NFL teams with a rookie general manager and a coach on the hottest of hot seats (like, biting into a freshly-exploded pizza roll type of hot) rarely have a good roster. The 2017-18 Indianapolis Colts are no exception. Odds are, Jim Irsay knew that this rebuild would take several years, and Chris Ballard has been given a long leash with the only condition being that he allow Chuck Pagano the chance for a “prove it” year. Instead, Pagano has proven that he is better off as a defensive coordinator or position coach. And that’s alright. Ballard used this year to see what this team looks like from top to bottom, with each wart and flaw amplified in the absence of superhero quarterback Andrew Luck. In that regard, Luck’s injury could prove helpful in the long term. Now we know exactly who can play in a vacuum.
This article will be the first in a continuing series, which puts the Colts’ position groups under a microscope to determine the salvageable few and the many in need of a tune-up. First will be the defensive backs.
Cornerbacks, in alphabetical order:
Kenny Moore II
Safeties, in alphabetical order:
*Denotes practice squad member
+Denotes injured reserve designation
The notable exception from this list is cornerback Vontae Davis, who–despite being named to the Pro Bowl after the 2014 and 2015 seasons–was released from the team last month. Outside of Davis and Malik Hooker, there is little star power in this group. Clayton Geathers has shown flashes, Hooker is a potential All-Pro if he returns to health and develops his game, and Quincy Wilson looked pretty good before Pagano and defensive coordinator Ted Monachino threw him in their doghouse. Nate Hairston has been a pleasant surprise, and Rashaan Melvin currently sits as Pro Football Focus’ 14th-ranked corner in the entire league. So some talent exists, but consistency is key.
Speaking of consistency, the secondary has not had much of it. Six different lineups have started (through 11 games), with the quartet of Davis, Matthias Farley, Hooker, and Melvin making the longest run (four straight in Weeks 4-7). Pierre Desir, Farley, T.J. Green, and Melvin could tie that streak with their fourth straight start tomorrow against Jacksonville. Unsurprisingly, the back end has put up less-than-impressive statistics through all of the transition. Indianapolis ranks 30th in pass yards allowed per game (266.27) and has given up a league-high 48 passes of 20+ yards. Much of this can be attributed to the putrid sack production by the front seven: 19 sacks in 11 games is 28th in the league (By comparison, the Colts have allowed 47 sacks, which is also worst in the league, but that’s a story for another day). Without pressure on the quarterback, defenders can only cover for so long. It’s a two-sided coin, and both sides are substandard.
So what do we do with this information? For example, Matthias Farley has started every game at strong safety. Is that a good thing? Sure, he has played well enough to start for an entire season, but that’s like being the best-looking dog in this contest. Geathers has developed a cult-like following in his limited appearances at strong safety/dime linebacker, as his biggest detriment is staying on the field. The simplest solution would be to combine Farley’s availability with Geathers’ ability, but then you just end up breaking the laws of nature…and making a really bad movie. Assuming that Hooker returns to 100%, Melvin is re-signed to a long-term deal, Wilson proves himself worthy to the new coaching staff, and Geathers can stay out of the training room, next year’s secondary looks relatively good. Throw in Hairston at the nickel/slot, and you’re still pretty pleased with the way the group looks. However, that is a lot of conditionals, and it would be a long shot for each one to come to fruition.
For argument’s sake, let’s pencil those five in as starters in 2018-19. Farley provides depth at safety, and Chris Milton and Kenny Moore II are key special teams contributors who can play dime corner in a pinch. Darius Butler is past his prime, T.J. Green is not worth keeping around, and Pierre Desir is a free agent after this year (Melvin is too, so it is likely that one of the two is walking). Practice squads change nearly every week, so the team is not married to either Denzel Rice or Ronald Martin. The point of this is that the core defensive backfield is probably in place already, but another piece or two may be added for both strength and depth in the draft/free agency. More than anything else, this unit needs health and consistency. Those attributes are going to be invaluable moving forward.
Next time, we pick apart the inside linebackers. Spoiler alert: it will be painful.
Thanks for reading, and, as always, Go Colts!