Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Know Your Colts: Outside Linebackers

This is No. 3 in ColtPlay's Know Your Colts series. This one deals with the outside linebackers.

54 Freddy Keiaho
Numbers: 5112/224/4.68pd in 06
2008 stats: 14 GP/14 GS (10-4 WLB), 72 TK, 42 AT, 5-5 TFL, 2 QBH, 2 FR, 1 STT, 2-16 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 3 GP/3 GS, 3 TK, 2 AT, 0.5-0.5 TFL
Status: Signed through 2009, due for a big raise

Keiaho is the definitive Colts linebacker. He’s fast and aggressive. He can bolt through a gap like a running back and stop a play dead. He hits hard, and can cause a fumble. He’s also undersized and can be ridden out of the any by a determined blocker. Against the pass, he blitzes maybe three or four times a year and falls into zone coverage the rest of the time.

Of course, Colts linebackers don’t come out of a factory, and Keiaho has idiosyncrasies just like Cato June and David Thornton and all the others did. The one thing that stands out about Keiaho as opposed to the others is his aggressiveness. Optimists call it a great motor, pessimists call is a lack of discipline — and they’re both right. It has its plusses and minuses; he hits with fury and he misses tackles with equal fury. Yeah, Keiaho misses some tackles. But isn’t that what safeties are for in the Cover-2?

His coverage abilities are very much like his abilities against the run. He’s a bit wild, but usually effective. Keiaho isn’t fast enough to match up with the best pass-catching halfbacks, but can usually handle a tight end and scares the hell out of wide receivers silly enough to encroach on his territory.

Historically, the biggest complaint against Keiaho has been his ability to diagnose plays. He has improved greatly in this regard, but it’s still his weak spot, and he still relies on his short-area quickness to overcome it.

It may just be my opinion, but I actually prefer Keiaho at middle linebacker — where he played at college and a few times last season (more on that in a later post) — than on the weakside. He sees gaps better in there, and is responsible for a different kind of space in coverage.

55 Clint Session
Numbers: 5110/236/4.52c in 07
2008 stats: 16 GP/15 GS (11-4 SLB), 70 TK, 29 AT, 10-15 TFL, 2 PBU, 3 FF, 4 STT
2008 preseason stats: 3 GP/1 GS, 5 TK, 2-4 TFL, 1 STA
Status: Signed through 2010

If Keiaho is the portrait of a Colts linebacker, Session is a caricature of one. Oh, he’s plenty quick and slippery, finding himself behind opponents’ offensive linemen with shocking regularity. And he does pack a huge punch when he hits; he jars bodies and makes balls come loose. So what’s not to like? Well, he misses tackles with disheartening regularity, finds it difficult to shed even the least skilled of blockers and can be absolutely erased if a guard or center gets so much as a finger on him.

While he can be a weapon against the run, Session is something of a liability against the pass. Trapped in a defense that won’t allow him to blitz (although I think he’d be only occasionally effective at it anyway), Session is forced into coverage a lot, and it is not his forte. He’ s fast and quick and gets nice deep drops, but he just hasn’t mastered the art. At the beginning of his rookie season, his coverage skills were an atrocity, since then, they have improved to disaster, then to embarrassment and now seemed to have peaked at almost adequate.

56 Tyjuan Hagler
Numbers: 5115/236/4.62c in 05
2008 stats: 8 GP/3 GS (2-0 WLB, 0-1 SS), 13 TK, 8 AT, 1 FF, 8 STT, 4 STA
2008 preseason stats: None
Status: Unrestricted free agent

If Keiaho is caffeinated and Session is your linebacker on crack — that’s just a metaphor, kids, I’m not accusing Session, a fine young man from what I know about him, of taking illegal substances — then Hagler is the sugar-free version. He’s similar to the other guys, but less so in every way. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s also less likely to miss tackles, botch assignments or blow coverages. It’s as though he’s missing the spectacular gene, but was born with two in the reliability department.

He is, however, only reliable when he is on the field. Since has drafted by the Colts in 2005, he has played in just 30 of 64 possible regular-season games, and never more than 12 games in a single season. And even when he has played, he’s often been nicked up.

Because of the frequency of his injuries, the Colts have already gotten used to life without Hagler. That should continue. because Hagler is an unrestricted free agent and is unlikely to be re-signed. As a rule, the Colts don’t re-sign their free-agent linebackers (even starters, and Hagler isn’t one), and Polian — Bob Sanders notwithstanding — rarely invests much money in guys with injury problems.

