New Pickup Could Boost Secondary, Returns

Wednesday, Indianapolis placed rookie cornerback Dante Hughes on injured reserve and signed free agent cornerback Keiwan Ratliff, formerly of Tampa Bay.

Hughes was drafted by the Colts in the third round of this year's draft, 95th overall, out of Cal. He had a reputation as a terrific cover player whose size (5 feet, 10 inches, 188 pounds) and speed (4.65 in the 40-yard dash) would limit him from having considerable success at his position at the NFL level.

He played primarily on special teams and in some substitution packages due to in-game injuries, but did not contribute much to the team this season before hurting his shoulder against the Chargers and subsequently being placed on IR.

Ratliff was originally drafted in the second round, 47th overall, of the 2004 NFL Draft by Cincinnati.

During his college career at Florida, he set school records for interceptions in a season (9), interceptions in a game (3), and punt return yards (860). Early on, he was used primarily as a punt returner by the Bengals, but eventually worked his way into the lineup as a nickelback and spot starter, with eight career starts in 51 games.

Cincinnati released Ratliff on Sept. 26, Tampa signed him Nov. 12, then placed him on waivers Nov. 27, where the Colts plucked him yesterday.

While he has a far more impressive NFL resume than Hughes, Ratliff may be on the decline. He had five of his eight starts in his rookie season, and his tackle production declined from 39 in 2005 to 14 in 2006. He has just one tackle in three games in 2007, and all three of his career interceptions came in 2005.

It could be said that Indianapolis signed Ratliff as a punt return and coverage specialist. If that's the case, his return average on punts dropped from 12.2 in 2004 to 6.5 in 2006, with zero punt returns for zero yards in 2007.

The point remains that no one signed in late November that has been cut by two teams is going to come in and be the savior of a franchise. Just ask Simeon Rice.

Keiwan Ratliff
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

However, Ratliff can step in immediately and bring veteran leadership to a special teams coverage unit that has taken more than its fair share of hits this season and given up more than its fair share of big returns.

Since he spent some time in Tampa, he's at least familiar with the brand of Cover 2 that Indianapolis deploys on defense. And, since the Buccaneers obviously did not bring him in to compete for a starting job, he should have some knowledge of the responsibilities and expectations of a nickel or dime cornerback in a Dungy-like scheme.

Later in the season, he can take some on some of the punt and kickoff return duties of T.J. Rushing, who is currently averaging 9.1 yards per return, and rookie receiver Craphonso Thorpe, who has been used mostly on kickoffs. Such a move would help keep the primary return men fresh for the playoffs, since Rushing especially has been nagged by several different injuries this season.

One thing that can be ruled out, though, is a move to safety. Ratliff is too small to play that position — even for the Colts — although otherwise it would seem like an intelligent transition for someone of his coverage skills and speed.

For what he is, Ratliff is a good pickup by the Colts, particularly this late in the season, when the talent pool is very shallow. November pickups are usually washed-up veterans or rookie free agents that were signed off the practice squad, then released. To be able to pluck a fourth-year veteran at a premium position off the waiver wire at this time of year is a potential boon for Indianapolis.

Just don't expect Ratliff to be challenging Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden for the starting job by mid-December. Or, probably, ever.

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