Starters: LCB Kelvin Hayden, RCB Marlin Jackson, SS Bob Sanders, FS Antoine Bethea. Backups: CB Tim Jennings, CB T.J. Rushing, CB Michael Coe, CB Keiwan Ratliff, SS Matt Giordano, FS Melvin Bullitt, FS Brannon Condren, CB Dante Hughes, CB Antonio Smith.Season In Review:
Hayden and Jackson, though not superstars, certainly held their own in pass defense. Hayden, in particular, had a rocky start to the season, but ended up finishing strong and becoming a solid contributor, with the biggest adjustment he needed to make being learning his role in the Tampa 2 scheme that Indianapolis deploys.
Kelvin Hayden battling Houston's Andre Davis
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Jackson, who had seen spot time and was a valued member of the dime defense since being drafted in the first round in 2005, was more familiar with the defense and his responsibilities, adjusted quickly and had a fine season. Though Jennings certainly looked lost at times and seemed overwhelmed in the Divisional Round against the Chargers, his body of work in 2007, especially on special teams, should give Colts fans hope for the future.
Giordano played well when asked to step in for Bethea. Rushing, who was thought of primarily as only a kick and punt returner when drafted in 2006, proved that he could also play cornerback pretty well when given the opportunity. Ratliff was added to the roster late in the season. Bullitt proved to be a pretty good rookie free-agent find. Hughes, Coe and Condren, 2007 draft picks, saw limited work due to injuries. Smith was an undrafted free agent who missed the year with a foot injury.
Of course, the real story for this unit in the 2007 season was the safeties. Bethea was voted as an alternate to the Pro Bowl — and, he'll be making the trip to Hawaii after Sanders dropped out to have shoulder surgery — and Sanders was crowned the Defensive Player of the Year. In all, Indianapolis finished second overall against the pass, which is especially impressive considering it was involved in so many games where it held big fourth quarter leads and the opponent was forced throw the ball.
Sanders and Bethea are obviously the stars of the back four, but Hayden and Jackson are still progressing and improving, which is a good sign for the pass defense as a whole. Sanders finally showed everyone what he would be capable of if healthy for an entire season.
Bethea, in only his second season, can continue to evolve into more of a playmaker at the "hero" position. There is cause for considerable optimism with this unit, since they have already set the bar very high, but have possibly not yet realized their full potential.
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The future also looks bright, as reserves Rushing and Jennings provide excellent depth and capable bodies in sub packages. Since Bethea and Sanders have displayed difficulty staying healthy, it's good to know that Giordano can capably fill in if needed.
And, with the youth infusion of Hughes, Coe, Condren, and Smith, the ceiling for this group seems to be very high for 2008 and beyond.
Aside from the fact that Sanders and Bethea could miss a great deal of time due to injury, leaving the Colts without their Pro Bowl duo for an extended period of time, there aren't a lot of holes in this group. They have a strong core of talented, young veterans, some of which are stars and some of which are very capable role players.
A number of these men are signed well past 2008 and the team has a great deal of promising prospects from the later rounds of the 2007 draft, as well as undrafted free agents.
In addition, though they have the benefit of youth and upside in their favor, the Colts have no idea what they have in soon-to-be second-year players Hughes, Coe, Condren, and Smith.
In the salary cap era, it is very rare for a team to have the combination of youth, talent, and depth that the Colts currently have stocked in the secondary.
With Bethea only in his third season and four players in their second year, they have more than enough young contributors and starters and the cabinet is fully stocked.
In addition, Tony Dungy and Ron Meeks have a long and distinguished history of being able to identify, draft, and coach "their type of guy" to success. While it's foolish to assume that they can sustain this level of excellence in scouting and coaching forever — particularly considering that Dungy's time with Indianapolis is limited — the Colts certainly seem to be set for the foreseeable future. Aside from undrafted free agents and defensive backs that have been signed to 2008 contracts, it is unlikely that Indianapolis will pursue anyone for next year's roster.
The Colts have traditionally built through the draft on both offense and defense and this trend is especially true in the secondary. Don't look for them to address this unit in free agency or during the first seven rounds of this year's draft. But, also, don't be surprised if they continue to improve in 2008.