While he’ll almost assuredly never be the pass rusher that the “old #93”, Dwight Freeney-once was for the horseshoe, OLB Erik Walden is starting to come into his own during his second year with the Indianapolis Colts. Having been signed to a 4-year, $15.8M dollar contract in March of 2013, Walden had an okay, yet unspectacular debut season with the team. He finished the season with 45 tackles and 3 sacks. Yet, he was more remembered for an ill-advised head-butt against Tight End Delanie Walker than his playing performance. However, in 2014, it’s starting to look like he may be putting it all together this season.
Walden was never brought in to specifically rush the passer, rather the Colts brought him in to “set the edge” against the run (via ESPN’s Mike Wells):
“Erik’s a good football player,” Colts coach Chuck Pagano said. “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.
However, with Robert Mathis out for the season, there’s now a mountainous void that the remaining Colts’ outside linebackers must share. So far, through 3 games, with 2 sacks and 4 QB Hits, Walden is starting to show-off his aforementioned “pass rush capabilities”, to quote head coach Chuck Pagano. He’s certainly trying his best to do his fair share:
“You can’t replace Robert Mathis, but I feel we all have to do it collectively,” Walden said. “Whether it’s getting interceptions, sacking the quarterback, forcing fumbles. Whatever it is we just have to be disruptive.”
While the advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus still don’t shed an overly positive light, with him being ranked as the 38th best 3-4 outside linebacker, he certainly met the eyeball test last weekend against the Jaguars where he was a downright menace. Also, to be fair, three other highly regarded 3-4 outside linebackers are also ranked in the 30’s currently as well: Clay Matthews (33rd), LaMarr Woodley (34th), and Ahmad Brooks (37th) respectively.
It’s an encouraging sign because while Walden wasn’t brought in to necessarily rush the passer, any pass rushing you can get from him is clearly an added bonus. It’s the same Walden that entering last Sunday’s game had 12 career sacks in 42 career games (i.e. 0.28 sacks per game). He’s not a great pass rusher, and nor will he likely ever be at this juncture in his career at 29 years old, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be at least a good one if he continues to work and get better.
Now, more than ever, the Colts certainly need him to demonstrate solid pass rushing prowess. It’s largely up to him, as well as 2nd-year OLB Bjoern Werner to fill Mathis’s massive pass rushing shoes.
Walden could certainly back away from the challenge, citing that he’s a run-stuffer foremost. However, let’s not forget he’s being paid like a Top 10 3-4 Outside Linebacker in the NFL:
With his hefty payday, comes the pressure and responsibility of being a complete player. To Walden’s credit, he’s owned up to the task at hand, noting that his teammates and himself have to all be better in Mathis’s absence.
He’s certainly shown improvement and made steps in the right direction this season. Nevertheless, the Colts and their fans are hoping to see more performances from Walden like we saw against the Jaguars. If he can play like that on a weekly basis, the Colts and their opponents will know exactly where he is on the field.