In this edition of “Horse Course”, we will take a look at the outside linebacker position. Previously, we had covered the defensive line positions for the Colts.
This position is anchored by 12-year veteran Robert Mathis, who’s coming off an All-Pro season, as one of the premier pass rushers and best defensive players in football. Unfortunately for Mathis and the defense, he’ll miss the first 4 games of the season after testing positive for performance enhancing drugs and violating the NFL’s drug policy (allegedly because of a fertility drug for his wife). It’s even more unfortunate when you consider that the Colts play @Denver in Week 1 and vs. Philly in Week 2, games in which the defense will absolutely have to get to the quarterback to prevent their secondary from being shredded.
In his absence, the defense will likely start Bjoern Werner to pair with starting second-year Colt, Erik Walden, on the other side. As a first round pick of the Colts in 2013, Werner was largely inconsistent and didn’t offer much production in his rookie season, certainly not befitting enough of his draft billing. However, the jury is still out on him this early in his young career, and we’ll get more into him a little later in this piece.
Erik Walden is entering his second year with the team, after signing a 4-year, $16M dollar contract with the team in March of 2013. While he’s a bit overpaid, Walden was actually a decent, durable, and relatively productive player for the defense last season. He doesn’t offer much in the pass rushing department, but as a run defender, he’s pretty solid, as demonstrated with his 45 tackle season.
For a 3-4 defensive scheme like the Colts deploy, the defense relies on it’s outside linebackers to rush the quarterback, create pressure, and ultimately, generate sacks. The defensive ends are required to collapse the pocket and occupy blockers to free up their OLB’s off the edge. While the Colts graded out pretty favorably in that department tied for 11th in the NFL with 42 team sacks, it begs the question if they’re relying on their veteran, Robert Mathis, too heavily (as we’ll see). See our position analysis below:
Robert Mathis is simply “the man”. He’s coming off a regular season in which he recorded 19.5 sacks. Not only did this lead the league in sacks (Robert Quinn was 2nd with 19.0), but it was just 3 shy of future Hall of Famer Michael Strahan’s 22.5 sack regular season in 2001 with the Giants. He was one of the leading vote receivers for Defensive Player of the Year and received 1st Team All-Pro for the first time in his career. Mathis was absolutely dominant and what was an all-time great season for any defensive player, let alone the Colts’ franchise.
At age 33, Robert Mathis is like a fine wine, he’s getting better with age. For a defensive player that was often overshadowed by his All-Pro counterpart, Dwight Freeney, for much of his career, one could beg the question whether Mathis will have the better career when it’s all said and done. That’s not the point of this article, but one could argue that Freeney appears to be slowing down, while Mathis appears to be speeding up.
Mathis is the Colts’ All-Time Sacks Leader at 111 sacks and holds the NFL All-Time Strip-Sacks record at 43. As a 6-time Pro Bowler and Super Bowl XLI Champion, there’s not much that Mathis has left to prove that he can’t do. For a 5th Round Pick out of Alabama A&M in 2003, Mathis hasn’t just exceeded expectations, he’s shattered them. He’s successfully made the conversion from “hands-down” defensive end to “stand-up”, 3-4 pass rushing hybrid linebacker. In fact, you could argue that he’s been better in his fairly new role.
The advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus (PFF) graded out Mathis just as favorably as he was with the naked eye. He was ranked as the 2nd best OLB overall behind Kansas City’s Justin Houston, and the 2nd best pass rushing OLB behind Baltimore’s Elvis Dumervil. Mathis wasn’t just good in 2013, he was great.
However, it begs the question just whether the Colts are relying too much on Robert Mathis for defensive pass rushing production. They’ll find out in the first 4 games of the regular season in 2014 as he serves his suspension, but he accounted for 46.4% of the Colts’ total team sacks last season. To put that in perspective, we’ve created the following graphic, which compares him to the Top 5 sack leaders in the NFL in 2013:
As you can see, Mathis accounted for an astronomical percentage of his team’s total sacks at nearly 50%. The next closest of the Top 5 NFL Pass Rushers was the Rams’ Robert Quinn, who was still 11% behind. Robert Mathis isn’t just a great pass rusher for the Colts, because for all intensive purposes, he is their pass rush.
While he’s still an “oldie, but greatie”, you’d have to think that at age 33, the Colts will look to lighten his load a bit. There’s no question that Bjoern Werner was drafted to be his eventual long-term successor, but right now, he doesn’t appear to be quite ready. The other starter, Erik Walden, has offered very little as a pass rusher during his 8-year NFL career, recording just 11 total career sacks. He’s best used as an early down, run stuffing OLB.
