Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell Discusses the Team's Outside Linebacker Position
INDIANAPOLIS – Continuity is one thing.
And with all of the Colts' starting linebackers returning next season, Head Coach Jim Caldwell said the unit for the first time in a while has a chance to have that.
But Caldwell said there's more to it.
The unit has to perform. It has to work. It has to improve.
And mostly, Caldwell said, it has to do so as a unit.
Caldwell, in his second season as the Colts' head coach, said while the Colts' starting linebackers – outside linebackers Clint Session and Philip Wheeler, as well as middle linebacker Gary Brackett – have the benefit of having played together previously, there's one more factor in the equation.
"The key is playing well together," Caldwell said recently in an interview for this story on the Colts' outside linebackers, part of a position-by-position series scheduled to run on Colts.com this month.
The Colts' outside linebackers – Session and Wheeler – took major strides toward doing that last season, Caldwell said.
And they did so despite being relatively inexperienced at their positions.
Session, a fourth-round selection in the 2007 NFL Draft from Pittsburgh, moved from the strong-side linebacker position – where he started in 2008 – to the weakside in the 2009 off-season. He not only made the transition, he did so in big-time fashion, emerging 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.
And while Session long has had a knack for the big play, Caldwell said he improved in the areas of reliability and consistency last season.
"He certainly developed into a more dependable player," Caldwell said. "He's becoming more consistent. I think you can see that happening on a daily basis. He's going to continue to develop, because he certainly can create the big play. He's got speed. He has power and he certainly is a guy who can make things happen."
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, 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.
Wheeler said recently the experience of playing and starting consistently has him more confident entering the season, and Caldwell said the time spent on the field last season could lead to a more productive player next season.
"Familiarity certainly helps because of the fact that he's a bit more familiar with the defense," Caldwell said. "He's more familiar with the sam (strong-side) linebacker position. I think you're just going to see him continue to put himself in a position to make more plays."
Caldwell said that could be true of the entire linebacker corps, a group that played together five of the last seven regular-season games and the entire post-season.
The group not only developed a cohesion during the season, they return next season as a group, something that has rarely happened during the last decade. While the re-signing of Brackett early in the free agency period drew notice as one of the league's higher-profile off-season moves, Caldwell said as significant to the group's development is that each of the outside backers will for the first time in their NFL careers have extensive experience at their position entering the season.
While Session started on the strongside in 2008, he moved positions last off-season and will enter the season starting at the same position he ended the previous one for the first time professionally. Wheeler also will enter the season as a starter for the first time.
Caldwell said that time together should only help the unit next season.
"There's an old phrase that a defensive player's value to his football team is inversely proionate to his distance from the ball," Caldwell said. "A short version of that is that they (linebackers) move on a string. They get accustomed now to knowing where and how they're going to fit on a particular play. The more they play together, they become more familiar with one another.
"They know what to expect and know what to expect from one another. Philip Wheeler, Gary, Clint Session have been around one another for a number of years.
"I think you're starting to see that pay dividends."
Ramon Humber, who signed as a free agent with the Colts shortly after the 2009 NFL Draft, developed into a key special teams player last season, 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.
The Colts selected Kavell Conner of Clemson in the seventh round of the 2010 NFL Draft, then signed Vuna Tuihalamaka of Arizona as a collegiate free agent.
"All those guys are making good progress," Caldwell said. "They're young guys with outstanding body types."