To make the next leap, the Colts defensive line’s collective success could come down to some of its youngest players.
According to PFF, the Indianapolis Colts narrowly missed out on a Top 10 ranked defensive line unit—as the Horseshoe came in at the 11th spot overall ahead of the 2022 season:
Tier 2: Strong with a weak point or two
11. INDIANAPOLIS COLTS
Indianapolis is going to rely on its front four to generate pressure in Gus Bradley’s new scheme, as no defense blitzed less than Bradley’s Chargers when he was defensive coordinator from 2017 to 2020 (16%), and the same was true for the Las Vegas Raiders under Bradley last season (11%).
The Colts have the players up front to get pressure with four rushers, especially after Yannick Ngakoue’s reunion with Bradley in Indianapolis. DeForest Buckner ranks fourth among interior defensive linemen in combined sacks and quarterback hits (45) since joining the Colts in 2020, and 2021 first-round pick Kwity Paye is looking for a breakout second season as the favorite for the LEO role in Bradley’s defense.
Now, first thing’s first, Ngakoue is penciled in as the favorite for the pass rushing ‘LEO’ role in new defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s Colts defense. That being said, Paye’s versatility and solid run defense should provide him some reps at that spot situationally regardless.
Ngakoue was the big addition to the Colts defensive line unit this offseason (although don’t rule out Dayo Odeyingbo showing a lot more during his sophomore campaign—more fully removed from a season-ending torn Achilles he suffered in early 2021 during NFL Combine prep, as his rookie season this past year was a redshirt season of sorts for Indianapolis).
With great familiarity with Bradley already from their time together with both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Las Vegas Raiders, Ngakoue should provide a consistent impact edge rusher to further complement NFL All-Pro DeForest Buckner’s interior presence. He had double-digit sacks last season for the Raiders (10.0) and 62 total QB pressures.
Like Odeyingbo, Colts’ 2021 first round pick Kwity Paye could also be poised for a breakout season with Indianapolis in his second year—as he began to show flashes of his pass rushing potential down the stretch in his rookie season, in addition to his run defense.
Meanwhile, his pass rushing prowess already mentioned, Buckner remains one of the best defensive tackles in all of football (and is arguably the second best player at his position right now in the league behind the out-of-this-world Aaron Donald). He remains the cornerstone and anchor of the Colts defensive line, but should hopefully see less double teams with Ngakoue’s arrival and the potential emergence of Paye and Odeyingo (if nothing else, those pass rushers should see more favorable one-on-one matchups with Buckner commanding extra attention in the trenches).
Last, but certainly not least, is Colts’ starting nose tackle Grover Stewart, who remains a force against the opposing running game while showing some pass rushing chops inside every now and then.
One could make the case that one to five (also including Odeyingbo), this is the most talented Colts defensive line we’ve seen in a while (maybe dating back to 2006, when the Super Bowl winning defense had Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and Booger McFarland).
There’s also some intriguing backups such as the re-signed Tyquan Lewis, as well as rookies Eric Johnson and Curtis Brooks to add potential depth during 2022.
While this ranking seems relatively fair, the Colts definitely have an opportunity to improve upon it as the season progresses—as this unit has a chance to become at least Top 5-7 defensively in the trenches.
Buckner, Ngakoue, and Stewart seem like relative locks to consistently produce at a high level again, so it may come down to whether Paye and Odeyingbo can breakout on a weekly basis in determining whether the Colts can ascend into a truly elite defensive line in 2022.