INDIANAPOLIS — Inside linebacker was looked at as an area of strength of the Indianapolis Colts at this time last year, as the team seemingly had three starting-caliber players vying for two spots heading into the 2016 season.
Then, over the course of the next few months, as the roster began to take shape and the regular season got closer and closer, the D'Qwell Jackson/Nate Irving/Sio Moore trio at inside linebacker was trimmed to just Jackson and Moore.
And, by Week 5, the team had parted ways with Moore, leaving just the veteran Jackson and a handful of youngsters to man the middle of the Indianapolis defense the rest of the way.
Now, with the team's decision to release Jackson in February, the inside linebacker position is left wide open for the taking heading into the beginning of this offseason's team workouts.
What a difference a year makes.
So with the NFL Draft now just a couple weeks away, The Ringer's Danny Kelly believes the Colts would be best-served to shore things up at inside linebacker early on in the process.
Kelly on Thursday wrote "The Biggest Draft Need for All 32 NFL Teams," which has a headline that is pretty self-explanatory. You can read the whole thing by clicking here, but here's what he had to say about the Colts' biggest draft need, specifically:
Indianapolis Colts: Inside Linebacker
"The Colts surrendered an opposing passer rating of 117 to the short middle of the field (28th in the league) and, per NFL GSIS charting, gave up an average of 4.6 yards per carry on rushes up the middle (also 28th). Indy needs to add a middle-of-the-field patroller or two, especially after Chris Ballard's first move as GM was releasing D'Qwell Jackson, who racked up 237 tackles for Indianapolis over the last three years. Ballard will be looking to plug in a rangy, big-hitting, tone-setting inside linebacker that can strike fear into receivers going over the middle and stuff runs up the gut. Alabama's Reuben Foster, Vanderbilt's Zach Cunningham, Ohio State's Raekwon McMillan, or Florida's Jarrad Davis could all be options with the Colts' first-round pick."
It's hard to argue with Kelly's explanation, especially with his use of advanced stats to really paint a picture of Indy's needs at the inside linebacker position.
He's actually not the first to believe the Colts could use their first-round (15th-overall) pick this year on an inside linebacker. In February, The Washington Post's John Harris had the team selecting Alabama’s Reuben Foster in his mock draft; NESN's Nicholas Goss, in his mock draft, predicted the Colts would select Vanderbilt thumper Zach Cunningham.
But even if the team goes with an inside linebacker in the first round this year, if you're first-year Colts general manager Chris Ballard, you have at least a couple options already on the roster that should be given every opportunity to take the other ILB spot and run with it heading into the season. These players include Edwin Jackson, Antonio Morrison and Sean Spence.
Jackson eventually emerged as a starter at the WILL linebacker spot for the Colts last season, as the first-year Georgia Southern product finished third on the team with 61 tackles (one for a loss), and added two sacks and two quarterback hits.
Morrison, meanwhile, at times showed off his raw talent as a tackling machine late in the year for Colts defensive coordinator Ted Monachino, as the 2016 fourth-round pick out of Florida would have nine tackles Week 14 against the Houston Texans and 11 tackles two weeks later against the Oakland Raiders.
In all, Morrison would have 45 tackles (three for a loss) in his rookie season, with one quarterback hit. He was one of two Colts' rookie defenders (safety T.J. Green the other) who would be named to NFL.com’s “Next Gen Stats All-Rookie Team.”
Spence is the newcomer of the group, although he's no stranger to NFL defenses. Described by Ballard as having "the speed and athleticism to be a sideline to sideline player," Spence was signed by the Colts as a free agent last month, and has totaled 144 career tackles and five sacks over his five NFL seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans.
The analysis from those producing content on Colts.com does not necessarily represent the thoughts of the Indianapolis Colts organization. Any conjecture, analysis or opinions formed by Colts.com content creators is not based on inside knowledge gained from team officials, players or staff.