As part of our continued “Horse Course” series, we will now take a look at the Defensive End position. While this position lacks a true superstar like the quarterback position has in QB Andrew Luck, it nevertheless appears to be good shape and should be one of the defensive strengths of the Colts headed into 2014.
Joining his former Baltimore Raven teammate in DE Cory Redding, the Colts inked DE Arthur Jones to a 5-year, $33 million dollar contract this offseason. It was just another long-term investment into the position, as the Colts had previously signed DE Ricky Jean-Francois (RJF) to a 4-year, $22 million dollar contract in the prior offseason. The 3-headed Monster of Redding, Jones, and RJF should give opposing offensive lines a handful and should be one of the better 3-4 DE groups in all of football. We’ll take a look at this group, as well as the position as a whole, in greater detail:
While nothing is official, my gut and film review tell me that the opening 2014 Colts’ defense will feature both DE Cory Redding and Arthur Jones as the starters. This will be one of the better 3-4 defensive end tandems in football, and that’s not even factoring “super-sub RJF” into the equation, who we’ll get to in a bit.
While Redding is getting a bit long in the tooth for defensive end standards at age 33, he’s still one of the best 3-4 DE’s you’ll find out there. His unheralded signing or rather “poaching from Baltimore” for 3-years, $10.5M in March of 2012 was a shrewd move by head coach Chuck Pagano and the Colts. Not only has he been a leader for the defense, but he’s been consistently productive throughout his Colts’ tenure.
He finished 2013 with 36 tackles and 4.5 sacks, but was at his best against the run. According to ProFootballFocus.com (PFF), the advanced stats show that he was tied for 7th out of all 3-4 DE’s against the run, and was the 10th best 3-4 DE overall (both against the run and pass). It appears that at least for the time being, Redding is defying Father Time, it’s just a matter of how long he can keep his exceptional play going. He’ll be a free agent after 2014, so he’ll be playing for a contract this season if he so chooses to continue his playing career. Whether that’s with the Colts, remains to be seen.
The Colts were so happy with the Redding signing, that they decided to go to the Baltimore Ravens’ tree one more time, a tree that Chuck Pagano is obviously familiar with (being their former defensive coordinator), by signing DE Arthur Jones. As a Baltimore Raven, Jones finished 2013 with 53 tackles and 4 sacks.
At age 28, he is seemingly entering the prime of his playing career and should provide the Colts with a much needed boost, especially against the run. PFF graded out Jones as the 14th best 3-4 DE against the run (and pass respectively), and the 12th best 3-4 DE overall. Not only can he play DE, but on passing downs, he can slide over and play NT to give the defensive line a pass rushing boost there as an added bonus.
While neither one of the aforementioned players is a true “NFL superstar”, which prevents this group from receiving a straight “A”, I think this tandem is about as good as it gets without having one for a 3-4 defense. If you asked Redding or Jones, they’d probably prefer to remain anonymous and let their exceptional work in the trenches speak for itself. Regardless, it’s a pretty strong duo and one that I’m excited to see play together and reunite in 2014.
*We note that sacks aren’t as indicative of strong 3-4 DE performance, but were mostly included for the reader’s reference. As you likely know, 3-4 DE’s are called upon to control the line of scrimmage, hold the point of attack, and occupy blocks. Most sacks recorded are an additional bonus from a 3-4 DE.
With Jones’ signing, I think this more than likely means RJF has been relegated to a “super-sub” 3-4 DE in 2014. This doesn’t mean that RJF’s signing has been a bust or even that he performed poorly last season, it just means the Colts wanted to get stronger as a whole at the position. With the 49ers in 2012, RJF was at his best as a rotational 3-4 DE, offering tremendous versatility for his ability to man all three spots along the defensive line and playing with both energy and toughness, rotating in off the bench. By my estimation and educated guess, he’ll likely return to this once familiar role for the Colts next season.
In 2013, he finished with 19 tackles and 2.5 sacks. PFF graded him out as the 25th best overall 3-4 DE in 2013, ranking 19th against the run and pass respectively. As a “super-sub” in 2012 with the 49ers, PFF ranked RJF as the 20th best 3-4 DE overall, so it seems reasonable that the Colts could expect a jump in his performance by playing fewer snaps. At age 27, RJF still has quite a few years productive years left in the NFL and could reclaim his starting role if Redding departs after 2014.
Unmentioned, but certainly not forgotten is DE Fili Moala, who re-signed with the team this offseason on a one-year, $1.4M contract. One of the last holdovers of the “GM Bill Polian & Cover 2 defensive scheme Era”, Moala has been mostly used a back-up rotational 3-4 defensive lineman in recent seasons. While his name often draws malaise among the fan base, being a former 2nd round pick in 2009 and having never performed according to his draft selection, Moala actually played reasonably well in 2013 in a limited back-up role. He finished the year with 19 tackles and 1.5 sacks. PFF rated him as the 38th best 3-4 DE (out of all qualifying), one spot ahead of San Francisco’s DE Glenn Dorsey, a draft bust himself but still fairly decent defensive lineman overall.
While he’s not J.J. Watt off the bench, I think having a player like RJF as a “super-sub” is a bit of a luxury in today’s NFL for a 3-4 defense. With RJF rotating in, the Colts should be able to keep the veteran Cory Reddings’ legs fresh and give Jones a few needed breathers every now and then on Sunday. A return to his former 49ers’ role could give the Colts a much needed boost throughout the course of every game in terms of this position’s performance and overall stamina. Moala provides serviceable depth as the 4th 3-4 DE on the depth chart. While this back-up tandem won’t “wow” you, I think they’re pretty solid, and the advanced statistics directly support this notion.
As mentioned earlier, I think the lack of a true NFL superstar, who can take over and completely dominate, takes this group out of flat-“A” consideration. However, I really, really like the projected starting DE tandem of Redding and Jones with RJF rotating in off the bench. This unit had to get better in 2014, and by signing Jones to a lucrative long-term contract, the Colts have made a concentrated effort to improve this position and control the line of scrimmage, specifically against the run.
Coming off a lackluster playoff performance, where the defense surrendered 166 yards and 4 TD’s to LeGarrette Blount and the Patriots’ offense simply cannot happen again. That’s unacceptable, and you can’t win many games getting dominated at the line of scrimmage like that.
Jones’ added run-stuffing prowess should help in that regard, and in turn, the legs for both Redding and RJF in order to keep them fresh. While the position could be a little better, it could certainly be a lot worse heading into 2014. Nevertheless, I like where the Colts stand at DE currently, and hopefully, they’ll stand their ground a bit better next season.