When it comes to the Indianapolis Colts defense, the linebackers have a large responsibility and importance. Although the Colts have been leery about spending big money on linebackers in the past, the position can make or break the defense.
With that being said, the Colts look to have a promising young corp for coming years. While the lockout can be confusing when looking to next year's roster, I believe the Colts have enough stability to somewhat accurately predict next year's success.
Of course, this is barring injury, which dramatically affected the Colts defense in the last few years.
But as a Colts fan, one can only hope the law of averages will pan out.
So, let's take a look at the individuals that will be manning the middle of the field next year, and how that impacts the defense as a whole.
Gary Brackett has been the Indianapolis Colts' starting middle linebacker since 2005 and the defensive captain since 2006.
A fan favorite, Brackett plays a critical role in the Colts defense. Indianapolis has seen a very noticeable difference in its defense when Brackett has been out, such as the 2007 and 2008 playoff losses to the San Diego Chargers.
However, Brackett is 31 years old and shows signs of slowing down.
This past year he recorded his lowest tackle total as a starter, with 74. Of course, Brackett did miss four games this year due to injury, but even still, his age is showing.
In 2008 he missed 4 games as well, but ended with 99 tackles. According to Football Outsiders, Brackett had a broken tackle rate of 15 percent this year, the fifth highest among linebackers with at least 50 tackles.
But all is not gloom and doom.
Brackett still has a couple starter-capable years left in him, especially as he leads the defense in example and spirit. Also, with Pat Angerer's drafting in 2010, the Colts seem to have a very capable replacement in the works.
Next season, however, I expect to see Brackett starting once again, with Pat Angerer ready to fill in when needed.
After being picked in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Pat Angerer emerged into the starting lineup in Week Six as the Colts took on the Washington Redskins. While Angerer was merely covering for the injured Gary Brackett, the Colts coaches were impressed enough to start him for the rest of the season, taking time at middle and outside linebacker.
While Angerer had some troubles this year (Football Outsider rates him as the 12th worst linebacker in terms of stop rates at 55 percent), the overall reports on Angerer were largely positive.
This is especially encouraging when one realizes this was Angerer's rookie year.
Angerer seems to be a smart player and a good replacement for Gary Brackett at MLB. However, in 2011 Angerer will likely play at outside linebacker. After beating out veterans such as Philip Wheeler and Tyjuan Hagler this year, Colts fans can only hope for improvement from Angerer's second year.
Kavell Conner was Bill Polian's annual late-round gem.
After making the squad and impressing the coaches, the seventh-round 2010 draft pick was given the chance to start in Week 10. His strong play grabbed attention, and Conner started all but one game from there on out.
Conner's play was praised by the end of the season, being called "the next David Thornton" by Bill Polian. He was also ranked as the 12th best linebacker in terms of stop rates by Football Outsiders, and was given a positive rating by Pro Football Focus' efficiency system, which called for Conner to keep his starting job in 2011.
That will likely happen, with Conner potentially starting opposite of Pat Angerer. His play will hopefully build on a strong rookie season, especially in the run defense, where he excelled this season.
Philip Wheeler is one of the most maddening players on the Colts roster.
The 2008 third-round draft pick has the physical tools and abilities to be a perfect linebacker in Larry Coyer's defense, but has failed to live up to his potential in the last few years.
Wheeler has been incredibly inconsistent, losing his starting job several times—most recently to rookie Pat Angerer. He has the tools to blitz well from the SAM linebacker spot, something Coyer has tried to implement more of recently.
Unfortunately, Wheeler has yet to utilize those skills effectively enough to warrant him a starting spot.
For 2011, Wheeler will likely be solid depth once again. While it would be wonderful to see him fulfill his potential, I doubt it will happen.
Free Agents: Tyjuan Hagler and Clint Session
Because of the success of Kavell Conner, Clint Session seems expendable, but Tyjuan Hagler would be great depth considering his flexibility of both the SAM and WILL linebacker spots.
Pat Angerer and Conner are still young, and Wheeler is not enough of insurance for my confidence. Still, if either of these guys are re-signed, it would be great for linebacker depth and make the depth chart much more intriguing.
Fringe Players: Nate Triplett and Cody Glenn
Overall, the linebacking corp seems promising going into 2011, largely due to the play of the rookies in 2010. If they can build off a solid rookie year, the linebackers production should pick up tremendously.
I see the starting lineup looking like this: Pat Angerer at SAM, Kavell Conner at WILL, and Gary Brackett in the middle. Philip Wheeler and Tyjuan Hagler will hopefully provide depth in the rotation, and Nate Triplett and Cody Glenn likely won't see the field except on special teams.