The State of the Colts: Safeties

The Colts have tried a number of different approaches to get the right starting combination at the safety position. Do they have it right heading into 2006 or will they send up a card with the name of a safety on it this weekend? Jerry Langton provides his analysis and projections.

Current status
Judging talent at safety isn't always easy. In the last five drafts, the Colts have spent three second-round picks (Bob Sanders, Mike Doss and Idrees Bashir), two third-rounders (Donald Strickland and Cory Bird), a fourth rounder (Matt Giordano) and two sixth-rounders (James Lewis and Jason Doering) at the position. They have also invited some well-known undrafted free agents like Anthony Floyd and Brian Leigeb, signed veteran free agents like Gerome Sapp and Dexter Reid, and even moved cornerback Joseph Jefferson and -- most recently -- linebacker Chris Laskowski over to safety.

Considering the old draftnik's adage of never drafting a safety in the first round unless he's got the potential to go to Canton, the Colts should be overloaded at the position. In fact, they have just one safety, Sanders, who they apparently feel truly confident about as a starter.

A physical freak with otherworldly speed, instincts and strength, Sanders (4 TFL, 1 int., 4 PBU) is a natural at the position and one of the league's hardest hitters. He can be beaten deep (what safety can't?), but is an intimidating presence on intermediate and deep routes.

Most of the time, he lined up across from Doss (0.5 TYFL, 2 int., 5 PBU), a huge star at Ohio State many observers expected would be a first rounder back in 2003. Almost as talented as Sanders and somewhat smoother in coverage, Doss could be a big factor, but hasn't been to date. A series of injuries and an off-the-field incident appear to have sapped him of some of his confidence and he seems to be playing less instinctively and more cautiously. What the Colts think of his ability to turn it around looks to be a major factor in how they draft.

Tony Dungy has stated that the Colts wouldn't rule out moving Marlin Jackson to safety if need be, but Jackson is only now getting the hang of playing corner in the NFL and could have a problem learning a new position so soon. He did play some safety at Michigan, but not nearly as well as he played corner.

The Colts found another excellent safety in Jefferson (1 int. 3 PBU), who made the transition from corner seamlessly and has the speed, ball skills and tackling ability to be a quality starter, if not a star in the NFL. That is, he would if he didn't have a Steve Emtman-like ability to get hurt. In the 64 regular-season games he could have played in, he's only been healthy enough to dress for 27. He's an unrestricted free agent and I doubt the Colts have enough faith in his durability to invest in him again.

Next in line is Gerome Sapp (0.5 TFL), who is a hard hitter and as smart a ballplayer as you'll ever meet. So far the Colts have opted to use him in spot duty and special teams (18 tackles, 8 assists), where he is something of a pro's pro.

Giordano (1 PBU) had a typical rookie season, but nothing to get too worried about. From a pure athletic ability standpoint, there's nothing wrong with him, but his instincts, especially in close coverage appear a bit off. Look for the Colts to give Giordano lots of opportunity to win a bigger role.

When it was clear he wasn't ready last season and the Colts needed a special-teams upgrade, Polian signed Reid, a player he coveted in the 2004 draft. He's no threat to start at this point, but is a very valuable on kick and punt coverage units (6 tackles, 3 assists).

Also on hand are Brandon Lynch and former linebacker Chris Laskowski. Lynch was something of a small-school dominator at Middle Tennessee State, but has yet to hit the field as a pro outside of preseason. Similarly, Laskowski was a big-play weakside linebacker at Florida Atlantic with eye-popping workout numbers, but was limited to the practice squad as a rookie. He's a rare athlete and could well hang around as a special-teams/developmental guy.

What they'll do
There are a few factors that have to be worked out before they decide where to draft a safety. If Doss's head is back where it belongs, they don't need a starter. If Jackson moves to safety, then they don't need a safety (but probably do need a corner). And there's even a slim chance that neither of those things could happen and that Giordano could emerge as a viable starter. At least one of the three should be able to claim the job, but the Colts are likely to draft a safety, perhaps even on the first day, just in case.

How about...
Since the Combine, the Colts have visited with Howard's Antoine Bethea and Nebraska's Daniel Bullocks. But they've also spoken with a number of well-known safety prospects, including Florida State's Pat Watkins, Syracuse's Anthony Smith, Texas Tech's Dwayne Slay, and Ohio State's Nate Salley. They're all fast, have coverage ability and the arrow appears to be pointed up on the whole group. Bullocks is projected as a late-first or second-round selection. If the Colts don't place that level of need on the position, the guys I think fit the Colts' scheme best are Smith, Slay and Bethea -- and it wouldn't surprise me at all if the Colts called one of their names in the third or fifth round.


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