INDIANAPOLIS — One of the first things Justin Houston did after signing with the Indianapolis Colts was to reach out to linebacker Anthony Walker Jr.
The veteran pass rusher wanted to know what it would take to pry away Walker's No. 50 jersey — the number Houston wore for eight years with the Kansas City Chiefs.
It doesn't sound like negotiations got far before Walker shut down talks.
What did Houston offer?
“Not enough,” Walker said this spring at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center. “We’ll leave it at that. Not enough.”
The 23-year-old middle linebacker was laughing as he delivered his lines. But he also knows he's only beginning to defend himself this offseason.
Several heads turned when the Colts selected three linebackers in April's NFL draft, and speculation quickly turned to the security of Walker's starting job.
TCU's Ben Banogu was the highest drafted of the bunch at No. 49 overall, but he's going to focus on edge rushing at the start of his career and likely will primarily play the strongside position if and when he's used as a linebacker.
Stanford's Bobby Okereke is another matter all together. The third-round pick (No. 89 overall) already has impressed the coaching staff in the spring, and his measurables compare favorably to reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard.
Okereke also projects best in the middle of the defense, where he'll compete with Walker for playing time.
But general manager Chris Ballard is quick to point out he wasn't seeking to replace the third-year defender out of Northwestern, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2018. He's just concerned about depth at the position.
During a Week 16 game against the New York Giants last year — with a playoff spot still hanging in the balance — Indianapolis was forced to start Ahmad Thomas, a member of the practice squad, at middle linebacker.
Walker was out with a pectoral injury, and Leonard — who has the versatility to play all three linebacker spots — was still dealing with a season-long ankle issue.
Ballard made a decision then and there not to allow the roster to get so thin again.
“We were down to having to play our practice squad guy, and I was thinking, ‘We’ve got to build some depth at inside linebacker. It’s too important to us,’” the GM said in May. “So we went into (the offseason thinking about) creating great competition. It’ll be a heck of a battle (in training camp), but Walker’s a heck of a player.”
Walker has the skins on the wall to bear that out.
Though his play often was overshadowed by Leonard's historic campaign, Walker tallied 105 tackles with 10 stops for a loss, one interception, one fumble recovery and a sack.
But his biggest contribution to the roster can't be quantified by numbers.
Ballard still raves about how quickly Walker picked up the Colts’ defense during the 2017 predraft process and how he was able to spit out calls, reads and checks even during the earliest meetings with the coaching staff.
“Let me tell you this: Anthony is brilliant-smart, too,” Ballard said.
Still, he was drafted for former head coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 scheme which emphasized power and violence from the linebacker corps. New defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' scheme is built around speed, and it was unclear whether Walker could be a fit.
After an injury plagued rookie season under Pagano, Walker removed all doubt last year.
He's established himself as one of the leaders of a young Indianapolis defense, and he's not threatened by the draft results.
“We thrive on competition here,” Walker said. “It’s the NFL. The team’s gonna get the best player available. It’s just competition. That’s all it is. We’re gonna have fun doing it. Best player will play and we’ll leave it up to that.”
Walker's focus has been on growing in Year 2 of Eberflus' scheme.
Speed still is the most important buzzword in the defensive meeting rooms, but disguise is pulling away from the rest of the pack in second place.
The better the players know the scheme, the faster they can play. But that also opens up more options for Eberflus.
He had a baseline to start with this spring, and he can build the defense's deception throughout the summer training camp.
The goal, of course, is to catch up enough to the high-flying offense that the Colts again are looked upon as serious Super Bowl contenders.
So let others debate the roster battles and starting competitions.
Walker's eyes remain on much bigger prizes.
“I was hurt my whole rookie year and just really wanted to believe that I could play on this level,” he said. “I think I was able to grow some more confidence last year. I had fun playing with Darius and the rest of the defense, and we won games. That was fun.
“We take pride in bringing the culture back that the old Colts had. They were playoff contenders every year, Super Bowl contenders every year. So we want to get back to that.”