As mentioned, Walden offers very little as a pass rusher for the Colts. However, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a solid contributor for the Colts in 2013. While he didn’t quite play up to his new contract, his play was largely consistent, and he was durable (starting 15 games). Outside of his ill-advised head butt against the Titans’ Delanie Walker in Week 11 (one-game suspension), he looked like a solid, if unspectacular contributor. Walden is never going to offer much as a pass rusher, he was brought in to play against the run and “set the edge”, which he has routinely been praised for by the Colts’ coaching staff:
“Erik’s a good football player,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said last week at the scouting combine. ” I think back to some of the guys we had in Baltimore, the edge-setters. When we went out and find outside linebackers, when we go looking for them in the draft or free agency, the first criteria is they have to be able to set the edge. Erik did a great job of that. Like anybody else, you have your moments. He can set the edge. He has pass-rush capabilities.”
While “pass rushing capabilities” may be a bit generous from Chuck Pagano, the advanced statistics provided by PFF show that Walden was a decent contributor for the Colts in 2013. He graded out as the 30th best 3-4 OLB overall, one spot ahead of the Cardinals’ John Abraham and somewhat surprisingly, one spot below fellow Colts’ OLB Bjoern Werner. You’re probably now thinking, “Well how can Walden be praised as a solid contributor, while Bjoern Werner’s rookie season was largely a disappointment, when he’s ranked better by the advanced stats.” We’ll get to that just now…
The primary back-up, and the most likely candidate to fill-in for Mathis, while he serves his 4-game suspension, is second-year pro Bjoern Werner. Werner is coming off a fairly disappointing rookie season. He was drafted for his pass rushing prowess, but offered very little in that department finishing his debut season with just 2.5 sacks in 13 games. The former ACC Defensive Player of the Year winner looked more comfortable and effective pass rushing with his hand on the ground. This raises the question of whether he’d be better utilized as a 4-3 defensive end and may be miscast as a 3-4 OLB in the Colts’ scheme, which is a long-term concern.
Despite being ranked as the 33rd best OLB overall by PFF, Werner’s rookie season was a disappointment in my eyes. Maybe it was because he was a first round pick, but I didn’t see any great natural pass rushing ability. Defensive ends are a lot like running backs, as you can see pure ability right from the start. If you look at any elite pass rusher in the NFL: Robert Mathis, Dwight Freeney (prime), and even the 49ers’ troubled Aldon Smith; you could see that their natural pass rushing ability showed up on tape from the start. Werner was brought into rush the passer, yet he simply didn’t do that very effectively in 2013.
That’s not to say that I think Werner is a bust, as it’s too early to tell one way or the other. However, I see him as more of an energy and hustle player than a great natural pass rusher. That doesn’t mean he’ll be a bad player at all, as who he was drafted to “become” in our defense, Browns’ Paul Kruger (ex-Raven), built a pretty solid career on those two aforementioned characteristics. As former 2010 First Round Pick of the Colts, now Buffalo Bill, Jerry Hughes, has taught us, it may take a few years to develop as an effective pass rusher, as Hughes just had a 10 sack season in 2013 with Buffalo (his previous high with the Colts was 4).
Still, the pass rushing sack production outside of Mathis at OLB has been alarming, especially when you consider that the Colts’ second regular season leader in sacks, ILB Jerrell Freeman, had 5.5 sacks. This is the same amount as Walden (3 sacks) and Werner (2.5 sacks) combined. The Colts simply have to find someone else at the OLB position that can perform some of the heavy lifting other than Mathis:
One possible candidate is Rookie OLB Jonathan Newsome, a 2014 5th round pick out of Ball State. He finished last season with 8 sacks for the Cardinals last season and has shown some quickness in getting to the quarterback, posting a 4.73 forty-yard dash time at the combine. Still, it’s lofty expectations to to expect a rookie 5th round pick to be your second leading pass rusher, so the safer bet will be that Newsome will make the majority of his contributions on special teams during his rookie season.
This grade would be a lot higher if the Colts got more production out of the position outside Mathis. He’s not just an elite player at OLB, but he’s one of the best defensive players in the NFL. The problem is, they’re losing him for the first four games of the season, and they haven’t gotten very much production out of the position outside of him against the pass. He’s essentially their pass rush, and until the defense finds someone who they can effectively pair with him, then this unit is pretty much a one man wrecking crew against the pass.
Walden is a decent enough contributor on running downs, but he’s not an elite player and offers little to nothing as a pass rusher. The planned long-term successor to Mathis, Bjoern Werner, was brought into rush the passer, but didn’t show much in that regard during his rookie season. It will only be his second season, so there’s the chance he may improve dramatically.
Newsome flashed some nice pass rush ability at Ball State, but relying on your rookie 5th round pick to make significant contributions in his rookie season is neither prudent nor smart.
Mathis keeps this position from being “average” and receiving a “C”, but if he had more help as a pass rusher, it could easily be elevated to an “A” for “excellent”. Either Werner will have to live up to his first round draft billing or Newsome will have to be a 5th round sleeper, because Walden is who he is at this point in his career, and Mathis can’t do it all alone.