INDIANAPOLIS — For the most part, the Indianapolis Colts left their outside linebacker group the same as it was the year prior for the 2016 season, relying on a whole lot of veteran experience to try to get some pass rush in defensive coordinator Ted Monachino's first season as the team's defensive coordinator.
Robert Mathis (14 years), Trent Cole (12 years) and Erik Walden (nine years) returned to bring a combined 35 years of NFL experience to the outside linebacker position to open the 2016 regular season, while the team also brought on an undrafted rookie in Curt Maggitt, who had been the University of Tennessee's top pass rusher before suffering a season-ending injury his senior year.
The result? Let's check out a review of the play of the Colts' outside linebackers in 2016:Career year
Erik Walden simply blossomed in his ninth year in the league in 2016, as he became a constant presence in his opponents' backfield.
By year's end, his career-best 11 sacks were tied for the eighth-most in the league, putting him in elite company with the likes of perennial NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidates Von Miller and Khalil Mack.
His 11 sacks also almost doubled his previous season high, showing an improvement few NFL players are able to display so late in their careers.
Now the question is whether or not Walden will be back for a fifth season in Indianapolis in 2017. He heads into the offseason as an unrestricted free agent, and his performance in 2016 leaves him as the top sack-producer in this free agency class.
Walden is durable (he missed just three games in four seasons in Indy), but at 31, will the Colts elect to go younger at the position? Time will tell.Curtain call
Robert Mathis gave it everything he had in his 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts.
This was no more evident than in the 2016 season, when Mathis would fight through a great deal of aches and pains to get onto the field nearly each and every week in what would be the final season of a potential Hall of Fame career.
In all, No. 98 played in 14 games in 2016, and finished with 20 tackles, five sacks and three forced fumbles, as well as a scoop-and-score touchdown against the Tennessee Titans to put the exclamation point on a victory in Nashville.
In his final game, Mathis, of course, went out with a bang, recording a strip sack — he's the greatest in NFL history to ever do it — on Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles, and completing the trifecta by recovering the fumble, as well.
He finishes his career with 123.0 sacks, the most-ever in Colts history.Come'back'
Trent Cole just wasn't feeling like his old self early on in 2016, but nevertheless, he tried to forge on.
Eventually, however, the pain in his back won out.
He elected to have midseason surgery to repair a nerve issue after Week 3, and, if things went well, set his sights on returning later in the year.
After a quick and successful recovery, that's exactly what Cole did — and he came back feeling as refreshed as he had felt in years.
His play on the field showed just that. He played the Colts' final five games of the season, and ended up with 16 tackles and two sacks, as well as a pass defensed, and when he wasn't the one making the play, he was oftentimes right there ready to pounce if needed.
Cole also heads into this offseason as a free agent, and there's no telling if the 34-year-old Cincinnati product will be back for a third year in Indy in 2017 or not. But you can imagine that wherever Cole lands, he hopes to prove — perhaps one final time — that he can still rush the passer at a high level.Other notes
One outside linebacker that didn't quite pan out in 2016 was seventh-round pick Trevor Bates. Bates, a Maine product, was waived during final roster cuts before Week 1 and then signed to the Colts' practice squad. After being signed to the active roster Oct. 4, he was released nine days later. He has since signed on to the New England Patriots' practice squad, and recently was signed to a futures contract.
Curt Maggitt, meanwhile, battled through some pains to play in nine games his rookie season, ending with four tackles and a quarterback hit — as well as four special teams tackles — before being placed on IR on Dec. 12.
Perhaps the most notable move for the Colts at the outside linebacker position in 2016 was the signing of Akeem Ayers, who had certainly displayed an ability to make tackles, rush the quarterback and defend against the pass in the first six years of his NFL career. Signed in early September, Ayers ended the season with 18 total tackles, two sacks, one tackle for loss, four quarterback hits, two passes defensed and one interception, giving the Colts yet another option to compete for a starting job in 2017.
Others that contributed at the outside linebacker position in 2016 included Chris Carter and Deiontrez Mount.Number to remember
47: The number of career sack-forced fumbles caused by Robert Mathis, the most in NFL history.
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