Sanders, Freeney, Mathis lead all-time Colts defense


More often than not, the Indianapolis Colts’ reputation around the National Football League leans more toward scoring points than preventing them.

That’s not to say the franchise hasn’t had outstanding defensive talent because it has.

In the 36 seasons pro football has been played on Hoosier soil, I would rank Bob Sanders as my favorite Colts player. He was the intimidating safety we hadn’t seen in these parts and haven’t seen since he left for a final season in San Diego a decade ago.

By no means is Sanders the lone intimidator on my all-time Colts defensive team, though. Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis are two of the league’s best defensive ends during the past two decades and maybe ever.

To make this team, a player had to play a minimum of five seasons in Indianapolis since the franchise moved here. Fasten your chinstrap because here are my top Colts defensive players and special teamers:

Defensive lineman: Dwight Freeney

Freeney piled up 107.5 career sacks. He made the Pro Bowl on seven occasions, all during his 11 seasons with the Colts, before playing for five different franchises at the end of his career.

Defensive lineman: Robert Mathis

Talk about a fifth-round draft pick panning out. Mathis is the franchise’s career sacks leader with 123, playing his entire 14-year career in Indianapolis and making five Pro Bowls. His final numbers include a ridiculous 19.5 sacks during the 2013 season.

Defensive lineman: Donnell Thompson

Started his career with three seasons in Baltimore before playing his final eight in Indianapolis (1984 to 1991). Thompson’s playing days ended with him having 40 sacks, his best season coming in 1989 when he recorded seven.

Defensive lineman: Ellis Johnson

Started his NFL career in Indy, playing 1995 to 2001 after the team selected him 15th overall in the draft. Johnson registered 33 sacks, forced four fumbles and totaled 270 tackles in his seven seasons locally.

Linebacker: Gary Brackett

The former walk-on at Rutgers and undrafted free agent exceeded everyone’s expectations but his own, ending his nine-year career in Indy with 707 tackles and 12 interceptions.

Linebacker: Barry Krauss

Started his career with five seasons in Baltimore before playing in Indianapolis for the same amount of time. Krauss played a 12-year NFL career, amassing more than 1,000 tackles and providing much-needed leadership when the franchise moved here in 1984.

Linebacker: Duane Bickett

Drafted in 1985, a year after the move to Indianapolis, Bickett played on some of the earliest Colts teams, establishing himself as one of the few bright spots in those days. Bickett played here through the 1993 season, making a total of 50 sacks and nine interceptions, and making it to the 1987 Pro Bowl.

Cornerback: Vontae Davis

Played in Indianapolis for six seasons (2007 to 2012), twice making the Pro Bowl. Started career with three seasons in Miami and concluded it in 2018 with Buffalo before deciding to retire. Thirteen of his career 22 interceptions were as a member of the Colts.

Cornerback: Eugene Daniel

This eighth-round selection out of LSU finished his 14-year NFL career with 38 interceptions, including eight his second season (1985) in Indianapolis. Daniel played his first 13 seasons with the Colts, scoring three defensive TDs in that time.

Safety: Bob Sanders

Sanders put all of his 5-foot-8, 205-pound frame into every tackle, which is why his career only spanned eight seasons. While in Indianapolis (2004 to 2010), he represented the AFC in two Pro Bowls and was the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2007.

Safety: Antoine Bethea

Taken by the Colts in the sixth round of the 2006 draft, Bethea played eight seasons here before moving on to play for three different franchises. A three-time Pro Bowl choice, he was selected twice with Indianapolis (2007 and 2009).

Punter: Rohn Stark

Stark’s name doesn’t come up much these days, but he started with two seasons in Baltimore and then played 11 in Indianapolis. He averaged 43.4 yards per punt. Note: Pat McAfee averaged 46.4 yards a punt, but Stark doubles him up in Pro Bowl invites (4-2) and played a longer NFL career.

Kicker: Adam Vinatieri

Owner of virtually every NFL kicking record, Vinatieri has been a Colts mainstay the past 14 seasons after a decade with New England. And though the 2019 season was nowhere close to his best, it’s hard to overlook a résumé that includes 2,673 points scored, four Super Bowl rings, seven Super Bowl appearances and a spot on the NFL’s 100th anniversary all-time team.

Returner: Clarence Verdin

Another name not thrown around anymore, but Verdin, who was a lightning-fast 5-8, 160-pound receiver, played six seasons as a Colt (1988 to 1993) and twice made the Pro Bowl. Verdin averaged 20.2 yards per kickoff return here and 9.9 on punt returns.

Mike Beas is a sportswriter for The Daily Journal, a sister paper of The Tribune. He can be reached at [email protected].

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