INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts' 2018 rookie sensation Darius Leonard is already well-known among the NFL fan population. However, what many of those fans may not realize is that the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year is not the only high-end linebacker on the Colts' roster.
Third-year Northwestern product Anthony Walker gelled with Leonard last year to form one of the league's best linebacker tandems.
If you ask NFL.com analyst Bucky Brooks, the rest of the NFL is about to get acquainted with Walker in 2019, recently listing him among the top NFL breakout candidates in 2019:
"It's weird to suggest a player who just eclipsed 100 tackles is under the radar, but the Colts' middle linebacker has largely been overshadowed by his All-Pro teammate, Darius Leonard. Walker's impressive instincts and awareness, as well as his high-revving motor, make him an ideal fit for Matt Eberflus' hustle-and-flow scheme. If the Colts' defense picks up where it left off a season ago, Walker could join Leonard as a household name and one of the top linebackers in football."
As Brooks mentioned, it's hard for a guy who put up the stat line Walker did last year to be under the radar, but he is. It is almost the same scenario as the Colts' offensive line where they have a "hidden" gem in right tackle Braden Smith, who was selected after All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson in last year's draft.
Walker dealt with some injuries last year that kept him from playing in and starting all 16 games, but he was the team's unquestioned MIKE once he was in there.
He started 14-of-15 regular season games and had 105 tackles (10 for loss), 1.0 sack, one fumble recovered, one interception, four pass breakups and two quarterback hits. Along the way, Walker said he was able to get his confidence back after an injury-plagued rookie year in 2017.
"I just wanted to really believe I could play on this level," Walker told reporters this spring. "I think I was able to grow some more confidence last year. I had fun playing with Darius and the rest of the defense and we won games. That was fun.
"We take pride in bringing the culture back that the old Colts had," he continued. "They were playoff contenders every year and Super Bowl contenders every year. So we want to get back to that."
Together, Walker and Leonard were the league's leading tackle tandem with a combined 268 tackles and 22 tackles for loss.
When the Colts made Walker one of their fifth-round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft, he was known as a cerebral defender — or a "quarterback of the defense" — which in part comes from his days growing up as a coach's son.
The Colts got a taste of those attributes late in Walker's rookie season. A hamstring injury derailed much of the early portion of that season for him, but another injury in the starting lineup allowed Walker to move in and start the final two games of the season.
After a solid audition of sorts at the end of 2017, that was then parlayed into getting the initial nod as the starting MIKE in the Colts' new 4-3 defense that coordinator Matt Eberflus implemented last year.
"Yeah, I just think he communicates really well. I think he does a really good job of understanding the whole scheme," Eberflus told reporters about Walker near the end of last season. "He sets the defense a lot of times when he's in there on first and second down so he has done a good job with that. He has bought in. He has bought in.
"Again, some players buy in right away and he was one of those guys who bought in pretty early. It took him a couple weeks, but once he bought into it he understood what we were trying to get accomplished," Eberflus continued. "He really bought into it in terms of his work ethic, his studying and his work patterns day in and day out to get better. He's improved over the course of the year."
With Walker in the middle of it all, the Colts defense surprised a lot of people along the way. In their first year under Eberflus, the Colts' speedy, athletic defense finished 10th in scoring and 11th in overall defense, allowing 21.5 points and 339.4 yards of offense per game, respectively.
They tied the NFL record for tackles for loss within the first four games of a season (31), displaying an often stifling effort against the run throughout the entire campaign. The Colts finished as one of only three teams to not allow a 100-yard rusher in the regular season despite facing five of the league's top 10 rushers.
The defense was selfish when it came to which team should have the ball, becoming the final team for the season to have a turnover in every game, which lasted 13 games, and forcing at least one turnover in a league-most 15-of-16 games.
When it comes down to it, defense is all about keeping the opponent from scoring, and not many teams did a better job at that than the Colts.
In Week 15, they handed the Dallas Cowboys their first shutout since 2003, and the Colts held the Houston Texans to just seven points in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs, Houston's lowest total of the season and the only time they were held to single digits.
In the first eight games of the season, the Colts allowed 26.6 points per game but then improved to 16.4 allowed over the final eight games. Not coincidentally, this coincided with the Colts winning seven of those eight contests, allowing just six points in their one loss.
Walker is expecting to face a tough camp battle against rookie third-round pick Bobby Okereke this summer, but the incumbent embraces the organization's stance on competition and everybody earning their spot.
"We thrive on competition here. It is the NFL. The team is going to get the best player available and they feel that – it is just competition. That is all it is," Walker said. "We are going to have fun doing it. Best player will play and we will leave it up to that."
Regardless of the outcome, there is no doubt that Walker has earned the starting MIKE spot to this point, especially in the middle of a defense that performed as well as it did last season.
"It is going to be fun; it is going to be fun to play in this system. Guys understand what it takes to be in a great defense and how we have to play every game," Walker explained about the defense's growth going into year two of Eberflus' system. "It will be fun. It will be fun to see guys take that step from year one to year two."
If Walker becomes the breakout star that Brooks indicates, then there will indeed be a lot of "fun" along the way.