INDIANAPOLIS — If you've been following the Indianapolis Colts for the last 17 months, then you know change has been the name of the game.
The emphasis has been on making the roster younger, more athletic, faster and tougher. Aided by a defensive scheme change this offseason, the team's linebackers will be among the most drastically affected groups on the roster.
Of the nine off-ball linebackers who were on the roster when general manager Chris Ballard was hired last January, only two are still around. One of the two — Luke Rhodes — is now the team's long snapper.
In new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' 4-3 scheme, speed and range are premium traits for their linebackers, so the old-school thumper types are not as common in this type of defense.
The Colts' current group of 10 linebackers is largely unproven. There are some veterans with starting experience such as Najee Goode and Antonio Morrison, but the rest of the group has just three total starts between them and an average of 1.1 years of NFL experience.
It's safe to say that the three starting linebacker spots are open for the taking. As Eberflus told reporters during mandatory minicamp: "One through 10 we have no idea who is one and we have no idea who is 10. So, the competition is up in the air and that's at every position."
To get a grip on what they have at linebacker, the coaches gave pretty much everybody the chance to work with each level of the depth chart during offseason practices. There was a lot of players moving and substituting. There were linebackers out there who took reps with the first, second and third units throughout the offseason.
Despite the frequent rotations, the team saw a lot of Goode, Anthony Walker and Tyrell Adams running with the first unit. It is too early to form a depth chart, but it would not be surprising to see that trio get the initial crack as the first-team linebackers come training camp.
Head coach Frank Reich was asked specifically about the linebackers and the rotations during last week's mandatory minicamp:
"Especially at all positions, but really at the linebacker position when you're in OTAs and you don't have pads on and it's not live, it really is just, as you said, a rep chart. It's hard to tell," Reich said. "I really think it will play itself out once we get the pads on. I think you'll see the depth chart start to come into focus once we get the pads on. This happens every year. You get into OTAs and there are some guys who when they get the pads on they just rise up. And we are just waiting to see who that is going to be. There is usually – especially on defense that happens a lot because there are just some guys who have that instinct. I think that's going to play itself out in the first couple weeks of camp."
One factor that threw a slight wrench into the mix at linebacker this spring was the absence of rookie second-round pick Darius Leonard, who is expected to compete for a starting role. His ability to cover sideline to sideline and get ball carriers to the ground makes him an ideal fit at the WILL position, but the coaches were unable to fully evaluate him during the offseason program as he dealt with an undisclosed injury.
If the Colts can get Leonard back on the field in time for training camp, then it makes evaluating the linebacker group easier because he is expected to be an important part of it. The reps can then be divvied up accordingly.
It is hard to say if any players (like Leonard) will still be held out when training camp starts. However, the team must move forward with the players on the field.
But, like Reich said, the picture should get clearer within each passing training camp practice.