As Part IV of our coverage of the Colts Draft Day Needs, today, we will look at the Outside Linebacker position. This likely isn’t as glaring of a need as the safety and center positions, or even nose tackle for that matter, but it nevertheless is a position that the Colts could stand to upgrade long-term. Right now, the Colts are fortunate to have the ageless wonder, OLB Robert Mathis, one of the premier pass rushers and best defensive players in the NFL. Mathis led the entire league with 19.5 sacks last season. At age 33, however; it may be time to start grooming his long-term replacement. I’m by no means saying Mathis is at the end of his rope, but at the same time, a player can’t play forever and how much elite football does Mathis realistically have left? 3 years, give or take?
The Colts were hoping they had found Mathis’ long-term successor when they used their 2013 first round pick on OLB/DE Bjoern Werner. Unfortunately, the jury is still out on Werner, as he was largely inconsistent throughout his rookie season. He appeared in 13 games and registered just 2.5 sacks. It’s too early to write off a player after just one season, especially with Werner learning to play “standing up” as a 3-4 OLB, rather than with his “hand down” as a 4-3 DE. However, while I saw flashes of him becoming a good player in time, I never saw flashes of natural pass rushing brilliance. In general, pass rushers are a lot like running backs coming into the league. They typically are able to make positive contributions early, and the great ones are able to flash their natural ability from the start. You could see it with former Colt pass rushing great, Dwight Freeney, spinning his way to 13 sacks in 2002, his rookie season. You could see it with the 49ers’ troubled, but talented pass rusher, Aldon Smith, registering 14 sacks in 2011, his rookie season. Werner just didn’t flash that natural pure ability last season.
I’m not saying he won’t be good, but I will say that I see him as more of an energy and effort player than a player with great natural pass rush ability. There’s nothing wrong with that either. Former Rams’ (later Seahawk) pass rusher, Grant Wistrom, made a career out of it, totaling 53 sacks in his 9 year. Heck, even former Colt, Chad Bratzke had himself a fine NFL career, utilizing heart and hustle, registering 56.5 sacks in his 10 NFL seasons. When the Colts drafted Werner, they envisioned him being the “Paul Kruger” of Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defense, the latter having already been renowned for his energy and hustle. While he’s still a ways away from Kruger’s established play, he still has a chance to get there.
Competing with Werner for the OLB spot on the other side of Mathis is Erik Walden. As you may recall, the Colts initially inked Walden to a four-year, $16 million dollar contract last offseason. While I’ll never be a fan of his contract, he actually was a solid contributor for the Colts in 2013 (head-butt aside). While he still offers very little as a pass rusher, 3 sacks in his first season with the Colts, and only 11 sacks total in his 4-year career, he’s is pretty respectable against the run. As Colts’ head coach, Chuck Pagano, like to say, he “sets the edge”.
While it appears the tandem of Walden and Werner are good enough to handle the other OLB position at the present time, the Colts will need to re-assess the position for the long-term. Mathis can’t play forever, and it’s up in the air whether Werner is the long-term answer at the position. Walden is a serviceable enough player, but is hardly a future fixture for the defense for years to come. While the Colts were 11th in the NFL with 42 total sacks, nearly 50% of those were generated by Robert Mathis. In 2014, the Colts will need to find a pass rushing presence on the other side to further compliment him and to register some sacks.
That’s where the NFL draft may come into play. The Colts don’t necessarily need an every down 3-4 OLB, but what they could stand to use is a 3-4 situational pass rusher. Someone who can really “bring it” from the outside. Unfortunately, pass rushing, much like oil in today’s world, is at a premium in the NFL. If the Colts want a natural pass rusher to explode off the edge, they’ll have to find him rather early in the draft. Consequently, we have a few 3-4 pass rushing OLB’s of note who may be available Round 2-4 in the NFL Draft. Please see our analysis of these intriguing prospects below:
Demarcus Lawrence, Boise State: 6″3′, 251 lbs, 4.76, rJR…”After starting at the JUCO level due to academics, Lawrence started 23 games the past two seasons at Boise State and put together an impressive resume, including First Team All-MWC honors the past two seasons. He can be controlled when blockers get their hands on him, but he has strong and fast hands himself, ripping and setting up his moves while tracking the ball. Lawrence projects highly to any scheme due to his athletic prowess and undeniable pass rush upside. He isn’t highly talked about as a first round player, but talents like this usually don’t make it outside the top-32.” –Dane Brugler, NFLDraftScout.com
“I think Demarcus Lawrence is a starting defensive end or a starting 3-4 outside linebacker. It wouldn’t shock me if he went in the late first or early second round.” –Mel Kiper Jr., ESPN
“Lawrence ran the 40-yard dash in 4.69 and 4.70 seconds. He then stood on the rest of his numbers from the NFL Scouting Combine. Lawrence, who has 34 1/8-inch arms, had a very good pro day workout. He worked out as both a hand-in-the-ground defense end and as an outside linebacker in space, and displayed an ability to play at either position in the league. Lawrence looks like a prospect who could get drafted anywhere from the bottom of the second round to the middle of the third round of the 2014 NFL Draft.” –Gil Brandt, NFL.com
“He’s got hands like feet.” –Mike Mayock, NFL.com
