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Welcome back for part 13 of this year’s column. As a reminder for anyone that might be tuning in mid-stream, when I mention where players finished in the rankings last season, my model will be the standard Footballguys scoring system. This is the basic stuff:
- Tackles = 1.5
- Assists = .75
- Sacks = 4
- Forced fumbles = 3
- Fumble recoveries = 3
- Interceptions = 4
- Passes defended = 1.5
- Touchdowns = 6
Remember that rankings will vary (sometimes greatly) from league to league based on scoring systems. From time to time, the rookie corner rule will be referenced. For those who are new to IDP or the EOTG, the rookie corner rule is the basic fact that in the NFL, starting a rookie at corner is like throwing chum to the sharks. Offensive coordinators will target young and inexperienced players as weaknesses thus these guys have an accelerated number of opportunities. Most often these players are the cream of the crop at the position (which is why they are starting so soon) and their numbers will begin to drop after their rookie seasons. When tackle numbers are mentioned, solo stops and assists are not lumped together. Unless there is a reference one way or the other, tackles refer to solo stops and combined tackles include both solo and assists. When talking about the total number of takeaways for a player, I am counting interceptions, fumble recoveries, and fumbles forced since all of these categories score similarly in most leagues.
The Colts' defense had its share of struggles in 2021. Most of them were against the pass. Their 33 sacks were tied for 25th, they were in the bottom half of the league in both passing yards and yards per attempt, and only Washington allowed more touchdowns through the air. At face value, the numbers were better against the run but there is an asterisk. Indianapolis was middle of the pack at four yards per carry and they were tied for the third-fewest rushing scores but that may have simply been due to the leaky pass defense as the Colts faced the seventh-fewest rush attempts. There was one important area that this unit excelled at, they took the ball away. Indianapolis led the league with 14 fumble recoveries and was second only to Dallas in total takeaways. That is a great place to start when building a championship defense.
Indianapolis plays a 4-3 defense with an aggressive, one-gap approach, allowing their linemen to penetrate and create chaos regardless of the offensive call. When matched with, quick, explosive players that can get to the passer, this combination can be golden for IDP managers. After getting just 18.5 sacks from the defensive end position last year, the pass rush gets a big boost with the addition of Yannick Ngakoue. In six seasons as a pro, he has 55.5 career sacks, never falling short of 8 in any season. Getting to the quarterback is not all Ngakoue does, he has a knack for making things happen when he arrives. To date, his resume includes 21 forced fumbles, 3 recoveries, and 13 batted passes. He even has a pair of interceptions and two scores.
Ngakoue is a proven commodity with a skill set that should make him a great fit in the Colts’ scheme. The big plays are going to be there but the fact he has proven over and over is that his fantasy value will be held down by lacking tackle numbers. Ngakoue had 41 combined tackles while with the Jaguars in 2019. That was the only time he has reached 30 combined stops or finished among the top 20. Going to a new team, there is some possibility he will step up more versus the run but it didn’t happen in Jacksonville, Minnesota, Baltimore, or Las Vegas, so we should not count on this stop being any different.
The Colts already have the other pieces of their starting defensive line in place. In a 2020 draft that was thin at the top on pass rushers, the Colts used their first two picks on defensive ends Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo respectively. Paye was a test monster, moving up draft boards after showing off his quickness, agility, and athleticism in workouts. The traits and potential were there but on film and in box scores, Paye was a work in progress when he entered the league. Going into year two, nothing has changed.
The coaching staff rotated a lot of players at defensive end in 2021. Paye started all but two games and played the second-most snaps at the position, behind Al-Quadin Muhammad. Paye gained much-needed experience but his production was rather disappointing at 16-11-4. It would be great if we could say he got better as the season progressed but that is not the case either. Over the final five contests, Paye was 3-9-1. With a year under his belt and an offseason to digest what he learned, hopefully, Paye will show progress on the field in 2022. That said, I have seen nothing to make me think he is ready for a breakout season. On the other hand, the team is married to him for now and will give Paye every possible opportunity to succeed. That is enough to make him a what the heck flier as a DL3 or DL4 at the end of your draft.
