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Colts’ Ben Banogu competes for what’s likely his last shot to stick in Indy

After the 2019 draft, the Colts painted Ben Banogu as this shifty defensive weapon they could play all over the field, a prospect fast enough to cover like a linebacker who could also put his hand in the dirt and win on the edge.

“When you’ve got an athlete who’s big and can rush, you can do a lot of things with him,” the Colts’ southwest area scout, Byron Lusby, professed at the time. “He’s versatile that way.”

“We think he’s got a lot of versatility and his speed and athleticism and the ability to run down quarterbacks is important in this league,” general manager Chris Ballard added. “We think he’s going to be great on our turf.”

Looking back, it was a bit of a puzzling pick: Was Banogu — taken 49th overall in the second round that year — an edge rusher? Or was he a linebacker? Being skilled enough to win a job at one of those positions is hard enough in this league. Rarely, if ever, can a player do both.

The Colts’ plan was to try Banogu at SAM linebacker at first, but that was scrapped within a matter of weeks. He’s been a defensive end ever since.

And over the last two seasons, he’s all but disappeared.

Ben Banogu has 2.5 sacks in 34 games played for the Colts. (Thomas J. Russo / USA Today)

After seeing 271 defensive snaps as a rookie — Banogu actually sacked Philip Rivers on the first snap of his NFL career in 2019 — that figure dipped to 100 in 2020 and just 68 last year. He’s never started a game in three seasons. He has just 2.5 sacks. He’s been a healthy scratch 15 times over the last two years, relegated to former defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ doghouse, an afterthought on Sundays who, now in his fourth training camp with the Colts, is staring at what very well could be his last shot to stick with this team.

“It’s a big year for me,” Banogu said after Thursday’s workout. “Can’t get around it.”

He’s right. Make no mistake, this is it for the TCU product.

Second-round picks are expected to be starters early in their careers, and contribute week after week.

Banogu hasn’t.

At one point, Ballard said what everyone in the building had to be thinking: “Ben has to come on. Come on, let’s go.”

Banogu’s hope — his belief — is that year is different, starting with the overhaul of the defensive coaching staff. Eberflus took the head coach job in Chicago and took most of his assistants with him; meanwhile, Brian Baker, the Colts’ defensive line coach last year, wasn’t retained. Banogu now has a new coordinator in Gus Bradley and a new position coach in Nate Ollie.

He sees it as the fresh start his career sorely needed.

“Just having coaches that actually believe in you, that actually care about you, and want you to be the best that you can be, that goes a long way,” Banogu said. “Especially for guys that, you know, aren’t the starters or whatever.”

It’s no secret Eberflus strongly favored Al-Quadin Muhammad over Banogu at defensive end (Muhammad saw 801 defensive snaps last season and had six sacks). Eberflus demands intensity in practice and all-out effort on Sundays, and he’s benched players who fail to meet that standard before (former cornerback Quincy Wilson comes to mind). The former coordinator never said explicitly why Banogu’s snaps slipped as they did, never publicly questioned his practice habits or attitude or ability, but it became obvious over the last two years that Eberflus had little use for him.

Eberflus noted at one point that Banogu was only slated for the Colts’ NASCAR package, primarily used in two-minute situations at the end of a half. At no point last year did Banogu ever see more than 14 snaps, even while the Colts’ pass rush faded down the stretch.

And that was after Banogu kept his job with a strong training camp last summer, one in which Eberflus praised his maturity and attitude. Banogu was effectively an afterthought by midseason, spending most Sundays watching in street clothes, called upon only when the Colts ran out of other options.

Entering his fourth NFL season, Banogu knows this is his last shot with the team that drafted him. He’ll become a free agent next March, and 2.5 sacks and 19 tackles in 34 games won’t exactly have teams lining up for his services, no matter if he was a second-round pick.

“I feel like I’ve had a really good camp (so far), and I gotta keep stacking days,” he said. “But I know, and you know, that camp is camp and whenever you get to the real season, that’s what really matters.

“I just hope I can, you know, change some of the people’s perspective of me,” he continued. “That’s one of my biggest things — not that I want to prove anyone wrong, but I want to prove myself right. I want to help this team, and I want the fans to really embrace what I can bring to the table. I want the coaches and the front office to feel that, too.”

It’s not just the new coaches that have given Banogu a lift, it’s the scheme Bradley’s brought with him from Las Vegas. He’s lining up at the LEO spot in Bradley’s split-safety system, behind starter Yannick Ngakoue. Banogu calls it “a perfect fit” for him, “like two peas in a pod, because there are a ton of things I can bring to the table that the LEO spot asks for.”

