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 end position:
» Can Kemoko Turay pick up where he left off early last season?
Turay was clearly on the rise to start his second NFL season in 2019; through the Colts' first five games, he had accumulated 1.5 sacks, five quarterback hits and eight hurries, but his presence was being felt way beyond the stat sheet. During that span, Pro Football Focus had ranked Turay second among all qualifying NFL edge defenders with a 91.0 pass-rushing grade, while his 22.9-percent pressure rate also was the second best in the league. Unfortunately for Turay and the Colts, however, he would suffer a season-ending ankle injury in the team's Week 5 road win over the eventual Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, putting a sudden end to what could've been a special season for the Rutgers product. Turay has worked his way back, though, and if he can get back to providing the level of pressure he was showing early last season in 2020, he could be a legit X-factor for what should be an up-and-coming Colts defense.
» How will Justin Houston benefit from the acquisition of DeForest Buckner?
The Colts made a major splash back in March when they traded their first-round (13th-overall) pick to the San Francisco 49ers to acquire DeForest Buckner, who at 26 years old is already one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL. Buckner should wreak havoc inside from the three technique position, just like he did for the 49ers, where he had 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. But Buckner is also one of those types of players who makes a clear impact on the defenders around him; opposing offenses are so worried about Buckner breaking free that his fellow defensive linemen, and the linebackers behind him, oftentimes have a little more freedom to get to the ball. One has to imagine that's music to the ears of Indy veteran pass rusher Justin Houston, whose 11-sack season in 2019 was his first double-digit sack performance in five years. Houston clearly stands to benefit from Buckner's presence, just like Arik Armstead and Nick Bosa did off the edge last season for a San Francisco defense that carried the team to an appearance in Super Bowl LIV.
» Who will step up in place of Jabaal Sheard?
Jabaal Sheard was a solid, solid presence off the edge for the Colts' defense the past three years; over that span, he played in 45 games with 44 starts and collected 127 tackles (27 for a loss) to go along with 15.5 sacks, 36 quarterback hits, nine passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. And while Sheard provided pressure on the passer, he was a major reason why the Indy defense has ranked seventh against the run the last two seasons; the consistent way in which Sheard set the edge and kept backs contained to the inside should not be overlooked. But Sheard is now a free agent, giving others a shot to fill his role with the Colts in 2020. While Houston stands to be one of the starting defensive ends, who will start in Sheard's place moving forward? Will it be the aforementioned Turay, or will defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus want to utilize him more in a specialized pass-rushing role? What about Al-Quadin Muhammad, who has played well in Sheard's place in the past? What about Denico Autry, who has the freedom to move around now that Buckner will be starting at the three-tech spot? Then there's Ben Banogu, a second-round pick in last year's NFL Draft who, like Turay, seems to have plenty of upside. The Colts have options at defensive end opposite Houston; they just need someone to step up and grab the job.