One Indianapolis lineman that did not disappoint is DeForest Buckner. His overall production was down a tad but his numbers of 37-27-7 with 3 batted passes were right in line with expectations and were enough to make him a top-12 defensive lineman and the number three tackle. There is no speculation required with Buckner who, other than the possibility of injury, is as close to a sure thing as we get in this game. He is a generational talent and arguably the best interior lineman in the game. That is unless you count Aaron Donald as a tackle. In terms of fantasy production, Buckner has four consecutive top-three finishes at tackle, including three at number one, and has ranked seven, six, three, and twelve over the past four years in leagues that lump the positions together. He has never recorded fewer than 60 combined tackles in a season while averaging 7.5 sacks and 3 batted passes.
Grover Stewart rounds out the starting lineup as the one-technique or nose tackle. He is a run-stuffing anchor for the defense but offers little as a pass rusher. Stewart recorded the second-most solo stops in the league by a defensive tackle in 2020 with 39, but fell back to earth with a thud last year, going 20-23-1 on the season. He had three sacks as a rookie in 2019 but just one and a half in 32 games since. He is a quality contributor on the field but in IDP terms, Stewart offers no more than adequate depth in leagues starting two tackles.
The sleeper in the shadows here is Dayo Odeyingbo. He suffered a torn Achilles in January of last year and was a talent-based, second-round pick with an eye on the future. It was initially thought that he might miss his entire rookie season but Odeyingbo made it back to the field for Week 8. He played sparingly, seeing 173 total snaps over the final ten games, but came through without any setbacks. With a full offseason to complete his recovery, the organization is counting on a significant contribution in 2022.
Odeyingbo has a chance to be special. He was a three-year starter for Vanderbilt but it was not until his senior year that his production began to stand out. In eight games that season, he totaled 32 combined tackles and 5.5 sacks. He has rare physical traits that include excellent size at 6.5” 285 pounds, a huge wingspan, a strong first step, and enough quickness and athleticism to get around the corner. Odeyingbo has the potential to be a highly productive three-down defensive end at some point and is worthy of consideration as a last-round flier, especially in dynasty leagues where he is taxi eligible.
In Tyquan Lewis, Ben Banogu, and Ifeadi Odenigbo the Colts have good veteran depth on the outside. None of these guys are going to push for extensive playing time, but if called upon, they can hold down the fort. There is a different story at the tackle position where the top backups might be rookies Eric Johnson and Curtis Brooks who were taken in rounds five and six respectively this spring. RJ McIntosh and Chris Williams are the closest things the Colts have to veteran depth on the inside. They have 19 career combined tackles and 2 sacks between them.
- DE Kwity Paye – Sleeper with a low floor and moderate ceiling
- DE Yannick Ngakoue – Possible DL2 in big play formats
- DE Dayo Odeyingbo – Deep/dynasty sleeper with long-term potential
- DE Tyquan Lewis – No impact
- DE Ben Banogu – No impact
- DE Ifeadi Odenigbo – No impact
- DT DeForest Buckner – Elite DT1 or solid DL1
- DT Grover Stewart – Depth in leagues starting two tackles
- DT Eric Johnson – Developmental rookie
- DT Curtis Brooks - Developmental rookie
- DT Chris Willaims – No impact
As a rookie in 2018, Colts weak side linebacker Darius Leonard lit up both the NFL and the IDP world with an incredible season. He led the league with 112 solo tackles, adding 49 assists, 7 sacks, 8 turnovers, and 8 passes defended, to outscore the number two defensive player by 49 points. The only other player to dominate so completely in my 30 seasons playing this game, was J.J. Watt early in his career.
The first time we heard Leonard’s name and the words ankle injury in the same sentence was during training camp in 2019. He missed some practice time over the summer but was ready to go for the season. That year Leonard was the number three linebacker in total points, but only because he missed three games with a concussion. His average of 17.32 points per game was an incredible three points better than Jordan Hicks at number two. It was not until after the season that we learned the ankle had never fully healed and had been sore through the entire year.
