In anticipation of the Indianapolis Colts reporting for training camp Tuesday at Anderson University, ColtsBlitz.com will offer a series of analytical outlooks on position groups.
This installment takes a look at the secondary.
DEFENSIVE BACKS ON ROSTER: Safety Mike Adams (13th season), cornerback Vontae Davis (eighth season), cornerback Darius Butler (eighth season), cornerback Patrick Robinson (seventh season), cornerback Jalil Brown (sixth season), safety Winston Guy Jr. (fourth season), safety Clayton Geathers (second season), cornerback D'Joun Smith (second season), safety Dezmen Southward (second season), cornerback Tevin Mitchel (second season), cornerback Tay Glover-Wright (first season), safety T.J. Green (rookie), safety Stefan McClure (rookie), cornerback Chris Milton (rookie), cornerback Daniel Davie (rookie), cornerback Winston Rose (rookie), cornerback Darius White (rookie), cornerback Frankie Williams (rookie), safety Andrew Williamson (rookie).
LAST YEAR: Davis made his second consecutive Pro Bowl despite allowing seven touchdown passes, an occupational hazard when entrusted with covering the opponents’ No. 1 receiver. He played through four injuries including foot and ankle issues and when healthy was the shutdown corner counted upon in most instances. Adams also earned his second consecutive Pro Bowl nod after edging Davis for the team’s interception lead, five to four, as well as forcing three fumbles and recovering one. Safety Dwight Lowery, like Adams, returned an interception for a touchdown and was an effective complement on the back line, although Lowery proved to be a one-year addition as he departed in free agency. Cornerback Greg Toler was picked on repeatedly on the other side and typically was heaped with the blame for inconsistent pass coverage, which led to the Colts not re-signing him after the season. Butler continued to play the nickel spot with effectiveness, although struggled when slotted outside against speedier pass catchers. Geathers appeared in 15 games with two starts as a rookie and showed potential as a ferocious hitter. Brown appeared in eight games with four starts as a reserve with mixed results.
NEW COVER GUY: Toler’s exit coincided with the Colts signing Robinson to a three-year, $14-million contract in free agency. Robinson, drafted in the first round by New Orleans in 2010, is thought to be an upgrade on Toler, although the new cornerback has started all 16 games in a season only once. He spent last season in San Diego, where Robinson played in all 16 games with 10 starts and made 49 tackles with one interception and eight passes defended. Robinson’s addition allows the Colts to keep Butler at the nickel in 2016.
OUTLOOK: The Colts can count on Davis to be a fearless cover guy who when healthy is one of the league’s better cornerbacks although he’s seldom mentioned in the conversation of elite pass defenders. The question is more about Robinson, if he can be a better option on the opposite side of the field than Toler, who never lived up to his contract in three years and signed with Washington. Butler has a penchant for making big plays as the nickel cornerback, but if the Colts are forced to move him outside due to injuries or ineffectiveness elsewhere, it can be a problem because he doesn’t have the foot speed to keep up with elite receivers.
It’s unknown if Smith can be an NFL player after most of the third-round pick’s rookie year was spent rehabbing from injury. He struggled with the adjustment to the pro game during preseason before suffering a knee injury and played in just four games with 20 snaps. Head coach Chuck Pagano suggested the rough rookie season is behind Smith and sees talent in the young player, but he’ll have to prove himself in preseason to get more playing time. That the Colts signed Robinson shows they weren’t overly confident Smith could make the jump to a starting role. The rest of a crowded secondary has a wealth of young, unproven options with guys looking to show they are worthy of a roster spot. While Brown played some last year, the Colts will be looking at several players trying to move up in the pecking order.
POSITIVE SPIN: Davis stays healthy and is strong, Robinson is reliable on the other side and Butler adds his share of impact plays in the slot. Because the Colts’ pass rush is suspect beyond outside linebacker Robert Mathis, it’s imperative that cornerbacks are able to cover a few seconds more, even when asked to play press coverage. That’s a difficult challenge, but one Davis is adept at. How well Robinson does with it could determine if he sticks as a starter or other players are given the opportunity to play. Ideally, Robinson wins that job and the Colts just need to decide who fills in when the pass coverage involves more cover guys in dime packages. Smith will be given every opportunity to prove he can be counted upon and presuming he plays well (this is the optimistic part of the equation), the Colts have much-needed depth as well as a cornerback who can be counted upon long term. Butler is entering a contract year, so the Colts would like to think Smith is being groomed for a larger role, if not this season than the next.
Adams continues to be a turnover machine in leading the back line of the defense while mentoring Geathers, who steps in as a full-time starter for the first time now that Lowry has departed. Green, a second-round pick, was picked to eventually inherit a starting role, presumably when Adams slows down and it’s time to retire. Adams is 35 and also entering a contract year. The Colts would like to get Green on the field as much as possible to advance his learning curve and have him ready for a starting role in the next year or two. The more Green plays, the better in assessing where the safety position is headed. It’s also possible Adams proves himself worthy of being extended for another year.
NEGATIVE SPIN: If Davis has trouble with injuries again, the secondary is strained because nobody covers as well as him. Robinson proves to be another Toler, just a guy who can make a play now and then but gives up too many big plays. Butler continues as a capable nickel guy but not much else. Smith continues to struggle in his adjustment, especially when making contact with receivers down the field. Geathers still has a lot to learn as a full-time starter, especially knowing when to unleash a big hit as opposed to being in the right place and playing smart. Green, like any rookie, is a big green and like Geathers has a lot to learn and unfortunately learns the hard way when given playing time.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.