Joe Robbins | Getty Images
INDIANAPOLIS – In last year’s season opener with the Cowboys, Matt Eberflus worked with a three-man linebacker group combining for 103 career starts and 13 years of NFL experience.
Want to talk about a drastic change in one year, after making the move from the Cowboys to the Colts?
The three linebackers that Eberflus had starting in his base defense on Sunday combined for goose eggs in both of those experience categories.
A trio of rookies (Darius Leonard-WILL, Skai Moore-MIKE, Zaire Franklin-SAM) made their NFL debuts on Sunday as the Colts’ starting linebackers in the base defense
“It might be an NFL record,” Eberflus accurately guesses about how youthful this linebacker group is in his first season as the Colts defensive coordinator.
In total, the Colts have 6 linebackers on their 53-man roster. They entered the 2018 season with 6 combined NFL starts. Four of the six are rookies.
Najee Goode, 29, is clearly the veteran, coming over from the Eagles after just 4 career starts.
“They talk about me being old all the time,” Goode says, with the young linebackers close by chirping about how Goode’s fashion style (‘too baggy’) is stuck in the old days. “They talk about being in high school when I was in my rookie year, which is crazy. Guys were watching Saturday morning cartoons while I was getting on a plane for my first game.
“They are still on their baby bottles. We are trying to get them off.”
Leonard always figured to be the first one to get off that bottle. When the Colts selected him with the 36th overall pick in April’s Draft, they quickly pinned him in as the starting WILL linebacker. Despite a quad injury keeping him off the field this spring, Leonard hasn’t missed a beat since. He led the team in tackles on Sunday and is a definite building block on this new defense. Leonard moves like a linebacker the Colts haven’t had in a long, long time.
Moore’s ascension into the starting lineup came once Anthony Walker (a second-year linebacker) suffered a groin injury early in camp. Moore was a coveted undrafted free agent and picked the Colts largely because of the youth/open playing time in the linebacker room. In Sunday’s opener, Moore started and logged four more snaps (27-to-23) than Walker, as the Colts rotated their MIKE linebackers.
Franklin was a bit of a surprise starter in the Week One base defense. Goode had been atop the depth chart at the SAM position, but Franklin made a late preseason push for playing time. The Colts ended up going with Franklin, the seventh-round pick out of Syracuse, in the few snaps they played with a base personnel package.
The fourth rookie in the linebacker room is Matthew Adams, a seventh-round pick out of Houston. Adams brings his hard-hitting mentality to the special teams unit.
It’s an absurdly young room, but a group that has the traits of what the Colts are seeking in this new defensive scheme.
What the Colts currently lack in NFL experience at linebacker, could lead to long-term dividends with a full-on commitment to go young, really young, in the middle of their defense.
“We talk about being young all the time,” Leonard says.
“If all 3 rookies just stick together throughout these years, build that bond and grow together…”
The Colts will have something defensively.