INDIANAPOLIS – It was a battle that Colts higher-ups thought would happen last offseason, but never truly got there as August moved along.
Following the third-round selection of MIKE linebacker Bobby Okereke in 2019, Chris Ballard was quite eager to see his new Stanford linebacker—with some Darius Leonard traits—battle against Anthony Walker for the starting MIKE position.
Walker not only staved off Okereke in camp, but that continued throughout the 2019 regular season.
The Colts had their big trio at linebacker (Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker and Bobby Okereke) healthy for 13 of 16 games last year.
In those games, Walker maintained his starting job at the MIKE, playing 626 snaps (48 per game), while Okereke logged 318 snaps (24 per game).
What we did see in the latter parts of last season was the Colts finding ways to get Okereke on the field more often, even at the SAM position.
The NFL’s evolvement over the years has meant teams use less and less three-linebacker groupings, and the Colts have followed suit in that.
Of the 11 personnel groupings that played the most for the Colts defense in 2019, a combination of Leonard, Walker and Okereke was on the field at the same time for just one of those (playing the 7th most snaps of any personnel grouping).
Not surprisingly, the Colts expected the ball to be run by the offense in those situations. Opposing teams ran it on 12 of those 13 plays. While the Colts saw success in those plays, using 3 linebackers on more pass centric downs is still a tough game to play.
That’s where the debate of having Walker or Okereke stay on the field, alongside Leonard, comes into play.
“That is not up for me to decide,” Walker, who is in a contract year in 2020, says. “My job is to go out there and be ready to play at any moment, be ready to play the linebacker position. Whenever my number is called and whatever position I am asked to play, that is what I am supposed to play.”
Moving Walker to more of a reserve role would not be because he has played poorly. It would be because the Colts are so high on Okereke’s potential.
Would another season of him playing around 50 percent of the snaps stunt his potential impact?
Okereke has incorporated some boxing into his offseason training to try and help him better disengage from blockers (the biggest lesson he says he learned from his rookie season).
He sees himself competing for that starting MIKE job, when camp gets underway.
“I do,” Okereke says when asked about being in the competition for the MIKE job this summer.
“Obviously, I’m coming into the season playing a lot of SAM and I’m prepared to start in that role. But for this team, I think the best thing I can do is to put myself in the best position to either be the starting MIKE, or the starting SAM, but to just have an understanding of the playbook and just to be as skilled as I can at both positions so the coaches have an opportunity to make a decision and put the best players on the field.”