especially staying on the field.  

Hunt was brought in during the 2018 free agency after not being re-signed by the Cincinnati Bengals. In four years with the Bengals, Hunt only played in 44 games, so there were a lot of questions on what he could do for the Colts last season.

Hunt was arguably the most-consistent interior defensive lineman for the Colts last year. He played in 15 games for the Colts, racking up five sacks, 30 tackles, and 13 tackles for loss, a career high. Colts fans will see if Hunt can back up his performance from last year after playing exceptionally well for the Colts. 

Autry was also brought in through free agency. Formerly of the Oakland Raiders, Autry was a player rotating off the bench. The Colts brought in the 6'5" defensive lineman and when Autry was on the field, he played well.

Early on, the Colts used Autry in the three-technique spot, playing both inside and outside. The move benefited Autry as he had a team-high nine sacks last year in only 12 games. But that sack total can be misleading.

In two games (weeks 12-13), Autry had five total sacks, three against Jacksonville and two against Houston. Becoming more consistent in the pass rush will be important for Autry this coming season.

This positional group, while it outperformed last year's expectations, will be asked to outperform again this year. The Colts didn't accidentally become a top-10 rush defense. The guys in the middle did their work.

While a lot of fans and media thought the Colts would go get an interior defensive lineman in free agency or the draft, they didn't, actually grabbing edge rushers instead. Right now, though, the Colts are pretty thin at this position. 

Wide Receiver

A lot of unproven, young talent at this position. The Colts have "big name" wide receivers, but nobody has seen how they will perform on an NFL field for the Colts' offense.

The obvious No. 1 receiver is T.Y. Hilton and many can argue the No. 2 is free agent acquisition Devin Funchess. Once you get to the third receiver spot, though, you can make a claim for a lot of young guys.

Players like rookie Parris Campbell, basically a rookie Deon Cain, starter from last year Chester Rogers, Marcus Johnson, and Zach Pascal. A lot of young, exciting players can vie for an important piece in the Colts' offense. 

Not much to say about Hilton, who's a regular 70-catch, 1,000-yard, six-touchdown guy for the Colts. Hilton has been the most-consistent receiver for the Colts since 2012. He is "THE" guy in the Colts' offense who keeps defensive coordinators up at night wondering how they will defend Hilton wherever he lines up on any given play.

The only concern with Hilton is if he'll come back 100 percent from the ankle sprain he played with all last year. Of course, he will play through it, but Colts fans want to see Hilton at 100 percent, not 70-80 percent. 

Colts fans have yet to see Funchess run a route with quarterback Andrew Luck on the field. Not much cause for concern. The Colts kept Luck out for mini camps and OTAs so he can fully heal the calf strain he suffered in the off-season.

Playing alongside quarterback Cam Newton his first four years, Funchess has had drop issues, whether that be off-target passes or just mental drops. In his career, Funchess has an average catch rate of only 51.8 percent. Last year, he had a career high of 55.7 percent, but that only put him 84th among all receivers.

Reports from mini camp and OTAs have said Funchess has had miscommunication issues with quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Plus, there was a confrontation between the receiver and quarterback. While Brissett isn't the starting quarterback, if Funchess has that same problem with Luck, this one-year signing could turn into a flop.

The flashiest of all the young receivers, Campbell has also not caught a pass from Luck. The rookie was a second-round pick by the Colts in the 2019 draft out of Ohio State. Campbell blew the roof off of Lucas Oil Stadium at the NFL Combine, running the fastest 40-yard dash of all receivers (4.31 seconds) and jumping a 40-inch vertical.

The potential is there for Campbell to be a game-wrecker, but Colts fans have yet to see Campbell play a meaningful snap in the NFL. So, there are still those "prove it" doubters.

Cain was the "darling" of last year's training camp. The explosive 6'3" receiver from Clemson caught the eyes of all Colts fans who went to training camp last year at Grand Park in Westfield. After an ACL injury in the first game of the 2018 pre-season, Cain is hoping to return to the field fully healthy and ready to make an impact.

