FPC Colts continues its free agency preview with Linebackers.
The linebacker position is vital; they are the quarterback of the defense. Linebackers are the tackling machines; they stop the run and cover tight ends and running backs primarily. In the Colts, new 4-3 there are three linebacker positions, compared to the four linebacker positions in the Colts Chuck Pagano 3-4 defense. The role and responsibilities of the linebacker in the Colts defense have now changed.
The Will Linebacker is going to pursue to the football and clean up on cutback runs. He is usually the linebacker with the most athletic ability and needs to be as good versus the run as the pass. For example, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Lavonte David.
The Mike Linebacker has to show good change of direction, speed down the field in Cover 2 zone and also has to be an effective downhill defender against the run. For example, Carolina Panthers Luke Kuechly.
The Sam Linebacker’s responsibility is to take on the lead blockers in run plays and deal with tight ends releasing into pass patterns. For example, Minnesota Vikings Anthony Barr.
The Colts, well Ryan Grigson, made one of the biggest mistakes in 2016 by letting Jerrell Freeman sign for the Chicago Bears. Freeman was the best linebacker the Colts have had since Gary Brackett retired in 2011. Outside of Freeman, it has been a revolving door at the linebacker position for the Colts. Last year saw the trend continue with Jon Bostic and Antonio Morrison man the inside linebacker positions. Similar to recent years, the linebacking play stunk.
Bostic is an unrestricted free agent who should not be resigned and Morrison will either be cut or kept around due to him being on a rookie contract and the help on special teams he can offer. The whole linebacker position group needs an overhaul, as there is little to no talent there. The only bright spot in the linebacker room is Anthony Walker. Walker, a rookie out of Northwestern drafted in the fifth round by the Colts last year, made the most of his limited snaps and showed some potential.
The Colts need to seriously upgrade the linebacker position and could look to add to this group via free agency. The Colts recently signed a free agent linebacker Tyrell Adams, the first addition Chris Ballard has made for new Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. While Adams is likely to be nothing more than a training camp body, we can get an insight into the type of linebacker that Eberflus wants on his defense. The “profile” we can get: over 6 feet tall, around 230lbs, aged 25 and athletic. With this in mind, there are potential free agents that the Colts could add this offseason.
Antony Hitchens, 25, has been the linebacker most heavily linked to the Colts so far this offseason, and rightly so. Hitchens fills the need at linebacker and has links to Eberflus from his days in Dallas. Hitchens has had a solid career so far in the NFL due to his versatility and athleticism; he has played all three linebacker positions for Dallas in his career. Last year Hitchens did not disappoint, as he was good against both the run, posting a 14.5 run stop percentage, and the pass grading out at 73.3 by Pro Football Focus. Hitchens is coming off his best is coming off his best season as a pro, grading out at 80.8 which ranked as the 17th highest in the league amongst off the ball linebackers.
However, one downfall to Hitchens would be that even though he is a stable linebacker he does not make enough game-changing plays that you would want from him. According to Spotrac, Hitchens’ market value sits at $6.4 million. Taking into consideration Hitchen’s versatility and his stand out year his market value seems right, the Colts would be clever to make a deal with Hitchens and capitalise on his already forged relationship with Eberflus.
Todd Davis, 25, went undrafted out of Sacramento State in 2014. The New Orleans Saints picked him up as an undrafted free agent. After his release from the Saints, the Denver Broncos picked him up and has been with the Broncos ever since. In 2016, his first season starting at linebacker, he recorded 97 tackles, 0.5 sacks and three passes defended. Davis has consistently shown efficiency in tackling, he has been a constant force in the run game. Davis has been graded well by Pro Football Focus for his run stopping ability; it is his pass coverage where he seems to struggle. Davis seems to be a liability in coverage when he is the primary defender covering tight ends or running backs out the backfield.
Davis was signed to a second-round tender last year as he was a restricted free agent and earned a salary of $2.75 million. With all this in mind, Davis is not a big name nor or he production rich, he is not in a position to be demanding a sizeable contract in free agency. I can see his market being around the $3 million a year mark. Davis would not break the bank if he is acquired and has proven he can play the linebacker spot efficiently so he could definitely be an option for the Colts to explore.
Corey Nelson, 25, was a seventh-round pick out of Oklahoma in the 2014 draft by Denver. Nelson was primarily a special teams player for the first two seasons of his pro career, but after his teammate, Brandon Marshall got injured in 2016, Nelson was thrust into the starting line-up. He did not look out of place, recording 67 tackles and five passes defended. However, 2017 was not as kind to Nelson as he only managed up until October before he tore his bicep in practice.
What Nelson did manage to show in his short time starting in his career is that he can be a three-down linebacker, his athleticism shows as he is all over the field at times and has the speed to get sideline to sideline. However, the bigger offensive lineman can overpower Nelson–due to him being an undersized linebacker–at times especially during run plays. Nelson will not be getting anywhere near to a sizeable contract this offseason and that could work well for the Colts.
There are also several other Linebacker options the Colts could go after in the offseason such as Nigel Bradham, Preston Brown or even Zach Brown. All who have familiarity and proven production in a 4-3 defense. However, going off the mold Tyrell Adams offers, these options do not fit. It would not surprise me if the Colts were to double down on the linebacker position in free agency and seeing the sorry state of the current linebacking group, I would applaud that tactic.
The best linebacker option for the Colts in free agency is by far Anthony Hitchens. He has a relationship with Eberflus already, he is versatile, knows the scheme, he is young and he can be the three-down linebacker the Colts desperately need. The Colts should definitely pursue Hitchens and with the cap space they have should have no hesitations in matching his contract market value.
The Colts sign Anthony Hitchens to a 4 year $28million contract.