There is a chance Hagler could be back in Coltland, but it’s very slim. Should no team take a chance on him or if he’s cut in the summer, the Colts could invite him back, especially if they have injuries at linebacker.

51 Jordan Senn
Numbers: 5110/224/4.53pd in 08
2008 stats: 9 GP/0 GS, 5 TK, 2 AT, 1-1 TFL, 11 STT, 5 STA, 1-10 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 5 GP/2 GS, 26 TK, 2 AT, TFL 1-1, STT
Status: Signed through 2010

It’s easy to understand why Colts fans didn’t know who Senn was before the Colts signed him. I mean, most draft magazines didn’t mention him and the few draft sites that did rated him as about the 40th-best strong safety. In fact, he was a ridiculously productive linebacker at little-watched Portland State. But when the experts saw him measure in at less than six feet, they banished him to the obscurity of maybe he’s a safety. Colts fans called him “camp fodder,” and predicted him to be cut every time he turned around.

Then he got some serious playing time in the preseason and distinguished himself. Sure, lots of his tackles came a few yards downfield, but much of that could be attributed to really, really poor defensive line play. Senn, on the other hand, showed good pursuit, play diagnosis and zone coverage abilities. And, like every good Colts linebacker, he had trouble shedding.

When the last cuts came around, the fans still called for his head. They preferred Ramon Guzman and Terna Nande, even though Senn had clearly outplayed them both.

In the regular season, Senn played mainly on special teams. On them, he distinguished himself as perhaps the team’s most consistent performer, though others got more press. He didn’t play much on defense, but when he did, it was generally in nickel situations. And he didn’t do bad at all for an undersized unknown out of Nowhere U, showing good range and quickness.

So, where does this leave him? I’m not sure he’s a future starter, but I wouldn’t rule it out. He made an impressive transition from Portland State to NFL reserve, but it may be a bigger leap to NFL starter. The Colts have started worse (Senn’s already much better than Gilbert Gardner), so it’s not out of the realm of possibility.

But I’m sure Senn won’t just step right into Hagler’s do-it-all swing backup position because his lack of bulk probably limits him to the weakside or nickel situations.

His real value, right now at least, is as a special teamer. Though he seems to be quite gregarious off the field, Senn brings an assassin’s mentality to kick coverage. Can he build a career in Indy as a part-time linebacker and full-time special teamer? I don’t see why not.

50 Philip Wheeler
Numbers: 6017/248/4.76c4.66pd in 08
2008 stats: 8 GP/0 GS 2 TK, 1 AT, 1-2 TFL, 11 STT, 3 STA, 2-10 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 1 GP/1 GS, 6 TK, 1 AT
Status: Signed through 2011

If you’re like most Colts fans, the selection of Wheeler in the last draft probably mystified you. It was glaringly obvious that an heir apparent for longtime Mike starter Gary Brackett was needed, and the Colts almost always grab an outside linebacker or two every draft, but Wheeler didn’t seem to fit the bill. I mean, he’s a big guy — huge by Colts’ standards. And his specialty in college was, of all things, blitzing. He wasn’t considered much of a hard worker, and had never distinguished himself in coverage. It seemed to many that Wheeler was a player with the potential to be good, but that he was with the wrong team.

And his NFL career didn’t start on the strongest of notes. Injured in the summer, he played in just one preseason game. One of the big problems with Wheeler in college was that he had never really settled into one position, after coming into Georgia Tech as a defensive end before alternating between Sam and Mike. To make matters worse, he started his only preseason game at Mike, then the Colts shifted him to backup Sam when the regular season started.

When he did play in the regular season, he was only okay. He certainly didn’t embarrass himself on defense, but when Brackett went down late in the season, Wheeler wasn’t on the short list of replacements. But he was actually pretty good on special teams, showing skills as both a tackler and a blocker. The highlight of his season was when he recovered an onside kick attempt against the Jaguars. But even on specials, he showed an unnerving lack of discipline. And he was clearly outplayed by Senn.

Of course, after just one season, it’s too early to determine how good Wheeler is, or will be. He obviously needs more seasoning to contribute inside or out. The most likely scenario would be for him to spend 2009 and perhaps 2010 as a Hagleresque swing backup. And if he hasn’t earned a starting spot by then (preferably in the middle, where I think he’s better suited), he’ll probably be looking for a job in another city.

Note: I am predisposed to like Wheeler as he is a fan of both Jerry Lewis and the Andy Griffith Show.