Leonard missed two games and most of a third with a groin injury in 2020, yet still managed to finish seventh among linebackers in total points and third in average per game. The only mention about the ankle during that season was when he showed up on practice reports while resting it, but it was enough of an issue to warrant a so-called minor clean-up surgery in the offseason.
Both Leonard and the organization expected a full recovery in time for training camp last year but it never happened. Instead, he continued to play at a high level despite the pain and discomfort, finishing as the fifth-ranked linebacker with an average of almost 13.8 points per game. Four consecutive seasons ranking among the top-five in points per game while playing on a bum ankle. How good could this guy be if he were 100% healthy?
There is more drama surrounding Leonard this summer as we learn of a chronic back issue as well, that could be related to the slow healing process in the ankle. He had back surgery early in June and is expected to miss at least some, if not most of training camp. If all goes according to plan and everything heals, Leonard could once again be on a tier of his own at the head of the class. If injuries continue to be an issue, he could fall back to the field and be just a good LB1 or even miss significant time. This is a situation we will be watching through a microscope throughout the summer.
For those managers that would prefer to avoid the risk or those that miss out on Leonard in the draft, Colts middle linebacker Bobby Okereke is an excellent fallback option. Over his first two years in the league, Okereke saw action at the middle and strongside positions while sharing playing time with Anthony Walker. Walker signed with Cleveland last year, opening the door for Okereke to assume an every-down role in the middle and he did not disappoint.
Okereke lacks the splash-play production that Leonard brings, but is a physical player with good size, speed, and cover skills, and has earned the trust of the coaching staff. He answered the call last year by totaling 92 tackles, 41 assists, a sack, and 2 interceptions for a finish just outside the top twelve. Should Leonard stay healthy all season, the ceiling for Okereke is a strong LB2. If Leonard were to miss significant time, Okereke has what it takes to slip into the top twelve.
The Colts fielded three linebackers less than 25% of the time last year. When they did, Zaire Franklin saw most of the action on the strong side though E.J. Speed picked up a few snaps here and there. This will probably be the way it goes in 2022 as well. One possibly important side note here, when Leonard missed the Week 16 game, Speed played every snap as his replacement posting eight tackles, an assist, and a pass breakup. If either Leonard or Okereke misses significant time, jump on Speed quickly.
In Speed, the Colts have a quality veteran backup that can line up at any position. If they are forced to go any deeper on the roster, it might not be pretty. JoJo Domann, Forest Rhyne, James Skalski, and Sterling Weatherford are all undrafted rookie free agents battling with third-year man and former Patriots backup Brandon King, for the remaining roster spots at linebacker.
- WLB Darius Leonard – Elite tier LB1 if healthy
- MLB Bobby Okereke – Priority LB2
- SLB Zaire Franklin – No impact
- MLB/WLB E.J. Speed – Injury sleeper with LB2 ceiling and LB3 floor
- SLB JoJo Domann – Developmental rookie
- MLB Forrest Rhyne – Developmental rookie
- SLB James Skalski - Developmental rookie
- WLB Sterling Weatherford - Developmental rookie
- WLB Brandon King – No impact
The Colts are looking at four new starters in the secondary this year, some by design and others out of necessity. The only returning starter from Week 1 of last year is corner Kenny Moore who coincidentally, is the best IDP option of the group as well.
Moore is one of the league’s great stories. He made the team in 2017 as an undrafted free agent out of tiny Valdosta State and won a starting job in his second season. The team attempted to replace him by using some early draft pick at the position over the last few years, but no matter who they threw at him, Moore somehow managed to come out on top. He is small at 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds but is tenacious as a pass defender and tough as woodpecker lips in run support. He has good ball skills, is highly versatile with enough speed to hang with receivers on deep routes, and is a technician when matched against bigger, more physical guys.