He’ll line up much wider than in previous years, outside the tackle, allowing him more space to work with on the edge. Bradley’s often noted that the LEO doesn’t have to be built like a prototypical 4-3 defensive end, and Ngakoue (a bit undersized in most defenses at 6-2 and 246) proves it.

“A bit more edgier,” is how Banogu described it, “just being able to fly around have more of a rush mentality late.”

But let’s be real, Ngakoue’s get-off — as seen in Westfield over the past week — is far superior to Banogu’s. Ollie’s changing the way his linemen think, though, urging them to get off the ball and go, no questions asked, and Banogu welcomes a simpler mindset designed to let the ends play free.

Much like last August, he’s off to a good start, but the real evaluation will come in the weeks ahead, as the preseason games arrive and the Colts welcome the Lions in town for a few joint practices. Banogu also knows doing it in training camp is one thing; to earn another contract, he’s going to have to do what he’s yet to in this league — consistently produce during the regular season.

“I’m the player, and you know, the front office and the coaches make decisions at the end of the day,” he said. “I can just control what I can control. I can control how I carry myself every day, how I show up to practice and how I am to my teammates. And outside of that, man, sometimes it’s frustrating, but, you know, this game was made for people that are tough. And regardless of where you’re at, if you’re all the way up as an All-Pro or you’re struggling to make the team, you have to have a good mindset about things, and that goes a long way.

“Our coach, coach Nate, he always says, ‘Man, don’t let anyone steal your shine. Don’t anyone steal your joy.’ I love this game, and I show up every day and I put my best effort out there and you know, I’m not going to let anyone take that away from me.”

Practice observations:

DeForest Buckner was, in a word, dominant. The All-Pro defensive tackle has been limited a bit so far due to a minor injury early, but during the Colts’ two-hour workout, he was flat-out unstoppable, blowing up a number of plays in 11-on-11.

• Yannick Ngakoue has an eye-opening rush just about every day. His victim Thursday was left tackle Matt Pryor, whom Ngakoue zipped around like he was standing still. Pryor’s been solid for most of camp, but Ngakoue’s been better. He’s adding some punch and attitude to that defensive line group that’s been sorely missing the last few seasons.

• Wow, Drew Ogletree. The rookie tight end had his best day so far, and it’s no surprise he’s starting to get some run with the first-team offense. Ogletree somehow hauled in a one-handed touchdown from Matt Ryan early in the practice, snagging it over heavy coverage from linebacker E.J. Speed. But Ogletree wasn’t done. He had five or six more catches in live work later in the session. As of now, there’s little doubt in my mind he’s third on the tight end depth chart, behind Mo Alie-Cox and Kylen Granson, who’s been improving over the past few days. Jelani Woods, the other rookie tight end, hasn’t flashed much at all.

• The defense won the day behind Buckner and Ngakoue. Stephon Gilmore was excellent; it’s really fun to watch a corner that smart because he’s never out of position, never forced to panic late in the down. He had a vicious pass break-up over the middle on rookie Alec Pierce, closing fast and hard in time to knock the ball away (and give Pierce a nice thump, too). Julian Blackmon and Kenny Moore II were some of the other standouts on defense Thursday.

Kwity Paye had a sack in live team work, and Dayo Odeyingbo is starting to flash more consistently (albeit with the second-team defense).

• So far, Zaire Franklin is the Colts’ second starter at linebacker (as long as Shaquille Leonard is out), ahead of Speed. Bobby Okereke remains at the MIKE linebacker spot.

• If Ogletree’s one-hander was the play of the day, then Nyheim Hines’ 35-yard touchdown snag was next in line. The running back ran a fade route to the corner of the end zone, then hauled in Ryan’s throw despite blanket coverage from safety Nick Cross. It’s further proof Hines is going to get plenty of usage this year in the pass game, and by the end of the year, calling him a running back might be short-sighted.

• Working against Gilmore every day in camp is already making Michael Pittman Jr. better. The Colts’ top wideout had to fight tooth and nail for a catch in the end zone during one-on-ones Thursday, but by the end of it, he had control. Nothing’s easy against Gilmore. He’s challenging the Colts’ receivers this camp, and that’s a good thing: they haven’t faced an elite corner like this in years.

• Former Colts head coach Chuck Pagano took in practice on Thursday, the first time he’s done so since being fired after the 2017 season. Pagano and former interim coach Bruce Arians will be at the team’s practice facility on Thursday night to celebrate 10 years of Pagano being cancer-free. To date, the Chuckstrong foundation has raised more than $10 million for cancer research.

(Top photo: Zach Bolinger / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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