Commentary

Plugging LB holes is Colts' specialty

Originally Published: June 17, 2009
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

Peterson Washington and JuneAP Photo/US Presswire/Icon SMIThe Colts didn't let the departure of talented linebackers such as Mike Peterson, Marcus Washington and Cato June hinder them.
Under former coach Tony Dungy, the Indianapolis Colts had an emotional rallying cry that captured their collective mindset: Next man up. That credo was literally the case at the outside linebacker spot for much of Dungy's tenure.

In a five-season span (2003-2007), the Colts lost four starting outside linebackers as unrestricted free agents: Mike Peterson, Marcus Washington, David Thornton and Cato June. Thanks to the resourcefulness of the coaching staff and the foresight of general manager Bill Polian and his personnel department, on each occasion Indianapolis was able to plug in a player who was as good as, sometimes even better than, his predecessor.

For six seasons (2003-2008), only three outside linebackers -- Thornton, June and Freddy Keiaho -- were opening day starters at the same position they ended the previous campaign. Nevertheless, the Colts advanced to the playoffs in each of those seasons. Part of that success is attributable to Indianapolis' uncanny ability to seamlessly fill all its linebacker vacancies.

Even more remarkable, Polian doesn't overreact when he loses a linebacker. Instead of signing a veteran free agent, the Colts typically fill from within their roster, usually with young veterans who joined the franchise as draft choices.

"It seems like every year for a while, we'd lose somebody, and the [critics] would say, 'Well, they can replace that guy, right?'" said eight-year veteran linebacker Rob Morris, a first-round pick in 2000 by the Colts and a starter in the middle for the 2001-2004 seasons. "But we've always had somebody [ready] to play. It's pretty impressive, both the guys who left and the ones who replaced them."

After leaving for the Redskins in 2004, Washington was selected for the Pro Bowl in the first season with his new team. June was named to the all-star team in 2005 as a member of the Colts.

In the era of free agency, nearly every team is forced to replace key players who depart, but it's rare for a club to have to restock one position multiple times in such a short period.

It's also challenging.

"First off, you've got to have a coach who provides a very specific blueprint as to what he wants at the position," said Polian, five-time recipient of the NFL Executive of the Year Award. "And then [the scouts] follow that blueprint. … Part of [the process] is the economical decision, too. There are certain positions that, because of economics, are fungible. That might be different for different teams, but for us linebacker is one of those fungible positions."

Even with the almost-yearly makeover, the defensive unit has performed at a high level. The four "replacement" outside linebackers averaged 90.3 tackles in their first seasons stepping up into a starting role.

Certainly, the success is due in large part to the drafting acumen of Polian, the diligence of his scouting staff and the track record of the Colts' coaches in player development.

"You take a guy like [assistant coach] Mike Murphy, who's been a constant in all of the change," Polian said. "You tell him we can't keep a guy and he just kind of shrugs his shoulders and moves on. He doesn't bellyache about it."

For the Colts, given their salary-cap structure, the first priority is keeping their best players. Sometimes the linebackers who depart are very good defenders, but Indianapolis simply can't afford to retain them.

"Would we like to have guys like Mike [Peterson] or Marcus [Washington] or Cato [June] still here?" Polian said. "Of course we would, but given the economics, it was something we couldn't do. So, our scouts have to do a great job of identifying the kinds of guys we want. … And you have to be able to admit your mistakes. There are no turf wars here. There is no pride of authorship."

Because the Colts haven't chosen a linebacker in the first round since Morris in 2000, the players who stepped up as replacements usually came from the middle or late rounds of the draft. In 12 drafts with the club, Polian selected 14 linebackers from among his 95 selections. Six of the 14 were tabbed in the first three rounds.

There weren't any free-agent defections this spring, but the Colts' shuffle in the linebacker unit will continue in 2009, because Keiaho, who re-signed with Indianapolis this spring after testing the unrestricted market, has been demoted. Once again, the replacement will come from a group of defenders chosen outside of the first two rounds. Clint Session, a fourth-round pick in 2007, will move from the strongside spot at which he started last season, to the weak side, and will replace Keiaho. Second-year pro Philip Wheeler, a third-round pick in 2008, is the presumed starter at strongside linebacker. If he wins the job, he will be Indianapolis' fifth starting stongside linebacker in five opening days, and the sixth in seven seasons.

"The system just keeps churnin' them out," middle linebacker Gary Brackett noted last season.

Over the last six seasons, the Colts have played 89 games in which their defense opened with a three-linebacker unit. Indianapolis employed 16 different linebacker combinations in those 89 games, and no threesome started more than 16 games together.

Session will be Indianapolis' third weakside linebacker in four seasons. His progression largely reflects the manner in which the Colts develop linebackers. He was a special-teams standout in his 2007 rookie season, and moved into the starting lineup in '08.

As the newest linebacker replacement, Session has quite a lineage to uphold.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.