2019 Colts Burning Questions: Linebacker

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the month of July — and the start of training camp — upon us, it’s time for the Indianapolis Colts’ Burning Questions series.

We continue today with the linebacker position:

» What will Darius Leonard do for an encore?

Darius Leonard didn’t just have one of the better rookie seasons at linebacker in NFL history in 2018; he stuffed the stat sheet in ways never before seen at this level. Leonard, the 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, finished his rookie campaign with a league-best 163 tackles (12 for a loss) and added 7.0 sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions. Since sacks became an official NFL statistic in 1982, he’s the only player to ever record 160 tackles, 7.0 sacks and two interceptions in a single season, according to Pro-Football-Reference.com. A First-Team All-Pro selection that was curiously left off the AFC Pro Bowl squad, Leonard has set the bar high for his second season in 2019. “I wasn’t named MVP, I wasn’t a Super Bowl champion and I wasn’t a Pro Bowler,” Leonard told reporters last month. “So, there are still goals I hadn’t reached last year. So, I just go in with the same mindset as proving everybody wrong and just out working everybody on the field.”

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» Can Bobby Okereke challenge Anthony Walker for snaps at MIKE linebacker?

Anthony Walker had a breakout second NFL season in 2018, manning the middle of the Indy defense and collecting 105 tackles (10 for a loss) with one sack, one interception, one fumble recovery and four passes defensed. He teamed with Leonard to form one of the best, if not the best, linebacker duos in the NFL, with their combined 268 tackles, 22 of which were for a loss. And while the Colts are very comfortable with No. 50 at MIKE linebacker, that doesn’t mean there won’t always be someone else pushing for snaps at his spot. Case in point: the team in April used a third-round pick to select Bobby Okereke out of Stanford, who will be counted on to play all three linebacker spots, but seems to project best at this point at the MIKE. Colts general manager Chris Ballard said he can’t wait to see how the competition shakes out at that spot during camp and heading into the regular season. “Look: to be the starting MIKE right off the bat, I mean, being able to make the calls, see everything that’s going on, all the checks and everything you have to do, that’s what he would have to be able to handle,” Ballard said of Okereke. “And then you have to be a freakin’ football player, like Anthony Walker. Anthony’s a good player and played real good football for us last year. It’s a really good problem to have.”

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» How will the Colts utilize the SAM linebacker in base defense?

While the competition at the MIKE linebacker spot is sure to be intense, there are likely going to be several more players in contention for snaps at SAM linebacker when the Colts are in their base defense. Okereke will also be in the mix at that spot, but the team has all kinds of other options it can consider at the SAM: Matthew Adams, who played lots of SAM last season, as well as Zaire Franklin and Skai Moore all return for their second seasons; there’s fifth-round pick E.J. Speed, who could get some valuable backup reps at the WILL but will be expected to be able to slide over to SAM at any time; there’s second-round pick Ben Banogu, who impressed as an edge rusher during the offseason workout program, but has the athleticism to play in space if needed; and then Ahmad and Tre Thomas, who are hoping to open some eyes and earn a spot over the next couple months. While the Colts primarily lineup in their nickel defense, which doesn’t utilize the SAM, the pure athletes defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus now has at his disposal to play the SAM could mean a few more base opportunities each week. We’ll see how they’re lined up when the Colts hold their first training camp practice on July 25 at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Ind.

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