The progression of the Indianapolis Colts linebacker room was full of highs and lows throughout the 2022 NFL season. Dealing with the absence and lackluster return of team leader Shaquill Leonard took work for the Colts. Leonard’s fellow teammates and linebackers did all they could and put together a solid season.
One Colts Linebacker is Here to Stay
Zaire Franklin was asked to make the biggest jump regarding his role. Franklin totaled 1,136 defensive snaps this season. These snaps now account for just over 70% of his career defensive snaps. Franklin stepped up in each facet of a linebacker’s game. Of course, there is a big chance that with more opportunity comes more production, but that is not guaranteed.
From 2018-2021 Franklin spent 193 snaps in coverage, facing 34 total targets. In 2022 during his 604 coverage snaps, he defended 70 targets and allowed 53 receptions, per Pro Football Focus. An allowed reception percentage of 75.7 may sound terrible as a singular stat, but Franklin fits right in when placed among other linebackers on the field for more than 600 coverage snaps. Buffalo Bills linebacker Matt Milano finished with a 72.8%, and Eric Kendricks of the Minnesota Vikings sits with a 77% reception percentage.
Franklin broke up six passes and allowed one touchdown this season. His coverage has improved immensely. He also turned up his pass rush to another level. On 43 snaps pursuing the quarterback, Franklin struck gold twice, recording a sack against the Vikings and the Texans. He recorded two QB hits, four hurries, and the two sacks.
The defensive line has a penetrate-first mindset in Gus Bradley’s defensive scheme. This places increased responsibility on the linebackers in the run game. If they incorrectly fill the hole made by the line, then the opposing back can gash the team for huge gains. The linebacking room adapted to this scheme well. Franklin led the charge with 489 run defense snaps. He contributed 65 tackles, 38 run stops, and one forced fumble. His average depth of tackle was 3.7 yards.
Franklin remains under contract until 2025. With Leonard’s health still a concern for the organization, Franklin will be a huge part of the defense next season. That leads us to the rest of the linebacker room or lack thereof. Free Agent linebackers Bobby Okereke and E.J. Speed significantly contributed to the defense’s overall success; now, the Colts must decide if one, both, or neither should be resigned.
Free Agent Bobby Okereke: The Colts #2 Linebacker
Franklin led the linebackers in snaps, but Okereke was right behind him in all facets (970 total snaps, 415 run defense, 24 in pressure, and 531 in coverage). In Bradley’s system, the 26-year-old former Stanford Cardinal featured as the second linebacker for most of the season. Bradley leaned heavily on slot cornerback Kenny Moore II while he was healthy.
Playing mainly as the weakside linebacker Okereke found himself in the middle of plenty of action. He defended 93 targets this season. Only Dre Greenlaw (111) and Devin Lloyd (97) faced more. On these targets, Okereke forced four incompletions and allowed two touchdowns. His season average coverage grade from PFF of 67.4 is above average for linebackers and the best of the Colts’ linebacker room.
Okereke was a force in the run game as well, totaling 59 tackles, with 31 qualifying as a run stop—a play that ends with the ball carrier being brought down within two yards of the line of scrimmage—this trailed on Franklin and Buckner (33). A missed tackle is detrimental with the multitude of dangerous running backs in the NFL. Okereke’s nine misses were the second most on the team, but his miss percentage (9.8%) is 5th best of a player who played 16 or 17 games.
Okereke’s average run defense grade from PFF (79.3) is the fifth best among linebackers who play more than 400 run defense snaps. He grades similarly to Eric Kendrick of the Vikings (79.5 on 427 snaps) and T.J. Edwards of the Eagles (78.4 on 444 snaps) and is on the tier below household names Bobby Wagner (91.1 on 437), Shaq Thomson (90.3 on 432), and Fred Warner (89.7 on 441).
Okereke’s grade is impressive to people who care about PFF grades. I know it’s a highly debated topic. One Colt linebacker out graded him when it came to run defense. Fifth-round pick E.J. Speed finished the season with an average grade of 82.8. Making him the “best” run defender on the team, per PFF.
Free Agent E.J. Speed: A Spark Off the Bench
Speed, much like Franklin, raised his career snap count by at least two-fold. His 316 total snaps account for 63.5% of his new total of 497. As I mentioned, Speed excelled in run defense. Before this season, he played 77 snaps here. This season he was on the field 184 times, trying to stop the deep field of productive running backs in the NFL.
While he may have had little exposure to these situations, Speed did not back down when it mattered most. Speed had two memorable 4th down-stops. One coming against the Jaguars, and one against the Commanders. Both stops came in the second half when the game was within one score. These kinds of plays are what can earn you another contract.
Speed did have problems in coverage, as did the entire linebacking core. This was not Speed’s exact role on this team. He was a spark off the bench who could stifle a hot running game. On top of that, Speed has a nose for the quarterback. On his 19 snaps, Speed totaled five pressures giving him the second-highest win percentage on the team at 22.2% (trailing Tony Brown’s 100% with his one sack on one pressure snap).
His pass rush grade from PFF of 76.6 is the third-best among Colts defenders. Speed and Okereke did well in assuming new responsibilities this season. Both can provide solid production to the Colts next season; can the team afford to keep them now?
Can The Colts Retain These 2 Productive Free Agents?
Spotrac.com has Okereke’s market value at $2,346,255 per year. He is just one of the many free agents (and a top-five draft pick) that the Colts have to pay this offseason. The Colts can save around $17.2 million by releasing Matt Ryan. With the possibility of restructuring certain contracts (from underperforming linemen), the team could have the wiggle room to sign Yannick Ngakoue, Parris Campbell, Ashton Dulin, Okereke, and Speed to contracts close to the market value provided by Spotrac.com.
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