INDIANAPOLIS — Anthony Walker is well-versed in the business side of sports.
The Indianapolis Colts linebacker has stated he’d like to become a general manager after his playing career ends, and he took an internship with the NBA’s Miami Heat after his rookie season to get a closer look at how a professional sports franchise operates.
So the 24-year-old was certain to have a unique perspective on potential free agency as he enters the final season of his rookie contract.
“I’m excited I still have the opportunity to go out there and play the game that I love,” Walker said during a conference call this week. “That’s not up to me. I’d love to be in Indy forever, but that is not up to me. I’ll go out there, execute and do my job, and hopefully it works out that way.
“We will go from there, but right now my focus is on playing this season and getting in the best physical shape — mentally and physically in every way that I can — to help my teammates do the same thing so we can go out and have a successful season this year.”
Indianapolis hopes to bounce back from a 7-9 season and return to playoff contention this fall. The team loaded up with big offseason moves on both sides of the ball and has designs on competing for its first AFC South championship since 2014.
But several big roster decisions loom for 2021. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, center Ryan Kelly, safety Malik Hooker and quarterback Philip Rivers are among several starters with expiring contracts, and it will take some artful negotiations to fit everyone under the salary cap.
Walker is in a particularly tenuous position given the presence of rising second-year defender Bobby Okereke on the roster. The pair will start at middle and strongside linebacker, respectively, in the base defense. And Okereke likely will continue to replace Walker in the middle in certain sub packages.
It’s a system that evolved throughout the 2019 season and will continue to do so when the players return to the practice field this summer. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus stresses versatility in his linebackers, and he wants each player prepared to play each of the three starting positions.
That paid dividends last year when all-pro weakside starter Darius Leonard was lost for three weeks because of a concussion. Walker moved to the weakside, Okereke shifted to the middle and the team remained afloat well enough to win an October road game against the Super Bowl-champion Kansas City Chiefs.
That experience accelerated Okereke’s learning curve and set the stage for the evolving rotation.
“I think at the end of the year we kind of came up with a rotation with all three of us, but at the end of the day we want to win,” Walker said. “So whatever it is to help the team win, we are going to do – all three guys. Whatever that rotation is, that is going to be on the coaches, and we’ll execute it from there.”
Walker excelled in 2019, continuing a steady climb since being selected in the fifth round out of Northwestern in 2017. He led the Colts with 124 tackles and recorded his first career interception in a December win against the Carolina Panthers.
It was his second straight 100-tackle campaign, and it marked the first time he’s played in all 16 games as a pro.
After a slow start as a rookie because of injuries, Walker made just 22 tackles in 10 appearances with two starts. But he really took off during his second year with the change to Eberflus’ 4-3 defensive scheme.
There were questions if Walker was athletic enough to play in the speed-based system, but he answered them by making 105 tackles in 14 starts and forging a bond with Leonard on and off the field. The chemistry displayed by the duo has helped make them a formidable challenge for opposing offenses.
Rather than concern himself with future roster considerations, Walker is focused on continuing to improve that partnership and helping the defense take another step forward as a unit.
The offseason additions included all-pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Xavier Rhodes. That’s helped raise expectations for a group that should continue to mature in its third season under Eberflus.
“I think we added pieces that took us from what we feel had a chance to be a good/great defense to an elite defense,” Walker said. “So you add Xavier Rhodes, you add DeForest Buckner, (defensive tackle) Sheldon Day. You already had some guys at pretty elite positions – Darius Leonard, Bobby Okereke, Justin Houston, Kenny Moore, you already had those guys (and) Malik Hooker. You add the pieces that we added this offseason and now we have to go out there and put it all together on the field together.
“On paper it looks great, like a beautiful drawing right now. We’ll piece it all together like a puzzle, and hopefully we’ll get to clicking as soon as we get into the facility working out together and everything like that, and Week 1 we can go ahead and put it on display.”