The Indianapolis Colts Aren't Going to Be the AFC's Best Defense
It’s the middle of May. We’re a few weeks removed from the NFL Draft, rookies have suited up for minicamps and have looked great in drills, and no one has gotten seriously injured yet. In football terms, it’s the perfect time to be optimistic about the upcoming season. It’s true for both fans and players.
Enter Johnathan Hankins, one of the newest members of the Indianapolis Colts. After waiting longer than expected as a free agent and seeing other capable defensive tackles get little more than one-year deals, Hankins ended up with a pretty nice haul from Indianapolis -- a three-year deal worth $27 million, including $14.5 million in guarantees.
He’s clearly happy about his landing spot and the players he’ll have around him on the defense. He’s so confident, he told Good Morning Football, “Right now, I feel like we got probably the best defense in the AFC.” He did give an “on paper” qualifier after and said they’ll need to prove it on the field, but still, that’s quite a claim for a defense that was one of the league's worst last season by Net Expected Points (NEP).
The Colts had the 29th-best defense in 2016 when measured by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. That means there were 14 AFC defenses were better than them, and only the Cleveland Browns were worse.
The top defense in the league was an AFC team in the Denver Broncos, who have been in that spot for back-to-back seasons. They’ll return just about everyone except for coordinator Wade Phillips. The Houston Texans had the fourth-best defense by Adjusted Defensive NEP per play in 2016 and they’ll be adding J.J. Watt in 2017. Six of the top-10 defenses came from the NFC last year, but the AFC still has some pretty good units heading into September.
But for now, let’s not think about who the Colts would have to leapfrog in order to be the AFC's best defense -- let's just focus on Indianapolis, who, by just about every metric, were bad last year.
After ranking 29th in efficiency, we can go out on a limb and suggest they probably won't have the conference's best defensive unit in 2017. However, maybe there is precedent for them to come pretty close.
Making a Leap
Let’s take a look at teams that have finished among the bottom five in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play over the past 10 seasons, giving us a sample of 50 pretty bad defenses.
Here’s the good news for the Colts: The average improvement for those teams by rank in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play is 9.98 spots. The median is 9.5, so there’s not much of a skew in the average. Interestingly, the mode among those teams was 0 -- five teams made no year-to-year change -- but that’s less important. Only seven teams got worse the following year.
More teams -- eight to be exact -- jumped into the top-10 the year after fielding a bottom-five unit. Only one -- the 2007 Colts (31st to 7th) -- did so without significant free agent additions or a coaching change, but that squad did get an addition by way of health. The 2005 Colts were a slightly above average defense -- 13th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play -- but bottomed out in 2006 when All-Pro safety Bob Sanders played only four games. He played 15 games in 2007 and was again voted an All-Pro.
Just two other teams made a similar jump without a coaching change. The 2007 Washington Redskins made the biggest leap (32nd to 3rd) and did so with the help of a few free-agent signings. In that offseason, Washington signed London Fletcher and Fred Smoot, then selected LaRon Landry in the first round of the NFL Draft. This defensive unit is also notable because Pro Bowl safety Sean Taylor was killed during the season. He had five interceptions in nine games before he was shot and killed at the end of November.
The 2011 Jacksonville Jaguars also fall into this category, as they brought in Paul Posluszny, Dawan Landry, and Dwight Lowery in as free agents and jumped from 24th to 7th in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play. Unfortunately, the rest of the team was bad, head coach Jack Del Rio was fired after five games, and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker was promoted for the interim head coach gig. Tucker stayed on as the defensive coordinator in 2012 after Mike Mularkey was hired as head coach, but that regime lasted just one season.
All five of the other teams made a coaching change that helped spark an improvement.
Andy Reid's first year with the Kansas City Chiefs was in 2013 and he brought Bob Sutton to coordinate the defense, helping them go from 32nd to 4th in just a season. Josh McDaniels did not last long with the Broncos, but his decision to hire Mike Nolan as a DC helped Denver jump from 31st to 4th in defensive efficiency from 2008 to 2009.
The 2011 Texans finished sixth in Adjusted Defensive NEP per play after ranking last the previous season after hiring Wade Phillips as the defensive coordinator in 2011 and drafting some kid out of Wisconsin named J.J. Watt. In 2013, the Buffalo Bills hired Doug Marrone as head coach and Mike Pettine came along as defensive coordinator. The Bills went from 31st to 8th with Pro Bowl seasons from Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus, and Kyle Williams.
Finally, the 2012 San Diego Chargers promoted John Pagano from linebackers coach to defensive coordinator and the team jumped 20 spots from 30th to 10th.
The Colts' Path
The Colts won’t have the benefit of a coaching change in 2017. Defensive coordinator Ted Monachino will enter his second season, which will be his second overall as a coordinator. However, Indianapolis can claim the player addition path.
While Hankins was added along the defensive line, the Colts reshaped their entire linebacking corps with the signings of John Simon, Sean Spence, and Jabaal Sheard. Those aren’t huge names, but they’re something. For this defense, something is an improvement. Indianapolis also added safety Malik Hooker in the first round of the draft, a player few expected would still be on the board at 15th overall.
It would be insane to suggest the Colts are going to be the best defense in the AFC. It would be slightly less insane to suggest this could be a top-10 unit if everything breaks right, but that would still be pushing it. More likely with the new additions and Year 2 of a coordinator, the Colts could find their way into that 10-spot ranking jump from the bad defenses before them, putting them somewhere around the 19th-best defense.
That doesn’t sound impressive, but an average defense would be quite a step forward. And if all things break right for the offense -- which is probably a safer bet -- average could be enough.