59 Rufus Alexander
Numbers: 6007/228/4.79c4.69pd in 07
2008 stats: 2GP/0 GS with Minnesota Vikings
2008 preseason stats: 4 GP/1 GS, 12 TK, 1 AT, 2-4 TFL with Minnesota Vikings
Status: Signed through 2009

Two years ago at about this time, there was a lot of excitement about Alexander in Coltland. It made sense, he was an active, undersized outside linebacker who was very productive (118 tackles, 13 TFL and 3 sacks as a senior) at a big-time program (Oklahoma). But then the Combine came around, and Alexander ran like a guard, not just in the forty, but in the other drills as well. He also didn’t impress too many people with his skinny-legged build and a reputation for taking plays off.

The Colts didn’t draft him, but the Vikings did in the sixth round. A torn ACL wiped out his rookie season, but they gave him some opportunities in the 2008 preseason. Although he was mostly playing against scrubs, he looked pretty good against the run and okay against the pass. He was one of their final cuts and was re-signed to the practice squad. When injuries hit, they re-signed him to the active roster and he ran around some on special teams. They cut him again, and put him back on the practice squad. When injuries hit the Colts’ LB squad, they signed Alexander. He was inactive for three games before they cut him and stashed him on the practice squad. Just before he was due to become an unrestricted free agent, the Colts signed him to a 2009 contract.

Clearly, they saw something that warranted an invitation to camp. Alexander is smart and a solid citizen, and you can’t deny his production at Oklahoma. But he’ll be 26 when next camp opens, and is probably too slight to play Sam or Mike. So he’ll be fighting Senn and perhaps a few rookies for a roster spot designated for a special teamer who can compete for time at Will. Perhaps the team feels that another year removed from his ACL injury will bring him back into the form he showed as a Sooner. At any rate, his progress bears watching.

How this affects the draft and free agency

With Ron Meeks out of the picture, it’s harder to predict what the Colts will do defensively in the draft. Depending on who it is and how much power he has, things could change dramatically. They could blitz more (an idea I’d have to be sold on), they could put in more man-coverage schemes (a bad idea) or they could go 3-4 (a truly horrific idea).

But if things go according to the plan that was already in place, here’s what is likely to happen. They’ll start Keiaho at Will and Session at Sam for 2009. Keiaho, as is Colts tradition, will leave as a free agent after the season. He will then be replaced by Senn, a 2009 draft pick or Wheeler will step in at Sam and Session will take over at Will. They’ll draft more linebackers in the third through sixth rounds and they get groomed to take over as Session, Senn, Wheeler and others move on. It’s the Colts’ way. It’s the circle of life.

So, if things go the way they have since the Tony Dungy regime took over, look for the Colts to draft a fast, active, perhaps underweight outside linebacker (or two) on the second day of the draft. I’m looking at a couple of guys, in particular Ashlee Palmer out of Ole Miss, Oregon State’s Victor Butler and DeAndre Levy out of Wisconsin.

And while the Colts almost never sign other teams’ free agents, they have added the odd low-buck linebacker like Rocky Boiman in the past. I don’t see it happening this year, unless injuries or draft holdouts make it necessary.

Note: I think Wheeler should stay inside — he played much better inside than out at Georgia Tech — but that’s just me.

Linebackers selected by the Colts since Polian took over

2008 Third round Philip Wheeler
2007 Fourth round Clint Session
2006 Third round Freddie Keiaho
2005 Fifth round Tyjuan Hagler
2004 Third round Gilbert Gardner
2004 Fourth round Kendyll Pope
2003 Fifth round Keyon Whiteside
2003 Sixth round Cato June
2002 Fourth round David Thornton
2000 First round Rob Morris
2000 Second round Marcus Washington
1999 Second round Mike Peterson
1998 Fifth round Antony Jordan

Note: Tony Dungy brought the Cover-2 defense to Indy in 2002, and the Colts have not drafted a linebacker in the first or second round since.


shake'n'bake said...

Good stuff. Disagree on Keiaho in the middle though. He may be better against the run there (I think he is and is better the Brackett against the run) but he struggles in coverage on the outside. Moving him inside where even more is required of him in coverage is far from ideal (and I think the Buster Davis experiment shows that the Colts aren't eager to put Keiaho there but didn't have a choice). In the playoff game the Chargers worked Keiaho's zone in the middle for a lot of key plays.

With Coyer in, we'll have to see what they want from their LBs. Wheeler may be the new mold for a Colts LB. The pick may have been strange because there was a new voice in the War Room, Caldwell's. They started giving him input into the draft last year when they promised him the head coaching job.

Jerry Langton said...

Astute points. It is even harder to predict what's going on now. If there's one thing this season taught us, it was how important the middle linebacker position is for the Colts. Too bad Brackett can't live forever.