Selected in the fifth round of the 2017 NFL Draft, Anthony Walker Jr. — the first Northwestern player to declare early for the Draft under head coach Pat Fitzgerald — is an Indianapolis Colt. But with the draft process now out of the way, Walker’s focus will now shift to the Colts’ minicamp May 12-14, where he’ll look to begin his quest to earn playing time next season.
Overview of the Colts’ defense
When new General Manager Chris Ballard took over this offseason, his first big task was to rebuild a Colts defense that ranked 30th in yards allowed per game last season. Considering Indianapolis’ complete failure to defend the run over the past four years or so, something had to be done.
After the retirement of pass-rusher Robert Mathis, the Colts signed Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo and John Simon to solidify the outside linebacker position. Along with that trio, Ballard brought in former Giants defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins to aid a defense that ranked 25th in the league in rushing yards allowed last season.
At inside linebacker (our main focus), the Colts retain Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison, a duo that started together at the back end of the 2016 season. To add depth at the position, the team also added Jon Bostic and Sean Spence in the offseason.
Indy’s offseason focus on revamping its defense continued in the draft; the Colts spent six of their eight picks on defensive players, including their first three selections.
System-wise, the Colts run a 3-4 system under head coach Chuck Pagano. So, three down lineman are meant to occupy space and blockers, which allows the middle linebackers to attack the line of scrimmage. The outside linebackers are expected to provide width in the box and rush the passer.
With Pro Bowl cornerback Vontae Davis and second-round corner Quincy Wilson on the outside, the Colts will likely play a lot of man-to-man coverage in the secondary. The middle linebackers, then, will have to cover tight ends and running backs in the passing game, in addition to their duties filling gaps against the run.
Where Walker stands
Including Walker, there are five players competing for the two starting middle linebacker spots. Having started four games together for the Colts last season, Jackson and Morrison should have the inside tracks to land those two spots. In the four games they started together last season, the Colts allowed 20.3 points per game, better than their season average of 24.5 points per game, for what that’s worth.
Bostic and Spence are also worthy candidates for the starting spots, but it’s tough to project either as a starter given their relative lack of experience in defensive coordinator Ted Monachino’s defense.
Of those four players, Spence is the oldest at 26. For Walker, being thrown into such a young group of inside backers is a double-edged sword. On one hand, Walker won’t have a truly accomplished veteran to learn from and emulate. On the other hand, with no clear-cut starters, Walker will have an opportunity to make an impact early in his career.
It’s tough to project how a rookie will adapt to life in the NFL, but it’s also probably a stretch to say Walker will win one of the two starting spots right away. Regardless, he should at least see some snaps this season as a backup. For a defense that struggled so mightily last season, Monachino may be inclined to give his new additions a chance to play.
The bottom line
Like most fifth-round picks, Walker’s path to immediately seeing the field is lengthy. It will take time to adjust to the speed and physicality of the professional game, but Walker is in a prime position to make an impression at some point. As the youngest inside linebacker in an already-young group, he will need to improve his fluidity in coverage and his ability to get off blocks in the box to stick at the next level. But with the work ethic and mental makeup Walker has, that’s entirely possible.