Can Zaire Franklin Fill the Third Linebacker Void?

The Colts have a void in their linebacker group with the departure of Anthony Walker. Can Zaire Franklin be the one to fill the vacated snaps?
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The Indianapolis Colts have a bit of a void to fill in their linebacker group, as respected leader Anthony Walker Jr signed with the Cleveland Browns this offseason. While the team could still bring in a veteran, the in-house favorite to fill the vacated snaps appears to be 2018 seventh round pick Zaire Franklin.

Franklin is a well respected player in his own right, as he was named Team Captain in 2020. He is also a notable member in the community and one of the Colts' main spokesmen. On the field, Franklin is a top tier athlete who has played mostly special teams. In three NFL seasons, he has logged 262 snaps on defense and 930 snaps on special teams.

In today's film piece, we will look at the Colts' linebacker positions as a whole, and look at how well Franklin could fit as the third linebacker.

The Colts' Linebacker Positions

The Colts are a bit tricky to break down with their linebacker positions because they are mostly in two linebacker sets. The most the Colts have used a third linebacker under Matt Eberflus was in 2018, when Matthew Adams saw roughly 15-20% of the snaps in the latter half of the season.

The Colts only rely on three linebackers on the field against heavy sets or against teams that are heavy run offenses (Tennessee Titans, Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens). As for positions, the easiest one to name is the MIKE (middle linebacker), a position previously held by Walker and likely to be held by Bobby Okereke going forward.

The other two positions are harder to identify with the Colts. Technically, Darius Leonard lines up more as a SAM (strong side) backer than WILL (weak side) backer. The preferred position for him is obviously at the WILL but he technically takes more snaps at the SAM. The third backer, as a result, has to be fast enough to move like a WILL and strong enough against the run to handle SAM responsibilities.

All of that sounds a bit confusing, so I will simplify it a bit. The MIKE is the middle linebacker while the two outside linebackers have to be versatile enough to be interchangeable in the Colts' defense. I will go more into detail though in the film portion of the article.

The best example I have is this clip below. Leonard is technically playing the "SAM" position because he is on the tight end side of the offense, or the strong side. Franklin (circled) performs more of a SAM assignment by meeting the fullback in the backfield. Interchangeable positions for the Colts in this defense.

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Zaire Franklin's 2020 Film

Franklin only played 86 snaps on defense in 2020 but he did fill in on defense against the Tennessee Titans (in week 12) and the Cleveland Browns (in week 5). In those two games, I saw a few positives that lead me to believe that he will be perfectly fine as the team's third linebacker for 2021 and hopefully the future.

Starting with the game against Cleveland, I thought Franklin filled in admirably for Leonard in this one. He saw 26 snaps on defense, notching six total tackles and a run stop. Cleveland has a strong run game and Franklin brought his physicality in this match-up. Here, he barrels downhill and meets the fullback in the hole, forcing the run back inside to the help defense.

Franklin is a different level of athlete than most linebackers. It may not show next to players like Okereke and Leonard but he moves effortlessly at the second level. He does a nice job on this play of maintaining outside leverage on his blocker and chasing down the running back before he can get to the corner on the outside.

Again, Franklin is able to showcase his physicality in the box. He does a good job of not over-committing on the run and is the lone linebacker who isn't fooled by the backfield misdirection. He gets proper outside leverage and withstands the pulling lineman at the point of attack. Nothing flashy by any means but sound football that gets the run stop.

Chris Ballard is a big fan of players with juice. It is no secret that he selected Franklin in 2018 because of the juice and explosion in his game. Here, he flies downhill from the slot position and makes a tackle at the line of scrimmage. I loved watching Walker Jr over the years but he could never move the way that Franklin does on the field.

The game against Tennessee in week 12 was one to forget for the whole team and Franklin had some up and down moments. This was one of his better plays, as he again showcases his speed by tracking down the running back from the backside of the play.

Final Thoughts

Franklin has big shoes to fill on and off the field as he steps into Walker Jr's role on the team. If any player has the ability to fill both voids though, it is Franklin. He's a well respected, tough player who has earned this opportunity. His athleticism and physicality alone could make him a much better player than Walker Jr ever was on this defense.

2021 will be a trial year for Franklin to see if he can be the long term third linebacker on this defense. I think he is more than readt for this opportunity and will be a capable player off the bench for this team.

Follow Zach on Twitter @ZachHicks2.

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