Eighth of a Position-by-Position Series on the Colts' Roster
INDIANAPOLIS – As Jim Caldwell sees it, when it comes to the linebacker position, the Colts have been here before. Many, many times, in fact.
Caldwell, entering his first season as the Colts' head coach, said the team faces a similar situation this offseason to that it faced often under his predecessor, Tony Dungy. The Colts have allowed a pair of reliable veterans – players with extensive starting experience – to test free agency.
And for now, that leaves the Colts relatively inexperienced at the spot.
So, what else is new?
"It's kind of how it happens," Caldwell said recently in an interview for this story on the Colts' linebackers, part of a position-by-position series scheduled to run on Colts.com this month.
Mike Peterson. David Thornton. Cato June. Marcus Washington.
All have started for the Colts at linebacker in the last seven seasons, and all have left to sign elsewhere as free agents, so Caldwell said although Freddy Keiaho and Tyjuan Hagler – who have started a combined 35 games for the Colts the past two seasons – could return, if they don't . . .
Well, it's not like the Colts aren't used to the situation.
"We lost David Thornton (to the Tennessee Titans in the 2006 offseason) and everyone was kind of wondering who was going to take his place," Caldwell said. "We have a young guy who stepped up and it goes right down the line, year in and year out. Right down the line."
The Colts' linebacker situation has been a much-discussed topic in recent weeks, with the team signing veteran reserve/special teams player Adam Seward in late March.
Caldwell, while attending the NFL Owners Meetings in Dana Point, Calif., the same week, said Seward likely will backup Gary Brackett in the middle, with Clint Session – a strong-side backer a year ago – moving to the weak side to compete for a position.
Philip Wheeler, a third-round selection in the 2008 NFL Draft and the Colts' fourth-leading tackler on special teams last season, likely will play at the strong side, Caldwell said.
Brackett, who joined the Colts as a rookie free agent in 2003, has started the last four seasons, serving as the team captain the past two seasons.
"He's the focal," Caldwell said. "He has done a tremendous job. He gets things set. He's an active guy. He does a great job for us in terms of setting our defense."
Brackett, who missed the last four regular-season games and the Colts' playoff game with a fibula injury, finished last season with 113 tackles, two quarterback pressures, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. A player who historically has had a knack for forcing takeaways and turning them into touchdowns, Brackett made one of the Colts' key plays last season when he returned a fumble 68 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter in Houston.
The play was a turning point of a 31-27 victory in which the Colts became the first team in NFL history to win in regulation after trailing by 17 or more points with less than five minutes remaining.
Session, a fourth-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft, played mostly special teams as a rookie, moving into the starting lineup last season when Hagler began the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list. Session started 15 of 16 games, registering 99 tackles with 70 solos, two passes defenses and three forced fumbles.
"Clint Session got a chance to play a lot for us last year," Caldwell said. "Clint is a thumper and a guy who does a great job of diagnosing plays. We have a good core. We have to add to the depth."
A player expected to be in that core is Wheeler, who played sparingly on defense last season but who finished the season with 14 special teams tackles.
"He's a young guy and we're looking for him to step up and be a player in our system," Caldwell said.
Asked if Wheeler would automatically move into the starting lineup, Caldwell said, "He's going to be in the mix."
Caldwell said while Wheeler would begin at the strong side position where Session played last season, just how the Colts' linebacking corps will appear during the season remains to be seen.
"That's one of the things we're going to find out," Caldwell said. "That's one of the things we're looking at: whether or not Wheeler will be our Sam (strong-side backer), Gary's going to be our Mike (middle) and Session's going to be our Will (weak-side backer). We have to kind of get a sense of what that flavor is going to look like."
Seward, a fifth-round selection in the 2005 NFL Draft, started two games and played in 40 in four seasons with Carolina, registering 20 tackles, 29 special teams tackles and a fumble recovery.
Seward, who played all three linebacker positions in college, played almost exclusively on special teams this past season, finishing the season with five tackles and a fumble recovery on the unit. He had 14 tackles on defense and 10 on special teams in 2006.
He played all 16 games that season, starting twice.
Buster Davis, a second-year veteran acquired off waivers from Detroit just before the start of last season, started three games in place of Brackett in the last month of the season. Other linebackers on the Colts' roster include second-year veteran Rufus Alexander, first-year veteran Michael Okwo and second-year veteran Jordan Senn.
Senn finished second on the team with 16 special teams tackles.
And while Caldwell said the Colts are still seeking to improve the linebacker position, he said that's hardly untrue at other positions.
"I think all across the board we're going to look to see if we can bolster our depth just a little bit," Caldwell said.