One of the attributes required to play in the Indianapolis Colts defense is speed.
Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus demands his players all fly to the ball on every play, not stopping until the whistle is blown.
This is especially true for the linebacker group as they are expected to be sure tacklers inside while also able to cover sideline to sideline.
Ever since Eberflus came to Indianapolis in 2018, he has had the privilege of having one of the best linebackers in the league in both of these areas. In 2021, the Colts look to have the most athletic pairing at the position group that they have had in a long time.
It’s time to look at the linebacking corps for the Colts and see who will be roaming the second level of this defense.
As he enters Year Four, Darius Leonard has accomplished quite a bit in his young career. For a guy that was labeled as "the worst pick in the 2018 draft," he has proven that to be one of the worst draft takes in recent memory.
Leonard has been a man on a mission since entering the league, becoming the starter at WILL linebacker for the Colts almost immediately. He earned Defensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2018, has been named First-Team All-Pro twice, Second-Team All-Pro once, and a Pro Bowler twice. He’s also been a team captain for the Colts for the past two years.
"The Maniac" has established himself as one of the best linebackers in the league and one of the pillars for this Colts team for years to come. That doesn’t mean for a second that he is not motivated to improve again this year.
“Just getting better,” Leonard said when asked what the next step was for him. “Watching all the bad tape, seeing how teams are trying to attack you, just learning the defense to a whole other level and just being that leader. Now that Anthony Walker is gone, you need that person to take on that leadership role and say ‘This is what you’ve got to do. This is the way it has to be.’ And just continue to be me.”
Walker was the leader of this defense and a huge voice in the locker room. With him signing with the Cleveland Browns in free agency, it is up to Leonard to fill that leadership void and be that vocal presence on the field and in the locker room.
Expect Leonard to rise to the occasion once again and produce at an All-Pro level. With a contract extension looming, he could very well reset the market for off-ball linebackers in this department as well.
With Walker leaving for the Browns, that leaves a vacancy at the starting MIKE linebacker position. Okereke looks to make this position his for the foreseeable future.
He enters his third season with the Colts with a much bigger role. After sharing snaps with Walker for most of the 2020 season, Okereke began taking the lion’s share of the snaps at MIKE towards the end of the year, signaling a change at the position.
Being the primary starter is an opportunity that Okereke embraces, but he knows he will have to step up to help fill the leadership role that Walker had.
“Obviously Anthony was a rock on our team,” Okereke said. “A vocal point, really a leader. So just for me, personal accountability, stepping up, making sure I’m that consistent leader for everyone on the defense, and really just keeping this thing rolling.”
Okereke is seen as being a more athletic linebacker than Walker and more of an asset in coverage. He’s also very intelligent coming from Stanford and possesses a very high football IQ that will allow him to get guys lined up and in the right spots, just like Walker.
This is a big year for Okereke. The Colts believe in him and are giving him a shot at being the man in the middle next to Leonard. If Okereke can improve on his playmaking and force more turnovers, this could be a great move for the Colts and help solidify his place as the MIKE.
The Colts play almost exclusively with only two linebackers on the field in Leonard and Okereke. However, there are times where a third linebacker is required and the SAM position makes an appearance. For that, the Colts will (likely) look to Zaire Franklin.
Franklin was a seventh-round pick by the Colts in the 2018 draft out of Syracuse. While he has spent most of his time on special teams, he has filled in as a starter when called upon. He has also been very durable throughout his three-year career, having played in all 48 games.
Franklin can also aid in replacing the leadership void left by Walker. Franklin was a special teams captain for the Colts in 2020 and has become a respected voice in the locker room. Look for this to continue as he becomes a more vocal leader alongside Leonard and Okereke.
While it is rare that the Colts play in three-linebacker sets, expect Franklin to be the third linebacker in these situations. If Leonard or Okereke go down because of injury, Franklin will likely be the first man up to fill in as well.
A Deep Group Returns
Linebacker was one of the deepest position groups for the Colts in 2020, and it looks to be strong again in 2021. The Colts have three reserve linebackers that all play a specific role for the team.
E.J. Speed is an intriguing player for the Colts. Taken in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL draft out of Tarleton State, Speed is a long, athletic linebacker that can cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Look for him to impress in the preseason as he locks in the backup WILL role as well as a key contributor on special teams.
Matthew Adams is a linebacker you don’t hear much about, but he does his job when called upon. Another seventh-round pick in the 2018 draft, Adams has primarily played special teams for the Colts but can start at SAM when needed. Expect Adams’ role to be much of the same in 2021, playing mostly as a core special teamer.
The last linebacker for the Colts is someone who was drafted strictly for his ability to play on special teams. Jordan Glasgow, a sixth-round pick in the 2020 draft out of Michigan, was described by general manager Chris Ballard as having the potential to become a Pro Bowler on special teams. He made an impact right away on that side of the ball, involved in numerous stops and helping the unit become a strength of the Colts. Glasgow will look to build on this and keep up his reputation of being a special teams star in the making.
See Below for More in This Series:
- Running Backs
- Wide Receivers
- Tight Ends
- Offensive Tackles
- Interior Offensive Line
- Defense Ends
- Defensive Tackles
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