Moore was the fantasy game’s number two defensive back in 2021, behind only Trevon Diggs but it is how he got there that makes him the top target in corner-required leagues and a DB1 in those that lump the defensive backs together. Diggs did his damage with 11 interceptions. While impressive, that kind of production is rarely repeated. Moore on the other hand did it all. His 82 solo tackles ranked fourth among defensive backs and were the most by a corner last year. He added 20 assists, a sack, 4 interceptions, a forced fumble, and 13 passes defended for an average of over 11.5 points per game. While the tackle numbers were his career-best, last season was not the first time Moore produced well in those columns. He was 69-15-2.5 in 2018, 50-11-2.5 in 11 games in 2019, and 72-14-2 in 2020. At a fickle position where only a few players consistently repeat top 15 finishes, Moore has been the fantasy game’s number three corner in 2018, on pace to finish sixth before missing the final four games in 2019, fourth in 2020, and second last year. With the addition of Stephon Gilmore as the team’s number one corner, Moore could be looking at even more opportunities in 2022.
In his prime, Gilmore was one of the NFL's elite cover corners. Soon to be 32 years old, he has lost a little of that luster but remains among the best in the game when healthy. Staying on the field has been an issue of late as Gilmore has missed 14 games over the last two seasons. From a fantasy perspective, he has been more like Diggs than Moore over the years. Gilmore put up more than 50 combined tackles just once since his rookie season in 2012 with his best IDP value coming in 2019 when he was 46-9-0 with 20 passes defended, 7 turnovers, and two scores. That remains the only top-20 finish of his ten-year career.
Veteran Brandon Facyson and second-year pro, Isaiah Rodgers both made starts and played fairly well for the Colts last year. They are expected to compete for sub-package duties with both in line for some role. Considering the recent injury history of Gilmore, one of them could be a factor for the Colts at some point in 2022.
Andrew Sendejo was not invited back, George Odum signed with San Francisco, and Khari Willis retired, so the Colts will have a completely new look at safety this year. The team signed former Kansas City backup Armani Watts and former Eagles starter Rodney McLeod, then drafted Maryland’s Nick Cross to compete with 2020 third-round pick Julian Blackmon for the jobs. There is a lot to think about here when trying to decipher how this will play out. It is safe to say that Watts is the underdog in the battle. Beyond that things are not so clear.
Most people have McLeod penciled in at free safety. While I agree that is a possibility, I’m far from sold. We should not overlook the fact that while Blackmon is capable of playing either spot, he started 21 straight games at free safety before tearing his Achilles in Week 6 last year. Nor should we overlook the facts that McCleod is 33 years old, is not as fast as he once was, and played strong safety early in his career while with both the Rams and Eagles.
Then there is Nick Cross who I see as somewhat of a Khari Willis clone. He is fairly big at 6-foot-0 and 212 pounds, is a physical hitter that relishes every opportunity to stop a runner in his tracks, and while not a liability in coverage, has some limitations in that area. I believe the Colts drafted Cross specifically because Willis had trouble staying healthy in the past and that they see him as the future at strong safety. He checks the box for college production as well. Recording 66 combined tackles, 3 sacks, 3 interceptions, and 2 forced fumbles as a junior for the Terrapins last year.
The bottom line is this, whoever comes away with the strong safety job is going to have IDP value. I believe we will eventually see Cross at strong safety and Blackmon at free. If forced to make a call on this situation in June, I’ll say this; the team knows what they have in Blackmon and they see him as a starting free safety. If Cross looks good during camp and can earn the trust of the coaching staff, I believe he will be the Week 1 starter at strong safety. I believe they signed McLeod to a one-year deal as a safety net in case Blackmon is not fully recovered from the Achilles injury or if Cross is not quite ready.
- SS Nick Cross – High floor with a DB2 ceiling if he wins the starting job in camp
- FS/SS Rodney McLeod – DB3 or better if he lands the starting gig at strong safety
- FS Julian Blackmon – Marginal value unless he somehow ends up at strong safety
- SS/FS Armani Watts – No impact expected
- SS Rodney Thomas – developmental rookie/special teams contributor
- CB Stephon Gilmore – Marginal IDP value at best
- CB Kenny Moore II – Top shelf CB1 or solid DB1
- CB Isaiah Rodgers – No impact expected
- CB Brandon Facyson – Injury sleeper at best
- CB Will Redmond – No impact
- CB Marvell Tell – No impact
That does it for Part 13 of this year’s preseason offering. The Texans are next on the agenda.
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