Looking back at the 2020 season, it was obvious the Indianapolis Colts needed to upgrade their pass rush.
While the Colts were 12th in the league in sacks with 40, too many times opposing quarterbacks could sit in the pocket without pressure as they delivered strikes downfield.
With Justin Houston and Denico Autry not returning in 2021, the Colts will have two new starters at defensive end, needing to replace 15.5 sacks. This presents an opportunity for the young pass rushers on the team to step up and prove they can be a disruptive force for this defense.
Let’s look at the group that will need to take a much-needed leap in production if the Colts’ defense is to be considered amongst the elite.
The Colts’ defensive end that has garnered the most buzz this offseason is rookie Kwity Paye, and deservedly so.
Paye was selected with the Colts’ first pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Seen by the Colts as the top pass rusher in the draft, the former Michigan Wolverine comes to Indy with very high expectations. The hope from the organization is that Paye can turn into a perennial Pro Bowler at defensive end, something the Colts haven’t had since Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
At Michigan, Paye was asked to read and react in their defensive scheme, limiting his production as he only had 11.5 sacks in his collegiate career. With the Colts, his role will be much simpler: Go get the quarterback.
“(At Michigan) It was kind of more of like read and react,” Paye said when describing his college scheme. “Here it was just attacking. We’re just going. So, for me, it’s little to no thinking but at the same time just reacting off of ‘just going.’ I think it’ll be a lot of fun.”
It’s hard not to root for a player like Paye. From his incredible story to the pros as an immigrant from Liberia and Guinea, to the type of person and player he is, Paye is someone everyone would like to have on their team.
All indications are that Paye will be the starter at right defensive end. Expectations should be tempered for Paye in his first year as it normally takes rookie pass rushers some time to adjust to the pro game. But when he does adjust, Paye has the explosion, bend, and relentless playstyle to be a monster for the Colts for a long time.
2020 was a make-or-break year for Tyquan Lewis. Before last year, he had a hard time cracking the rotation and was hampered by nagging injuries. It wasn’t a guarantee that he would even be on the roster at the start of the season.
Lewis stepped up in a big way and showed flashes of what the Colts hope he can become. In a backup role, Lewis racked up four sacks and invoked pressure both on the outside and inside. This year, Lewis has a chance to start at left defensive end.
“Everyone wants to just come in and contribute,” Lewis said when asked about the starting opportunity. “I work extremely hard. This offseason I think I worked just as hard as last offseason, and I want to put it on display again this year each and every day.”
Right now, Lewis should be considered the favorite to start at left defensive end. He is quick off the line and disruptive against the pass, but can also set the edge well against the run. If Lewis can take another step like he did last year, he will be a solid starter and can put up better production with more opportunities.
As a second-round pick in 2018, this is a contract year for Lewis. He will need to show the Colts that he can be an option as a long-term starter at defensive end if he wants to return next year.
Kemoko Turay was selected in the second round of the 2018 draft to be a long, bendy defensive end that can attack the quarterback. While we have seen flashes of that in his three-year career, he has yet to prove that he can do this consistently. The main reason for this is injuries.
After getting off to a hot start in 2019, Turay suffered a dislocated and broken ankle against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week Five, ending his season. While he was able to play sparingly last season, it was obvious that Turay was never quite right and battled soreness and discomfort in that ankle all year. This led to another surgery on the ankle in February as Turay hopes to get back to full strength in 2021.
A full year of health would do wonders for Turay’s development. When healthy at the start of 2019, he generated enormous pressure on opposing quarterbacks and had one of the highest pass rush win rates in the entire league. He has shown he has the talent, now it is just about displaying it consistently.
While it doesn’t seem like Turay will be an every-down option due to his limitations against the run, he can certainly bring an explosive pass rush element if he can stay healthy. Look for Turay to especially make an impact on third down and in NASCAR packages this fall.
Another pass rusher coming off a severe injury is rookie Dayo Odeyingbo. Odeyingbo was the Colts’ second-round selection in the 2021 draft and the second pass rusher taken by the Colts in as many picks.
Odeyingbo tore his Achilles in late January as he was preparing for the Senior Bowl. The Colts plan to bring him back slowly and make sure the Achilles is completely healed before pressing him into live game action. However, the fact that the Colts spent such a high pick on Odeyingbo even with the severity of his injury shows how much they believe in his ability.
Throughout his career, Odeyingbo has displayed incredible work ethic and determination, improving his game each year. Now he’ll have to use that same fight to bounce back from this injury.
At 6’6” and 276 pounds, Odeyingbo is a massive physical specimen. He shows incredible burst and explosion off the line of scrimmage and can be disruptive all across the defensive line. Given the nickname of “Human Hurricane,” his all-out effort every snap and tenacious style of play are perfect for the Colts’ scheme.
“I definitely see where the name comes from,” Odeyingbo said. “I definitely would like to live up to it. I feel like (that is) a solid way to describe the way I play … the disruption I bring to the game. I’m excited to get out there. I like the name, I hope it sticks. I’m excited to get out there and let the hurricane loose.”
There’s a chance we do not see Odeyingbo until late October, or even into November. Even when he is available to play, Odeyingbo will be eased into the lineup and need to adjust to the pro game. Long term, Odeyingbo is a player the Colts expect to make plenty of noise for their defense and possibly create a Pro Bowl tandem with Paye.
Looking at the rest of the defensive end group, three players look to make an impact in secondary roles at the position.
Al-Quadin Muhammad returns to the Colts on a one-year deal after spending the last three years in Indianapolis. Muhammad has been a solid rotational piece for the Colts and seems to step up whenever called upon. Look for him to continue in this role and possibly start if there are injuries at the position.
Isaac Rochell comes to the Colts on a one-year deal after spending the first four years of his career with the Los Angeles Chargers. Rochell is a player that can play outside as well as inside along the defensive line and is known for his all-out play style. Rochell will look to provide depth and special teams help for the Colts.
The pass rusher with the most pressure entering the season has to be Ben Banogu. A second-round pick in 2019, Banogu has only posted 2.5 sacks and was a healthy scratch for seven games last year, as he struggled to crack the rotation. He has shown inconsistency in practice and at times became invisible during games. If Banogu wants to make the Week One roster, he will have to prove in training camp and the preseason that he has taken the next step and can be counted on to produce.
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