September 07, 2017

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Johnathan Hankins shakes his head and smiles.

Al Woods just laughs.

Darius Butler struggles to name all of Indianapolis' defensive starters from last year's season opener.

On Sunday, the three veterans will become part of an NFL oddity - an entirely new starting lineup.

''I don't even know how many times that's happened in NFL history,'' Butler said when told about the likelihood of having 11 new faces on defense against the Los Angeles Rams. ''I'm going to have to look that up.''

In fact, only one starter from the first game in 2016 is even on the roster: T.J. Green, who moved from safety to cornerback to keep his job.

Maybe the massive overhaul shouldn't be all that surprising.

Since coach Chuck Pagano arrived in 2012, his defenses have finished in the bottom third of the league four times in five years.

But in the NFL the only thing worse than being bad is being old. And last year, Indy was both.

Indy's opening day lineup had seven starters who were at least 30 years old. The Colts finished the season No. 30 in yards allowed (382.9), No. 22 in points allowed (24.5) and tied for No. 26 in takeaways (17).

So when team owner Jim Irsay fired general manager Ryan Grigson in January and replaced him with Chris Ballard, of course the new guy cleaned house.

Longtime defensive lynchpin Robert Mathis had already announced his retirement, and Ballard expedited the rebuild by quickly cutting ties with four other starters, including 2016 sacks leader Erik Walden and former Pro Bowlers Mike Adams and D'Qwell Jackson.

Last month, Ballard released starting defensive tackle Kendall Langford after he failed a physical, and last week, the Colts cut nose tackle David Parry.

That's seven starters.

But Ballard wasted no time finding replacements, either.

He started in free agency by bringing in run-stuffing defensive linemen, such as Hankins and Woods, and productive linebackers such as John Simon and Jabaal Sheard. He refurbished the secondary through the draft by taking safety Malik Hooker and cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Nate Hairston.

All seven are expected to see significant action against the Rams and at least five are likely to start.

''I've never been through anything like this before, but it's a good thing,'' defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said Thursday. ''We are bigger, younger and faster and that should translate into us playing better football. I wouldn't expect it to take that long.''

That's certainly the hope around team headquarters.

While Ballard has continued to tweak the roster, looking to add playmakers and depth, it's not as if the Colts are completely devoid of cornerstone pieces.

Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis (groin) is expected to return in a few weeks, just as he did last year, and defensive tackle Henry Anderson has reclaimed the starting job he won as a rookie. Anderson lost the job last season when he was recovering from a torn ACL.

But this defense has more than just a new look; it has a new perspective, too.

Hankins raised expectations in May when he told NFL Network that he believed the Colts had the best defense in the AFC, a message his teammates have embraced.

''I think this defense could be good, really good, dangerous,'' Woods said. ''I think we might be overlooked and that's a good thing.''

Pagano doesn't mind hearing the bold talk - as long as his players back it up.

And now, Indy's revamped defense will, finally, get a chance to show the whole league how quickly 11 new players can come together and play winning football.

''We've got to go out and put some good defense out there,'' Hankins said. ''It's a whole, completely new defense, and I feel like we're definitely getting there.''

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