“An under-the-radar guy that NFL fans ought to get to know now — Lawrence has a legitimate shot to leapfrog several players here and land in Round 1 come May.” –Doug Farrar, SI.com
Marcus Smith, Louisville: 6’3″, 251 lbs, 4.66, Sr…”Former quarterback Marcus Smith was nearly as impressive on the defensive side of the ball for the Cardinals, however, demonstrating the fluidity and power to intrigue scouts working for 4-3 and 3-4 defenses, alike. The All-American showed off the traits to earn a significantly higher grade than the 5th round projection NFLDraftScout.com currently has for him — if he continues his impressive final campaign with an impressive performance at the Senior Bowl.” -Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com
“A high school quarterback turned pass rusher who broke out with 14.5 sacks as a senior (1.12 sacks-per-game average led nation), Smith projects as a pass-rushing, 3-4 right outside linebacker in the pros. Should contribute initially on passing downs and has eventual starter potential as his game becomes more well-rounded.” –Nolan Nawrocki, NFL.com
“None of the potential tweeners of 4-3 college defensive ends at the Senior Bowl was more convincing in their ability to drop back into pass coverage than Marcus Smith of Louisville. Whether he was step-for-step down the seam 20 yards downfield with a tight end or sliding out into the flats to cover a running back on a swing pass, Smith showed the best agility among outside LB converts in his change of direction and play recognition.” –Rob Hoff, Yahoo! Sports
“Another DE enjoying some positive buzz at just the right time. Smith actually landed at Louisville as a three-star quarterback recruit before moving to linebacker, then eventually to an end spot. The switch was a brilliant one — Smith was named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year last season thanks to 14.5 sacks.” –Doug Farrar, SI.com
Trent Murphy, Stanford: 6’5″, 250 lbs, 4.85, Sr…”The 6-foot-6, 250 pound Murphy had been clocked at 4.86 seconds in Indianapolis. Following the timed drills, Murphy was asked to perform in defensive linemen and linebacker drills, where I’m told he impressed with his underrated athleticism. Some believe that Murphy is a ‘tweener who will struggle to find a role in the NFL. I see a versatile defender capable of lining up in the two or three point stance who has consistently demonstrated a knack for making big plays.” -Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com
“There’s a lot of scouts and coaches, especially the 4-3 teams don’t like him, fifth and sixth round grades, but the 3-4 teams like him.” -Mike Mayock, NFL.com
“A very good player, can be an edge rusher in the NFL” –Gil Brandt, NFL.com
“He’s a better fit at a 3-4 outside linebacker and he’s a relentless pass rusher with active hands on tape. He’s dipped into the late Day 2, early Day 3 conversation.” –Steve Muench, Scout Inc.
“Murphy has failed to stand out in drills this week despite entering the Senior Bowl regarded as one of the top defenders in college football. Despite measuring 6-6, 261 pounds, Murphy looks thin and frail battling offensive tackles on the edges. Consequently, he has struggled winning in 1-on-1 pass rush drills and made a minimal impact as a rusher in team drills. Against the run, Murphy’s lack of girth has shown up in battles with big bodies on the perimeter. Murphy has struggled holding the point on runs to his direction, and his inability to set the edge has been startling for a player with his sterling reputation.” –Bucky Brooks, NFL Media Analyst
Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech: 6’3″, 252 lbs, Sr…”The 6-foot-3, 252-pound Attaochu is well-versed in rushing the passer after starring in Tech’s 3-4 scheme but remains a bit rough around the edges, too often biting on fakes and needing to improve his strength to rip through blocks. He has the long arms and explosive burst worthy of developing, however, and would offer nice value at the mid-way point in the second round.” –Rob Rang, NFLDraftScout.com
“If draft positioning was based on pure potential, Attaochu would be a certain first-round prospect. The native of Nigeria flashes great athleticism and aggression on tape, but there are times when his relative lack of experience really shows up — he bites on playfakes and misdirections, he’s not always positionally aware and his speed can be used against him. He also needs to develop an array of moves and techniques as a pass rusher — he tends to wrestle when he should be looking to get free. Still, there’s more than enough to like about him as a developmental prospect with All-Pro potential. The ACC’s leader in sacks since 2005 with 32, Attaochu could be a monster in a defense that allows him to use different gaps and line stunts as he gets the finer points together.” –Doug Farrar, SI.com
“Second round, I think, is a distinct possibility. The great thing about Attaochu is he’s going to help you immediately as a big-time special-teams player. That’s critical, as I said, in the NFL for a guy that’s probably going to be a second-round draft choice.” -Mel Kiper Jr, ESPN
“He does not have that great playing background like a lot of players, a late bloomer. He had 10.5 sacks in his final 6 games, 4 against Georgia. I love watching this guy play. He has got the violence, the temperament, flying all over the field, can bend the edge. I think he is the most underrated player in this entire draft.” –Todd McShay, ESPN
“Attaochu (6-foot-3 3/8, 249 pounds) did not work out at the combine because of an injury. At his pro day, he ran the 40 in 4.57 and 4.62 seconds. He had a 37 1/2-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. He ran the short shuttle in 4.68 and the three-cone drill in 7.28. His arms measured 34 1/2 inches, and he did not perform the bench press. Attaochu, who has the most sacks in Georgia Tech history, will be visited by the Lions, Chargers and Colts next week in Atlanta, and he’ll also go up to Philadelphia to visit the Eagles.” –Gil Brandt, NFL.com