Robert Mathis Retirement Should Be Just Beginning of Colts Offseason Overhaul at Linebacker Position
With the team’s longtime outside linebacker Robert Mathis retiring, significant change at the Indianapolis Colts linebacker position shouldn’t stop there this offseason.
It should signify just the beginning of an overdue ‘changing of the guard’.
Specifically, the front office should look to nearly completely overhaul the defense’s linebacker corps which currently features aging veterans such as Trent Cole (34), D’Qwell Jackson (33), and Erik Walden (31) playing prominent roles.
While Cole and Walden are both set to become free agents–with the former highly unlikely to re-sign with the Colts, Jackson is owed a $5.75M cap hit in 2017 and could be a candidate to become a cap casualty, especially after ending the season on a 4-game PED suspension.
As it stands, the Colts rank 24th in the NFL by allowing 24.8 avg. points per game, while also 377.1 avg. yards per game–which is the 5th worst mark in the NFL.
There’s no question the Colts have holes all over their defense, but it’s the team’s linebacker corps which has been the defense’s downfall all season.
Simply put, the Colts outside linebackers only have the 18th most sacks in the NFL with 31.0 total sacks–with Walden accounting for 10.0 of those sacks on the season. For the most part, the defense has struggled generating consistent pass pressure all season.
Meanwhile, the team’s linebackers, with the exception of veteran Akeem Ayers, have consistently struggled in coverage. Specifically, since signing with the Colts earlier this season, Ayers’ +77.4 coverage grade is Pro Football Focus‘ best (subscription) among all ‘edge defenders’.
Point being, the Colts have needed more linebackers like Ayers–who can effectively play in space in coverage and less straight-line run-oriented linebackers.
For comparison purposes, Cole and Walden’s coverage grade as ‘edge defenders’ were +53.7 and +48.5 respectively, while D. Jackson was just as bad at inside linebacker with a +48.5 coverage grade.
One of the Colts young inside linebackers, rookie Antonio Morrison, didn’t fare any better with a +52.3 coverage grade. However, it’s worth noting that Edwin Jackson at least held his own with a +67.1 coverage grade.
This Colts defense needs to get younger, faster, and more athletic, and right now, that change should start at the team’s linebacking corps where the team could desperately use a bonafide young pass rusher or two and at least one inside linebacker who can effectively cover in space consistently.
The NFL has evolved into a pure passing league. Problem is, the Colts have very few linebackers who can either effectively rush the passer or cover in space.
Despite leading the defense with 10.0 sacks, many fans could wonder why Walden may not exactly factor into the Colts plans going forward.
Simply put, it may not be the most prudent idea to provide a lucrative multi-year deal to a soon-to-be 32 year old outside linebacker coming off a career season.
While Walden has been productive for the Colts this season and is a serviceable role player for the defense, he’s never otherwise had more than 6.0 sacks during a season in his 9-year career.
Even with the double digit sack season, Walden has just a +50.2 pass rush grade overall (per Pro Football Focus), so he may have had some good fortune regarding his lofty sack total.
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Always lauded for his ability to ‘set the edge’, Walden has just a +38.8 run defense grade, which is the 98th best among 104 qualifiers.
As a result, Walden’s actual production may not be fairly represented by his stats.
When looking at this defense, the Colts need an infusion of young talent at the linebacker position overall with a focus on improving their pass rush and in coverage.
Mathis’ retirement should be just the first domino to fall for a position that could use a significant overhaul this offseason for the Colts.