INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield July 26 for the start of training camp.
Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team that must rebound from its crushing loss in Jacksonville and return to a serious playoff contender.
Starters: WLB Darius Leonard, MLB Bobby Okereke, SLB Zaire Franklin.
Depth: E.J. Speed, JoJo Dormann, Sterling Weatherford, Forrest Rhyne, James Skalski, Brandon King.
Ready? Or not?
No one should question Darius Leonard’s place among the NFL’s linebacker hierarchy. He was the NFL’s 2018 Defensive Rookie of the Year, is a four-time All-Pro – three times a first-team selection – and has been named to three straight Pro Bowls.
Further reinforcement came in a recent ESPN survey of 50 NFL executives, coaches, players and scouts. Leonard ranked 1st among all non-edge rushing ‘backers.
One of the biggest question marks heading into camp is Leonard’s availability.
The heart and soul of the defense underwent back surgery June 7, and Frank Reich said shortly thereafter Leonard will “miss some training camp time, but if all goes according to plan he should be ready to go for the regular season.’’
There has been no update.
Leonard did not participate in the team’s offseason on-field work, and it was thought that was because he still was in rehab mode from a left ankle injury that bothered him throughout 2021. As it turned out, he also was dealing with a back injury that led to a calf issue.
“Darius will continue to rehab (the ankle/calf) and strengthen it, and my guess is now with the back issue cleared up, that the work that he does will actually take affect,’’ Reich said.
Leonard proved last season he’s able to play at a high level despite not being 100%. He earned his third first-team All-Pro nod on the strength of four interceptions, a league-high eight forced fumbles, eight passes defensed and four tackles for loss. He also finished with 122 tackles, but it was the difference-making plays that set him apart.
Although Leonard is coming off one of his most impactful seasons, he admitted it was one of his most difficult seasons. He had surgery last offseason to address an injury to his left ankle that never fully rectified the situation. That proved to just be the beginning. It was a tough year physically and mentally.
“I had the surgery, (and) the ankle was never healed,’’ he said. “My dad got sick, my sister got sick, I lost a cousin, and then it as just a lot of things, little small things that kept bugging.
“I just couldn’t get over it . . . I fell out of love for the game. I wasn’t enjoying it anymore.’’
Hopefully, another offseason – and another surgery – will make a difference.
On the field, Leonard is an ideal fit for Gus Bradley’s defense. He’s relentless and always in attack mode.
Home Sweet Home
Zaire Franklin was an unrestricted free agent at the end of 2021, and there were options.
“Honestly, it felt a lot like house-hunting, you know what I mean?’’ he said with a smile. “When it first starts you might fall in love with one house, then you put a bid in, and somebody outbids you. All right, whatever.’’
When it came time to decide, the 2018 7th-round draft pick opted to stay put.
“You kind of fall in love with a situation, but at the end of the day, I was really happy to really come home,’’ he said. “Just being back in the building, it really means a lot. Being comfortable just where I am from knowing my whole routine, my everything I’ve had going for four years is set up.
“Just happy to be back, happy to be back in the building, ready to keep making a run at this thing.’’
No one should casually dismiss the decision to re-sign Franklin. Teams don’t issue a free-agent contract to one of their own unless it’s merited. Franklin returned with a three-year, $12 million deal that included $4 million in guarantees.
Franklin has been one of the team’s core special teams players – at least 79% of the snaps in each of the last three seasons – and emerged as an 11-game starter at strong-side ‘backer last season. He finished with 40 tackles, including one for a loss.
Big Year for Okereke
This won’t be just another year for Bobby Okereke. The 2019 3rd-round draft pick will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
It’s anyone’s guess whether another strong season will convince management to re-invest in another of its own. Last offseason, the team signed Leonard, right tackle Braden Smith and running back Nyheim Hines to extensions. Guard Quenton Nelson is expected to receive a massive extension in the coming weeks.
Okereke has been heavily involved in the defense from the outset. He started eight games in each of his first two seasons, then started all 17 last year. And he made a difference in ’21 with a team-high 132 tackles, 2 sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and nine tackles for loss.
The 6-1, 235-pounder offers speed and athleticism, both of which are key to coverage responsibilities and run support.
By the Numbers, Part I
The deeper you dive into Leonard’s four-year career, the more impressed you get. Since 2018, he ranks 2nd in total tackles with 538 (Bobby Wagner has 605) and 3rd with 343 solos (Roquan Smith with 348 and Wagner with 344). Leonard is tied-2nd with 17 forced fumbles (T.J. Watt has 21), tied-3rd with seven fumble recoveries (Justin Houston and Vonn Bell with nine each).
His 11 interceptions are most by a linebacker and tied-11th among all defenders.
By the Numbers, Part II
The Colts’ starting ‘backers return intact – Leonard, Okereke and Franklin. They share 170 games and 106 starts.
But there’s little depth behind them. In fact, there’s only one start, which belongs to E.J. Speed. Brandon King, 29, was signed as a free agent and is listed among the ‘backers. But he’s a special teams standout. In six seasons, he’s been on the field for two defensive snaps and 1,390 special teams snaps.
Sterling Weatherford, a product of Hamilton Heights H.S., JoJo Dormann, James Skalski and Forrest Rhyne are rookies.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.