With the NFL season finished and the majority of free agents off the board, we can look at statistics from last season to determine how each defensive position group performed. Each group will be assessed, graded, and given a suggestion how to be improved.
Safety: Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers, Khari Willis
Review: Last season, the safeties for the Indianapolis Colts recorded only three total interceptions. Two of them came from Malik Hooker, and the other from Clayton Geathers (the first of his five-year career). The group was also more than adequate in terms of tackles. All three recorded at least 50, and the promising rookie, Khari Willis, notched 71 combined tackles. The defense was not often targeted deep this season, which shows they were playing their coverage well and not letting opposing receivers slip through. Hooker was only targeted 24 times throughout the entire 2019 season, per Pro Football Reference.
How To Improve: This group played well but not fantastic. Hooker has not been near the turnover machine he was at Ohio State. Next season, fans would love to see Hooker record a few more interceptions. So far the Colts have not re-signed Geathers, and for good reason. The rookie Willis outperformed Geathers on a cheaper contract and at a younger age. Willis and Hooker are likely going to be the starting safeties next season, barring any unforeseen circumstances. The Colts may want to select a safety in the later rounds of the draft for depth, but other than that, this position group is in solid shape for the future.
Cornerback: Kenny Moore, Pierre Desir, Rock Ya-Sin, Marvell Tell,
Review: The cornerbacks were mediocre last season. They frequently allowed 100 yard receivers and recorded few interceptions. They gave up a lot of easy throws and allowed many conversions on third down when they needed a stop. One of the bright spots of this group is Kenny Moore. Moore is one of the best slot cornerbacks in football. He is a very young and smart player who fills up the stat sheet. He had three sacks and two interceptions, but he allowed 70 percent of his targets to be caught. Pierre Desir was also a decent performer last season. While not being the best tackler, he had three interceptions and 11 passes defended. These stats might seem better than mediocre, but they are meaningless considering the yards and receptions allowed (48 completions for 616 yards). The rookies, Marvell Tell and Rock Ya-Sin, shined at times, but then absolutely blew their coverage other times. Blown coverages and penalty flags are expected from young and developing corners, so hopefully they can continue to improve in their second years.
How To Improve: The Colts have done a fair job addressing this position in free agency. They brought in former All-Pro Xavier Rhodes and veteran T.J. Carrie. Both will help Tell and Ya-Sin adjust to the league, along with creating competition for the starting role. Competition always helps players improve, especially young ones with potential like the two that the Colts have. In the draft, you might see a cornerback taken at some point, depending on which players are available. With the signings made in free agency, it may be enough to boost the development of the rookies that Chris Ballard loves.
Linebacker: Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, Bobby Okereke
Review: Darius Leonard and his supporting cast continued to impress last season. Leonard was again a candidate for Defensive Player Of the Year, with five interceptions, five sacks, and 121 total tackles. Stephon Gilmore, the player awarded DPOY, only had one more interception than Leonard. Anthony Walker proved to be a reliable tackler once again, with 84 solo tackles. He also had a career high of 2.5 sacks and his second career interception. With both of these studs set to turn 25 going into next season, this group is certainly set up with the future in mind. Leonard also made the Pro Bowl after being shockingly omitted when he was awarded First-Team All-Pro and Defensive Rookie Of the Year in 2018. Bobby Okereke was a rookie last season and proved that he deserves to be the third starting linebacker on defense. He had 48 solo tackles, two forced fumbles, and a “pick-two” against the Jaguars on a two-point conversion attempt.
How to Improve: There is not much that can be done to improve this position group. These three youngsters are just going to improve each year they are in the league.
Defensive Line: Justin Houston, Denico Autry, Jabaal Sheard, Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Grover Stewart
Review: Justin Houston was an underrated free agent signing last offseason. In his first year with the Colts, he had 11 sacks and 15 tackles for loss, leading the team in both categories. He was the most productive pass rusher on the team by far. Other than Houston, other defensive linemen were on and off the field due to injuries. After breaking out for nine sacks in 2018, Denico Autry had a down season and only managed 3.5 in 2019. Jabaal Sheard recorded 4.5, his lowest since 2014. Al-Quadin Muhammad rotated in and out at the starting spot as well. He and nose tackle Grover Stewart each recorded three sacks. Rookie Ben Banogu showed promise after Kemoko Turay got hurt. With the loss of Sheard, Turay and Banogu will likely be competing for the starting role opposite Houston. 2019 was not a bad year in terms of sacks, but it was also not great, which is what Ballard wants for his team.
How to Improve: Ballard has already turned this below average position group into a strength during free agency. Acquiring DeForest Buckner from the 49ers is a huge win. Buckner is only 26 and will have an immediate impact by creating interior pass rush. Ballard also signed Sheldon Day. This is seen as a depth signing, but there is no doubt that he creates more competition during practice. The only other move that could solidify this defensive line is to draft a defensive end to compete with Turay and Banogu for the starting role, and eventually take over for Houston when he retires. Houston is not gone yet, but his absence should be prepared for.
In conclusion, these positions need to be addressed this offseason:
1. Secondary depth
2. Linebacker depth
3. Young edge rushers