Colts Linebackers' Consistency, Production Crucial to Defense in 2009
INDIANAPOLIS – A few weeks back, Gary Brackett got his wish.
Brackett, the Colts' starting middle linebacker and defensive captain the past five seasons, said while he was prepared if necessary to sign elsewhere, he wanted very much as this off-season began to continue his career with the Colts. That was Priority One, he said.
On March 5, the first day of the NFL's free-agency period, the Colts and Brackett ended several weeks of negotiations when he signed a long-term contract extension that was designed to allow him to retire with Indianapolis.
It was a notable signing. And an imant signing.
It also was one that meant a lot to Brackett, not only the most-tenured of the Colts' linebackers, but a leader on the field and in the locker room.
"I'm honored to be one of those lucky guys who got to stay and finish my career with the Colts," Brackett said earlier this month. "I think it's a testament to how they view me as a player, not only on the field, but what I bring to the team in the locker room."
The signing did something else, something important:
It kept the Colts' linebacker group together.
And while the Colts throughout much of the last decade historically have fielded solid linebacking corps, often during that period they have allowed linebackers who have become unrestricted free agents to sign elsewhere.
Mike Peterson, Marcus Washington, Cato June and David Thornton.
All started for the Colts at linebacker during the last decade, and all signed elsewhere as free agents.
Over the last decade, that has created a climate of change at the position at times, and since the 2002 season, the Colts have entered each season with a different starting lineup than they did the previous season.
Although that trend could continue this season, with Brackett re-signing, the Colts have a chance to enter next season with the same lineup at linebacker that finished this past season, a lineup that helped Indianapolis win two postseason games and reach the Super Bowl for a second time in four seasons.
Brackett, who has started at least 12 games in each of the last five seasons, finished second on the team with 115 tackles – 81 solos – and with the Colts' defensive emphasizing attacking more than previous seasons, he developed into one of the team's best blitzers, registering seven pressures and a quarterback sack. One of the defense's most consistent players, he has had at least 113 tackles each of the last five seasons, defending 18 passes and intercepting 11 over that span.
This past season, Brackett had an interception and a pass defensed.
"We wanted him back," Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said of Brackett. "We know how important he is to us. He's our quarterback on defense, he's a big-play guy. He's kind of underestimated. Not only that, but what he does for us in terms of leadership off the field."
Clint Session, a fourth-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft, moved from the strong-side linebacker position – where he started in 2008 – to the weakside this past season, and in so doing, emerged as one of the hardest-hitting young linebackers in the NFL. He gave the Colts a big-play, game-turning presence at the position, starting 14 games and registering 104 tackles – 78 solos – and also had a half sack and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a game-turning touchdown in a victory at Houston.
"He's a very instinctive player, very fast, very athletic," Brackett said late last season of Session. "He will get after the guys on offense."
While Brackett and Session started from the beginning of the season, the other linebacker underwent change during the season.
Tyjuan Hagler, a five-year veteran, won the job in training camp and started the first seven games, registering 36 tackles before sustaining a biceps injury and being placed on injured reserve.
With Hagler out, Philip Wheeler – a third-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft from Georgia Tech – started the final seven games of the season, registering 52 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. After playing as a reserve as a rookie, Caldwell said Wheeler's development this past season was critical to the defense's improvement overall.
"Philip has come along very well," Caldwell said during the postseason. "He participated and played quite a bit, just in terms of our (look) squad early on. You could see him grow and develop in that role. When he had an opportunity to play, and really battled it out with Tyjuan Hagler early, he was a guy that just week-in and week-out found ways to try to improve himself, working with (Linebackers Coach) Mike Murphy and working on the little details, in terms of his movements and drops and reads and keys.
"You can even see within a meeting room setting how much he understands, how quickly he has grown to understand it, and he has gotten to the point now where is quite effective. But he has a tremendous upside. You haven't seen the best of him yet.
"You'll continue to see him get better and better. That's what we anticipate."
Said Brackett, "Philip is probably the most prototypical linebacker, if you will, out of the group. He does a good job. He's really coming on as of late. He has transformed into a good football player. I think playing, and that game experience, has given him that confidence he can play at this level, so now it's just about recognizing what the offense is trying to do and being prepared."
Ramon Humber, who signed as a free agent with the Colts shortly after the 2009 NFL Draft, developed into a key special teams player, leading the unit in tackles with 17 and also registering 22 tackles on defense.
Cody Glenn, a fifth-round selection of the Washington Redskins in the 2009 NFL Draft, played nine games after spending the first part of the season on the Colts' practice squad. He played a key role as a special teams player, registering six tackles.
Note: The 2010 Colts.com position-by-position series that will run during March is meant to serve as an overview of the Colts' roster as it stands entering the 2010 offseason and to provide fans a detailed look at how the position groups fared during the 2009 Super Bowl XLIV season. Any analysis included herein does not reflect the opinion of Colts management.