INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard has made it abundantly clear that their top priority in talent acquisition is to draft and develop great players.
When teams do that, they feel they are getting a chance to get their hands on that player first and groom them the right way in their system in order to help that player reach their potential.
The linebacker position is one that Ballard and the Colts have gotten quite good at molding, as all nine of the linebackers on their roster were either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents by the Colts since 2017.
The Colts went to the well again in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft when they selected Stanford linebacker Bobby Okereke with the 89th-overall pick.
According to NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal, Okereke is a prime example of a player "who could make an enormous difference by taking the next step in their development," as he tracks each team's "key homegrown player:"
LB — Year 2
Whether tracking down quarterbacks, smashing running backs behind the line of scrimmage or making a play in coverage, Okereke was a force as a rookie. He played so well, with some Darius Leonard-like traits, that Indy needs to find a way to get him on the field more next to Leonard in clear passing situations. Consider that a good problem. The Colts use Anthony Walker as their middle linebacker, but Okereke has already shown the game-changing ability to stay on the field every down.
Although he wasn't an every-down player for the Colts' defense as a rookie playing the SAM linebacker position, he made a huge impact.
"Yeah, I think we probably did use him a little bit more. We trust Bobby. Bobby is one of those guys that executes well, has high functional intelligence, plays the game at a high rate and learns at a high rate. He is one of the guys that we put in there and increased his role," Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus told reporters at the end of the season.
"You do different things with different guys. Sometimes you have a bigger-type body that you might set him on the line of scrimmage more. He might function as more of a defensive end or you have Bobby who is more of an off-the-ball linebacker where you put him in space, put him in the bubble and play him that way. It all depends on what they bring to the table," Eberflus continued. "Bobby does a nice job in space. He is a good space-player. He is able to adjust his body, move in space and understand angles. He has done a nice job that way."
According to PFF, Okereke was the top rookie linebacker in the NFL with a grade of 77.3, which ranked nearly 11 points higher than the next player in a rookie linebacker class in the NFL that had plenty of starpower.
Okereke was also the No. 8 linebacker overall in the NFL for those who played at least 450 snaps.
His biggest impact was felt in pass coverage, as his 79.2 grade was again tops among rookie and eighth among all NFL linebackers. Okereke allowed 28 receptions on 34 targets, but yielded the second-fewest yards per reception among rookie linebackers (7.4), the third-fewest yards after catch (120) and the fourth-best opponent passer rating (102.0).
In total, he started 8-of-16 games, amassing 58 tackles (two for loss), 1.0 sack, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovered, two pass breakups, one quarterback hit, and he intercepted and returned a two-point conversion attempt for points. He was credited with only five missed tackles throughout the season, according to PFF, which ranked fourth fewest among qualifying linebackers.
Moving forward, the Colts have a bit of a good problem to try and figure out.
They have a superstar linebacker at the WILL spot in Darius Leonard, who has very good chemistry with the starting MIKE, Anthony Walker. Together, the pair have both reached 100 tackles in each of the last two seasons.
The "problem" is that Okereke plays the linebacker spot that sees the fewest snaps in the SAM position, but he obviously is good enough to see the field more often.
Do the Colts experiment with switching Okereke and Walker's spots, does Okereke take over the MIKE in primary passing downs, or do the Colts simply use more base defense in order to have all three linebackers on the field together?
Whatever the Colts decide to do, Okereke looks ready to shine even more in Year 2.