INDIANAPOLIS — With the month of July upon us, and the start of training camp now within sight, it's time for the Indianapolis Colts' Burning Questions series.
We continue today with the defensive tackle position:
» Just how high is DeForest Buckner's ceiling?
Going into the start of this offseason, Colts general manager Chris Ballard specifically mentioned the team's need for a dominating interior presence up front along the defensive line. He put words to action March 18, when the team sent its 2020 first-round (13th-overall) pick to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for DeForest Buckner, one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL. But what's real exciting for the Colts regarding this move is that Buckner, at just 26, is yet to even enter the prime of his career. A Pro Bowl selection in 2018 and Second-Team All-Pro in 2019, Buckner has collected 262 career tackles (38 for a loss) with 28.5 sacks, 11 passes defensed, seven fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles in his first four NFL seasons; he was also an absolute terror for the 49ers' defense throughout their playoff run last season, including a standout performance against the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. Buckner will remain in his familiar three-technique position with the Colts, where the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Oregon product has a chance to even further establish himself as one of the league's more dominating defensive playmakers.
» Who starts at the other defensive tackle spot?
We know Buckner is locked in at one of the Colts' defensive tackle spots, but who will be starting alongside him? While the team tends to utilize a rotation of three or four players in the defensive interior throughout each ballgame, it'll be interesting to see who defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus tabs as the other primary guy up front. Entering training camp, there are probably three or four likely candidates: returners Denico Autry, Tyquan Lewis and Grover Stewart, as well as 2020 free agent pickup Sheldon Day, while guys like 2020 sixth-round pick Rob Windsor and undrafted rookie free agents Kameron Cline and Chris Williams will also look to show what they can do. It is important to note, however, that whoever starts next to Buckner will likely be playing the one-technique, or nose tackle, position in a good chunk of the Colts' defensive formations. Does that give a leg up to the bigger guys like Stewart and Day? Or will Indy prefer to go with more of a quicker, penetrating option like Autry (more on him below)? This will definitely be worth monitoring throughout camp and the preseason.
» How much moving around will Denico Autry be doing?
Perhaps an overlooked aspect of the Buckner trade for the Colts is the potential for Autry, the team's primary three-technique the past two seasons, to be freed up to move all around the defensive line (Lewis, in his third year out of Ohio State, is also in the same boat). Autry thrived in a similar role just two seasons ago; according to Pro Football Focus, he logged 664 total snaps along the defensive line, with about 55 percent coming off the edge and 45 percent coming from the interior, and logged a career-best nine sacks and 13 tackles for loss. Now with Buckner anchored in at the three-tech, and with guys like Justin Houston and Kemoko Turay sure to also earn their fair share of attention from opposing offensive lines, Autry could very well thrive once again as a pass-rushing specialist, taking advantage of his quickness off the snap and ability to at times dominate one-on-one matchups to wreak havoc either from the interior or off the edge.