Hot takes in the offseason of the NFL are a dime a dozen. If you’re not a Colts fan, or even if you are and you relied on ESPN and NFL Network as your only source for your knowledge of the state of the Colts, it is likely that you’d be able to say two things about them with certainty: (1) Their offensive line stinks and is trying to get Andrew Luck killed, and (2) Their defense is pathetic.
Don’t get me wrong. Those statements are not totally off base. The Colts offensive line has been pretty lousy since Andrew Luck took the helm. Oh, and that defense? Yeah, it hasn’t been anything to brag about either, with 2016 definitely being its lowest point. But that isn’t the whole picture. The offensive line saw substantial investments into it last season through the draft, and by the end of the season, we were looking at a dramatically better unit than at the start. I’m not saying you should expect them to dislodge the Cowboys for the league’s best OL, but we ought to be able to put that particular hot take to bed after the 2017 season.
Which brings me to number two. The Colts defense won’t be pathetic this season. They probably won’t light the world on fire either. Chances are that they will fall somewhere in the middle. GM Chris Ballard is on a mission to fix this defense and that isn’t a one year project. It is likely that it will take every bit of three years to see just how well he has done. If you’ve been watching, all he has done is go after the Colts defensive roster like a military barber at Woodstock.
That doesn’t bother you if you watched any film on their defense from last season. It gives me great hope that this could be a competitive defense purely because it now has youth, speed, and athleticism on its side. While that alone might not translate to a good defense, it seems unlikely to translate to a worse one than what they fielded last season.
Much has been made after the draft about the improvements in the Colts secondary, and those are certainly worth noting. What I’d like to examine though, is the defensive line. This is an area that I think has the potential to be the breakout strength not just of the defense, but of the team. Stay with me.
This is what the starting defensive line could look like come according to Stephen Holder of the Indianapolis Star come September:
DT: Henry Anderson, Grover Stewart
NT: Johnathan Hankins, Al Woods
DE: Kendall Langford, Hassan Ridgeway
The signing of Johnathan Hankins really makes a difference for this unit as he makes the first real run-stuffing nose tackle the Colts have had in the Pagano era. It is truly hard to quantify what that will mean to a team that has been absolutely gashed in the run game by just about every team they’ve played. Kendall Langford will be the veteran on the defense at 31 years old and if he can stay healthy will add a good combination of experience and skill on the line. But I believe the real reason for optimism is third-year player Henry Anderson.
Anderson hasn’t been totally healthy since week 9 of his rookie season, against the Denver Broncos, when he tore his ACL. His loss was buried under coverage of Andrew Luck lacerating a kidney and getting knocked out for the season, but it was a huge loss. Up to that point, Anderson had been on pace to very seriously compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year as a steal out of the third round of the 2015 draft. Since then, he has gone largely forgotten. He struggled through the middle part of the 2016 season before injuring his other knee. He never really looked like the player we saw through the first half of his rookie season. So why would that make me hopeful?
First, ACL tears don’t usually recover like Adrian Peterson’s. Most doctors will tell you that it takes closer to two years to fully recover from both the physical and psychological trauma. It is a tough injury to come back from, and when you are in the thick of things on the defensive line, it is easy to understand how it could be hard to trust that knee to hold. Anderson didn’t play with the same explosiveness and burst, which either meant that his knee wasn’t totally healed, or that he was just playing tentatively. Another year removed from that injury should put him in a position to change that. Additionally, this is Anderson’s second year in Ted Monachino’s defense, which should give familiarity and comfort with the plays and allow him to think less and attack more quickly. When you add in the upgrade in surrounding talent I think it is very likely that we will see a return to form, if not a player making the jump from solid role player to a big-time playmaker on the Colts defense.