Season in Review: Defensive Backs

The Colts were ravaged by injuries at the position, but still had an excellent season defending the pass. Are they all set for next year? Brad Keller takes a look at the season that was in the defensive backfield.

Season in Review:

Starters: Kelvin Hayden, Tim Jennings, Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea. Backups: Keiwan Ratliff, Dante Hughes, Melvin Bullitt, Matt Giordano, Jamie Silva, Marlin Jackson, Michael Coe, and Nick Graham.

The fact that Jackson, Coe, and Graham finished the season on injured reserve says a lot about how many injuries the Colts had to deal with in the secondary. Hayden and Sanders also missed significant time, but the Colts finished sixth in the league in yards allowed per game (188.1) and first in touchdown passes allowed (6).


Melvin Bullitt's emergence helped the secondary immensely in 2008
AP Photo/Tom Strattman

Jennings proved that he is more than just a reserve with his stellar play and Bullitt made his way into the lineup in sub packages after Sanders came back as a direct result of how well he performed when he spelled Sanders.

Bethea had another Pro Bowl caliber season, with 101 tackles (second on the team) and two interceptions. Ratliff authored a number of big plays, including a key interception return for a touchdown against Jacksonville in Week 16.

Silva and Giordano were special teams standouts and Silva, an undrafted rookie free agent, should improve and work his way into sub packages once he gets more comfortable with the defense.

Strengths:

It is difficult to say whether depth or coaching is the biggest strength for this unit, but the Colts are very strong in both areas. Should anything happen to any of the key members of the secondary in 2009, Indianapolis should feel confident that the experience all the reserves gained in 2008 will pay dividends.

Alan Williams did an exceptional job of making sure that every man knew his assignment and the players themselves did an equally exceptional job of executing.

This is also a very active group that tackles well and attacks the line of scrimmage. Though some of their tackles came as a result of issues along the defensive line and at linebacker, this is still a collection of very smart, fundamentally sound athletes.

Needs Improvement:

There was one weakness in the defensive backfield in 2008 and that was the fact that the men playing the positions in the secondary are not ball hawks. The Colts registered only 15 interceptions on the season and, especially early in the year when they were struggling and in the postseason when turnovers are king, they could have used a few more picks and a few more fielded jump balls to improve field position.

If the front office decides to trust their depth in the offseason, they need to consider this factor. Turnovers are part luck, but in a lot of ways, you make your own luck by being aggressive and playing the ball. Without those turnovers, the offense will have to work harder and the defense will have less room for error.

What's Next?:

Hayden is the big name in this group that could depart via free agency. He only emerged as a starter last season — which, ironically enough, was when Jason David and Nick Harper left as free agents — and was injured for much of this season, so if his asking price is high, the Colts will move on.


Although he is the team's best cover corner, the Colts won't overpay for Hayden
Bob Levey/Getty Images

With a rising salary cap, teams have the money to lock up their key players and teams that covet key players can sign anyone that escapes. They are also overpaying what is left over after the feeding frenzy of the first 48 hours. Hayden could find himself in that position, so he will likely test the market.

Indianapolis will not fall into the trap of overpaying him — especially since they have sufficient depth and limited cap space — but Hayden may find that the market is not as promising as he initially thought and come back at a discount.

Giordano and Ratliff are also pending free agents, which is a good sign in terms of continuity. Ratliff is a valuable member of the team, but the Colts will not break the bank to sign him. Giordano is a good backup and contributes a great deal in the kicking game, but would be a lower-priority free agent for Indianapolis.

Chances are that the Colts will clear some cap space by restructuring contracts and releasing some high-earning veterans and will have enough to sign both men to palatable contracts slightly below market value in the three-to-four year range.

There are enough bodies and there is enough talent that they need not pursue anyone in free agency, barring setbacks in the recovery timetable of the injured players and any unforeseen injuries during the offseason.

However, do not expect the Colts to rest on their laurels and trust their depth too much in terms of the draft, as several key players will be free agents after the 2009 season. Look for Bill Polian and company to draft at least one defensive back in rounds 3-6 and aggressively pursue undrafted free agents.

With the coaching staff in place and the looming free agents after next season, Indianapolis needs to re-stock the cupboards before they're empty. Fortunately, this is something that they have excelled at during the Polian era, so they should be in good shape for 2009 and beyond.


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