Like Campbell, fans have not seen Cain on the field in meaningful snaps for the Colts, so there is a little "pumping of the breaks" needed in projecting his potential. He does have all the talent. He's very athletic, fast, a high-jumper and he's big. We just need to see him on the field in a regular season game.

Rogers is arguably the most proven out of all the receivers behind Hilton. Last year, Rogers was a regular rotational receiver, starting 10 games and playing in all 16, additionally serving as the full-time punt returner for the Colts.

A season in which Rogers had 53 catches, 485 yards, and two touchdowns, there was a lack of production, especially with Rogers basically being a No. 2 receiver. But, he was mostly reliable, with a 73.6 percent catch rate. This season, Rogers might not even make the roster with how much young talent there is now. 

Finally, the back half of the receiver group, which include Daurice Fountain, Pascal, and Johnson. These guys were "spot" receivers for the Colts, mostly playing situational plays and not seeing the field much, if at all.

Fountain spent last year on the Colts' practice squad, but played the final game against the Chiefs, dropping a wide-open touchdown at the end of the game.

Pascal was the most productive of the bunch, scoring two touchdowns in 16 games for the Colts. He was also the lead kick-returner.

Lastly, Johnson played early and caught a touchdown against the Jets, but was placed on injured reserve after that game.

The talent is there. Most of the Colts' receivers are young and ready to prove themselves. That is simply what makes this group not as strong as the rest of the roster: a lot of young, unproven guys playing meaningful snaps.

There is a lot of deserved hype around this position with the play-makers in place, but it is still just a "let's see it on the field." situation. 

Linebacker

Yes, I'm well aware that the Colts have Defensive Rookie of the Year and All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard. Plus, the Colts have 100-tackle linebacker Anthony Walker.

But, after that, there's not much there in terms of proven talent. The Colts play a lot of nickel and dime packages on defense (around 54 percent last year), so the Colts primarily only used two linebackers. But, the talent after Leonard and Walker is a huge drop-off.

E.J. Speed, Matthew Adams, Zaire Franklin, Skai Moore, and Bobby Okereke all will be in line to be backups this year. And, it's anyone's guess if/where/how 2018 draftee Ben Banogu fits in.

A seventh round pick by the Colts in the 2018 draft, Adams, played in all 16 games, starting five. Last season, he had 33 total tackles, five for a loss, and two quarterback hits. Last year as a rookie, Adams struggled in pass coverage, recording zero pass breakups.

Adams' backup, Franklin, also played in all 16 games, starting two. He didn't have a lot of production as well (only 29 tackles) in a very limited role in the Colts' defense. Franklin was a special teams contributor for almost all of last season. This season, Franklin could be fighting for a roster spot with the Colts drafting multiple linebackers in this past draft. 

Speed and Banogu are both rookies, and we might not see them play a lot at linebacker this year, barring injury. Speed is slated to back up Leonard at the WILL linebacker spot. So unless Leonard is out, Speed will be playing mostly special teams.

And, while Banogu was technically drafted as a linebacker, the Colts have mostly used him as a defensive end in OTAs and mini camps so far. Don't expect Banogu to play a lot at linebacker this year. 

Okereke is also a rookie, but he is arguably the most-talented backup right now. A third round draft pick by the Colts in 2019, Okereke will back up Walker at the MIKE linebacker spot.

Okereke is a very-talented linebacker in pass situations. His long, 34-1/2" arms were the longest of any linebacker in the draft. He drew a lot of comparisons to his new teammate Leonard. Okereke started every game his final three years at Stanford and was a team captain. Like the rest of the rookies, Colts fans have to see Okereke on the field versus NFL offenses to see if he's the real deal.

While the top-end talent is there for two-thirds of the Colts' linebacking core, there are still many questions. Ballard has put a lot of draft stock in the linebacker spot, drafting seven linebackers in the last two drafts.

Now, it is time for the young players to show their skills. A lot of unproven, young linebackers are at this position, which makes this group a pretty weak group as a whole. 

Conclusion

Ballard has done a great job at filling the roster with talented players. There are not a lot of major glaring holes on the roster. Just some unproven talent that has to step on an NFL field.

In a year or two, though, Colts fans could be saying any one of these positional groups are the deepest, and best, groups on the roster. 


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