» Eberflus was elated to have the opportunity to acquire an elite player at the three-technique position in DeForest Buckner: When Eberflus was asked earlier in the offseason about the chance to even possibly acquire Buckner vs. using the team’s then-first-round (13th-overall) pick in the upcoming draft on a prospect at the same position, Eberflus’ preference was to get a guy like Buckner because “at least you know what you’re getting with DeForest … you’re getting a Pro-Bowl talent, a high-level player that has dominated his position.”
The fact that Buckner was just turning 26 years old probably didn’t hurt matters, either. So Eberflus popped in some of Buckner’s game film, and it only confirmed what he had already known about the 6-foot-7, 295-pound Oregon product to that point.
Other than Buckner’s elite production — he has 262 career tackles (38 for a loss) with 28.5 sacks, 11 passes defensed, seven fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles in his first four NFL seasons — Eberflus saw a guy that, despite playing a grinding position like defensive tackle, continued to bring it play after play.
“What is amazing to me is what he has done in terms of play – the percentage, I mean we are talking about high-80s, 90 percent of playtime,” Eberflus said. “The guy just plays and he loves to play football.”
The Colts eventually went ahead and sent that 13th pick to the San Francisco 49ers to acquire Buckner, and then immediately signed him to a huge contract extension to be the face of their defensive front for years to come. It didn’t take long for Eberflus to hear some rave reviews about his newest weapon.
“A couple of the guys that I know that have been around him contacted us right afterward and said, ‘You have no idea what you are getting in terms of a practice player, in terms of a reader and the impact he is going to have on your football team,'” Eberflus said.
» Xavier Rhodes, Eberflus believes, can use the chip on his shoulder to get back to playing at an elite level at his position: Eberflus was part of the Dallas Cowboys’ staff that coached the NFC roster at the 2017 Pro Bowl, which is where he got his first introduction to Rhodes, who at the time had just been selected to his first of three Pro Bowls with the Minnesota Vikings.
“We had him there and I just fell in love with him in terms of his work patterns,” Eberflus recalled of Rhodes.
Also striking about Rhodes was his size: he’s listed at 6-foot-1, 218 pounds, but seems to play even bigger than that.
“I was just amazed for how the guy could move for how big he is,” Eberflus said. “I mean, the guy looks like a big safety and he is playing corner. We just really fell in love with him.”
Fast forward a little more than three years later, and the Colts are signing Rhodes to a reported one-year free agent deal for the 2020 season.
There were a couple primary reasons the Colts and Eberflus were so interested in getting Rhodes in their secondary. First was Rhodes familiarity with both of Indy’s defensive backs coaches: safeties coach Alan Williams was Rhodes’ defensive coordinator with the Vikings his rookie year in 2013, while cornerbacks coach Jonathan Gannon was a DBs coach in Minnesota for four seasons with Rhodes (2014-17).
Secondly, Rhodes has acknowledged he’ll be playing with quite the chip on his shoulder after not playing up to his standards for a variety of reasons last season, and then being released by the Vikings on March 13.
“He is a physical, really good tackler and he has played at a Pro-Bowl level. We are excited to get him back to that point,” Eberflus said of Rhodes. “He has a chip on his shoulder in lieu of the circumstances and we are excited about that. We will see where he goes from there.”
» Eberflus likes where the Colts are headed now in Year 3 of his system: Eberflus was hired early in 2018 to oversee a successful transition of the Colts’ defense from a 3-4 base to more of a 4-3 attacking system. One of the primary selling points of Eberflus’ system was that rookies and relatively inexperienced players could come in and grasp the concepts immediately, which is how linebacker Darius Leonard was able to go from second-round draft pick in 2018 to First-Team All-Pro and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in just a few short months.
Last year, the Colts added even more rookies to the mix on defense; of the team’s six 2019 draft picks on that side of the ball, five of them — cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, defensive end Ben Banogu, linebacker Bobby Okereke, safety Khari Willis and cornerback Marvell Tell III — ended up either starters or key pieces of depth at their respective positions by year’s end.
Playing with such young players can present some bumps along the way, but Eberflus saw enough out of that group last year to be comfortable with what the group can be capable of heading into 2020.
“We knew that at the end of this (last) year, 2019, we wanted to have a young, but experienced defense and that is what we have now,” Eberflus said. “So we have guys that have a lot of play underneath their belt and they understand what the standards are.”
Now with building blocks previously in place in linebacker Anthony Walker and safety Malik Hooker, 2018 draft picks like Leonard and defensive end Kemoko Turay, as well as waiver-wire pickup Kenny Moore II at cornerback, and then those six 2019 draft picks, which also includes linebacker E.J. Speed, to go along with free-agent signings Justin Houston at defensive end, DeForest Buckner at defensive tackle and Xavier Rhodes at cornerback — not to mention a few intriguing possibilities coming out of the 2020 draft class — Eberflus wants to see the unit take the next step forward.
“That is just turning over a roster and having building blocks, which we have,” Eberflus said of the process. “That inexperience, turning that into experience.”
» One of those 2020 defensive rookies, Julian Blackmon, has a chance to be a versatile weapon for Eberflus’ defense: The Colts took Blackmon in the third round of this year’s draft after an outstanding career at Utah, where he was a standout cornerback before making the switch to safety his senior year, earning Second-Team All-American honors at his new position.
Blackmon, in all, collected 158 tackles (8.5 for a loss) with nine interceptions (two of which he returned for a touchdown) 20 passes defensed, 1.5 sacks and two forced fumbles during his time at Utah, and the Colts envision the 6-foot, 187-pounder doing the same once he’s able to fully recover from a late-season knee procedure last year (general manager Chris Ballard estimated Blackmon could be fully ready by October).
Is he a deep safety? Can he cover big-play tight ends as a nickel cornerback? Want to put him in the box to help stop the run? Eberflus and the Colts envision Blackmon doing it all.
“The first thing that pops off the tape right there is his ability to take the football away. So when you have that ability, you are what we call a game-changer. You are a guy that can help us win football games by taking the football away. So that is No. 1,” Eberflus said of Blackmon. “Then No. 2, the thing you are alluding to is his versatility. He can play on a tight end, he can potentially play on a bigger type receiver, he can play in the deep part of the field and he can drop down into the box and play the run. So we are excited to have Juilan in there.”