Kavell Conner tackles Steve Smith in an early season meeting with the Giants at home in 2010. (AJ Mast | AP Photo)

Kavell Conner tackles Steve Smith in an early season meeting with the Giants at Lucas Oil Stadium in 2010. (AJ Mast | AP Photo)

Linebacker has been a position of weakness for the Colts for many years. Other than Gary Brackett, the last time the Colts had a linebacker worthy of NFL recognition was when former 2002 fourth round draft pick David Thornton left the team following the 2005 season — he signed a lucrative five-year deal with the Tennessee Titans.

In many ways, the fact that the linebackers have not been a major strength is expected with the Colts’ history of refusing to pay veterans at the position after their rookie contracts expire — they did the same with Marcus Washington following the 2003 season, who went on to a Pro Bowl in 2004 and two alternate bids in 2005 and 2006. With a speed-focused defensive philosophy, however, it is reasonable to keep costs low because Colts linebackers are typically not high-profile players to other teams — they are generally too short and too light for other defensive schemes.

These facts and this history makes the Colts current depth chart at linebacker an albatross. While only Gary Brackett has a resume deserving of Pro Bowl consideration over the last three years, the young talent, potential, and depth at each of the linebacker positions is unfamiliar.

Consider that rookie second round pick Pat Angerer started games at each of the three linebacker positions, finished second on the team with 88 total tackles — Antoine Bethea led the team with 106 — and seems poised to make the transition at middle linebacker relatively smooth when Brackett’s days in Indianapolis are over. Seventh round rookie Kavell Conner was forced into duty early — Week 2 — as veteran weak-side linebacker Clint Session started the season nursing an injury. When Session went back down with a dislocated shoulder and forearm fracture during the Colts’ Week 8 win over the Houston Texans and Conner returned from a foot fracture — Week 3 at Denver — on Week 10, he stepped back in to start eight of the Colts final nine games — including the playoffs. In that time he tallied 60 total tackles. If he maintained the same level of production over a full season he would have led the team in tackles. His marquee game was against the New York Jets in the Wildcard game at home. His eight total tackles and on-field effectiveness was the best performance of the Colts linebackers for the day.

A familiar face made a return to Indianapolis’ roster when Tyjuan Hagler joined the team prior to the Week 4 game at Jacksonville. Hagler’s injury history certainly played a role in the team’s hesitation in pulling the trigger to bring him back, but he managed to stay healthy and when he was used as a regular part of rotation, he was very productive. In the final eight games of the regular season, Hagler totaled 51 tackles, an interception — he nearly returned for a touchdown, and returned an onside kick for a touchdown against the Jaguars in a key win down the stretch. During those eight weeks, Hagler started only one game. Projected over the season it would give him over 100 tackles and two interceptions as a reserve. Make no mistake, Hagler does not have a Pro Bowl bid in his future, but he is a solid backup in the Colts defensive scheme — and not a notable liability if he has to start.

All of these things make Clint Session’s position more difficult when he comes to the table to consider a new contract offer from the Colts. While he is one of the fastest and highest energy players on the field with the Colts defense, he started forming a bad reputation for a lack of gap discipline — giving opposing running backs the chance to make large gains. While Conner does not hit as hard and may not be quite as fast as Session, he earned a reputation for being disciplined and reliable. If Session has any hope of returning to the team he will have to be prepared to accept a contract that reflects this situation. The likely result is that Session will test the market and only return to Indianapolis if the team chooses to match competing offers.

Session’s starting counterpart on the strong-side of the defense, Philip Wheeler, failed to keep his job in 2010. To this point in his career, Wheeler has been disappointing as he has been incapable of finding a true position with the team. When he was drafted in the third round of the 2008 NFL Draft, the team hoped to add a pass rushing option from the linebacker position. This choice was potentially prophetic as when Tony Dungy retired and handed over the reigns to Jim Caldwell, he brought in defensive coordinator Larry Coyer who has a more aggressive blitzing approach than his predecessor Ron Meeks. The difficulty for Wheeler has been that while he is fast in a straight line and bigger than typical Colts linebackers, he is not particularly adept at shedding blocks or standing up against the run. His skill-set is more geared to play defensive end but he is too small to be effective in that role. Where Wheeler excels is as one of Indianapolis’ best special teams players. For that reason, expect to see Wheeler return on his rookie contract.

While it is possible that Session could leave the team, and while there are only Nate Tripplett and special teams ace Cody Glenn left as linebacker depth behind these players, this is the best situation the Colts have had entering the off-season since 2004. A starting group including Brackett, Angerer, and Conner with productive backups like Hagler, Wheeler, and potentially Session is rather stout. Expect this unit to get even better in 2011 as the rookies move into their second seasons — even if Session departs.