Better, worse or the same? How Colts' defense looks with DeForest Buckner

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INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indianapolis Colts defense started out as the better of the three units in 2019. But by the time the season ended, the defense, just like the offense, was sputtering. The unit, led by Pro Bowl linebacker Darius Leonard, finished 16th overall in the NFL.

That didn't sit well with anybody in the organization, especially general manager Chris Ballard.

Ballard didn't overhaul the defense this offseason. He kept most of it intact while adding several significant pieces from the outside. The goal is for the defense to be just as strong at the end of the 2020 season as the start of it.

“I think we’ve had the goal of being a top-five defense, if not one of the top defenses in the league," linebacker Bobby Okereke said. "We want to lead the NFL -- set the NFL record of having 40 takeaways, 40-plus takeaways. We know [what] we’re capable of. We’re fast, we’re physical and we’re a young defense. It’s kind of been bolstered by these new offseason acquisitions. We’re definitely excited, and we’re trying to take over this season.”

Here's a position-by-position breakdown of the Colts' defense and whether each group has gotten better or worse, or is roughly the same:

Defensive line

Key additions: DeForest Buckner (trade), Sheldon Day (free agent), Rob Windsor (draft)

Losses: Jabaal Sheard, Margus Hunt

Returners: Justin Houston, Kemoko Turay, Denico Autry, Tyquan Lewis, Ben Banogu, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Grover Stewart

Better, worse or the same? Better

Ballard acquired a top-10 talent for the No. 13 pick in this year’s draft when he acquired Buckner from the San Francisco 49ers in March. The Colts immediately turned around and gave Buckner a five-year contract that will average $21 million per season. He has 19.5 sacks in the past two seasons.

Buckner will team up with Justin Houston, who led the Colts with 11 sacks last season, to give them multiple elite pass-rushers up front.

Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has often talked about wanting to have depth along the defensive line so they can continually rotate players up front.

Eberflus has it now, as Houston and Buckner will be joined up front by young pass-rushers Turay, Banogou and Lewis.

The defensive line is on par with the linebackers and running backs as being one of the top units on the Colts' roster.

“You’re getting a Pro-Bowl talent, a high-level player that has dominated his position,” Eberflus said about Buckner. “So the trickle-down effect to answer that is whenever you have a defensive line –- DeForest, Justin and different guys up front –- that can dominate their spot up front, it is easier to play linebacker and easier to play in coverage because everything is sped up and the line of scrimmage is changing for the run game.”


Key additions: Jordan Glasgow (draft)

Losses: None

Returners: Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, Bobby Okereke, Zaire Franklin, Matthew Adams, E.J. Speed

Better, worse or the same? Same

The Colts did very little to their linebackers group from last season. Linebacker, safety and offensive line are the only units that return the same starters.

That isn’t a bad thing, considering who the Colts return at that position.

Leonard has left a lot of teams scratching their heads wondering why they passed on him in the 2018 draft based on the work he has done in his first two NFL seasons.

Leonard already has become one of the top linebackers in the league, winning Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2018 and being selected to the Pro Bowl last season. His two-year total includes 294 tackles, 12 sacks and seven interceptions.

“Super Bowl MVP, league MVP, Defensive Player of the Year," Leonard said. "I think I wrote down maybe 15 goals last year and only met maybe three or four. That is unacceptable in my book. So I have to write those same goals down and the ones I met, bump them up a little bit. Just strive to reach every goal that I have instead of three or four.”

Okereke plays with the same intensity as Leonard and could eventually slide over and become the team’s starting middle linebacker.


Key additions: Xavier Rhodes (free agent), T.J. Carrie (free agent) Isaiah Rodgers (draft)

Losses: Quincy Wilson, Pierre Desir

Returners: Rock Ya-Sin, Kenny Moore II, Marvell Tell III

Better, worse or the same? Better

This is the position that had the greatest turnover during the offseason. The Colts surprised some by releasing the veteran Desir; Wilson was traded after continuing to fail to live up to expectations.

Rhodes is the veteran of the group after a disappointing 2019 season with the Minnesota Vikings. He had 63 tackles but no interceptions or sacks. He and Ya-Sin, who had an inconsistent rookie season, likely will be the two starters on the outside.

"I mean, the guy looks like a big safety and he is playing corner," Eberflus said. "He is a physical, really good tackler, and he has played at a Pro Bowl level. We are excited to get him back to that point. He has a chip on his shoulder in lieu of the circumstances and we are excited about that.”

Moore is arguably one of the top slot corners in the league, and Carrie brings experience.


Key additions: Julian Blackmon (draft)

Losses: Clayton Geathers

Returners: Khari Willis, Malik Hooker, George Odum, Rolan Milligan

Better, worse or the same? Same

Willis and Hooker return as the starters, but the latter could be in his final year with the organization.

Hooker’s playing style of more flash than consistency cost him his fifth-year option with the Colts. The former first-round pick will be a free agent at the end of next season after the Colts declined to pick up his option year.

It’s too early to tell if Blackmon is Hooker’s potential replacement because the University of Utah product will be slow to get on the field for the Colts after he tore his ACL in December.