Indianapolis Colts

Colts defensive line set for pivotal season in 2017

Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire

It might be hard to believe after nearly a complete roster turnover in 2012, but the Indianapolis Colts defense is, again, a far cry from its 2016 version. Retirements, free agency, the new front office letting older free agents walk away, and a dedication to drafting for defense have reshaped each level as camp nears.

Yes, linebackers Jabaal Sheard and John Simon could impact the front seven, but any success this year will ride heavily on the defensive line. How well Johnathan Hankins holds down nose tackle will greas the gears for the success of the unit.

After playing a significant amount of snaps as the 3-technique tackle for the Giants last season, Hankins does have versatility. But it’s unlikely that he’ll be moved around – he has a very defined role in Indy. Hankins’ supporting cast up front will be something to watch.

Specifically, T.Y. McGill presents the most intriguing partner at tackle for Hankins. McGill was a beast throughout the majority of the 2016 season, more than the stats show. For the most part, McGill held the same role for the Colts last year, rotationally, that Hankins held with the Giants with Damon “Snacks” Harrison starting.

The lack of a solid 0-technique along the Colts’ defensive line last year limited how much McGill could stop the run. He was the second unit’s nose tackle, and a rotational 3-technique like Hankins with the Giants. But offenses often ran away from McGill’s side and when they ran toward him, he was often doubled or the target of the H-back leading the way.

(AP Photo/R Brent Smith)

We know what Henry Anderson can bring to the mix, when healthy, and Hassan Ridgeway appears to be on the rise as well. However, with Hankins eating up multiple linemen, McGill could resonate as a household name in no time if the two are on the field together enough.

Theoretically, the Colts have the right combinations up front to roll two effective units out within the rotation. Kendall Langford and Anderson at the 5-techniques have the size (both at 6 feet 6), power and ability to disrupt the backfield from further inside with McGill and Ridgeway. With Hankins being the centerpiece, the improvement should be noticeable.

Having deeper rotational pieces such as rookie fourth-rounder Grover Stewart at the interior spots as well as Al Woods and David Parry fighting it out for a roster spot as depth options adds more possibilities. McGill could also back up Hankins at the nose like he did last season; maintaining a versatile front with Sheard and others stepping in on late downs could make the Colts a productive group.

Contrary to national expectations, this is what Hankins sees when he makes comments, as he did recently, about having the “best defense in the AFC”. Granted, that is a bit farfetched right now, but failing to notice the significant improvement of this group, on paper, is simply ignoring what’s being done.

Even without Anderson and Langford getting to the quarterback, the rest of those currently on the roster racked up a total of 9.5 sacks last season. The possibility of Anderson and Langford getting healthy and doing what they do best, as well as the improvements of McGill, Ridgeway and a handful of depth guys, should be very exciting for the team’s fans.

Last season the Colts were in the bottom five of the league in stuff percentage (stops at, or behind the line of scrimmage), were second on third- and fourth-down short yardage situations, but were as bad as it gets from 5 yards past the line of scrimmage and beyond. These are precisely the issues that general manager Chris Ballard hopes to fix, and what a quality rotation might fix in the 2017 season.

There should be enthusiasm around this group for the upcoming season. But, there is a five-year sample size under the current coaching staff that makes any outlandish assumptions far from guaranteed. Despite the perceived ceilings for Anderson, Hankins and some of the others, without standout seasons from guys like McGill and Ridgeway this defensive line could spin its wheels for yet another year.

Matt Danely (@MDanely_NFL) is an Indianapolis Colts Analyst for FanRag Sports (@FanRagSports), and host of the Locked On Colts Podcast (@LockedOnColts).

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