With the departure of Marlin Jackson and T.J. Rushing during the offseason, depth, talent, and experience were not strong suits of the cornerback position for the Colts, though they didn't necessarily have a wealth of any of those attributes at cornerback in 2009 and they ended up going to the Super Bowl.
With the injury to third-round pick Kevin Thomas, that depth and talent will be challenged even further. It's possible that Thomas' injury is not severe enough to sideline him for the entire season, but he will most likely miss at least all of the OTAs, mini-camps, and training camp, so even if he's back in time for the preseason, he will be rusty and won't know the defense. It's possible that Indianapolis might shut him down now in order to prevent him from trying to make a late-year comeback.
The Colts currently have ten cornerbacks on the roster, which is far more than they'll need to fill the five or six roster spots that they'll allot to the position by the time the season starts, but far fewer qualified candidates than they need at this point. Of those ten players, five are rookies.
Only Nick Graham, Terrail Lambert, Jacob Lacey, Jerraud Powers, and Kelvin Hayden have a season under their belts towards an NFL pension and Lambert and Graham have combined for 16 tackles in 19 appearances. Actually, Graham accounts for all of those appearances and tackles, so Lambert effectively redshirted last season.
Lacey started nine games in place of Hayden last year — making the All-Rookie team — and Powers started 12 in place of Jackson, who was put on injured reserve very early on, so there is some experience to draw from there. Hayden has been in and out of the training room the past two seasons and has only one season of 16 starts on his resume. Indianapolis found itself in a similar situation last season — injuries forced them to start young players sooner than expected — but they found themselves in that situation after the season had started and after numerous injuries had hit the roster.
This year, one devastating injury to one rookie has set them way back, which certainly does not bode well for the coming season. But, on the other side of the coin, Lacey and Powers were pressed into service in midseason in 2009, whereas they have an entire offseason to prepare for regular action in 2010. The rookies on the roster — all, effectively, six of them — also enter into offseason activities knowing that they will have a real chance to win a roster spot.
Powers fit right into the Cover 2 scheme and was very good at minimizing damage and trusting his support over the top. Lacey emerged as one of the best, if not the best, man coverage players on the team and, though he struggled at times, played well above his undrafted status. Hayden was sorely missed, as was Jackson, but Hayden will be suited up and ready for action this season provided the injury bug does not bite him again.
The issue lies in the fact that the only rookie on the roster that was drafted, Ray Fisher, is more of a return specialist in the mold of of T.J. Rushing. He's a cornerback by jersey number, return man by trade, so he won't be able to offer much in terms of pass coverage in 2010. Graham and Lambert have a year in the system and the security of knowing that they don't have to look over their shoulder constantly to keep their jobs. That may not foster the highest level of competition, but it does allow them to focus on improving their game and lets them get valuable reps with the first team.
The rest of the rookies on the roster — Jordan Hemby, Brandon King, Mike Newton, Thad Turner, and David Caldwell — all have their strengths and weaknesses which we will explore in the coming weeks leading up to training camp, but all of them are also undrafted free agents that bring a certain unknown quantity to the table. Caldwell has the size to play safety, but possibly the instincts and just enough closing speed to make it at corner. Hemby, King, Newton, and Turner are all between 5-foot-10 and 5-foot-11 and 188-197 pounds, so they may actually be too big to play the position for the Colts. But, the flip side of that is that there isn't much that distinguishes one from another, so it may be some time before one man separates himself from the pack.
Assuming that Hayden, Lacey, and Powers all make the roster, that leaves three spots for, basically, seven guys that have appeared in a total of 19 NFL games and recorded a total of 16 tackles. Alan Williams has certainly made lemonade out of lemons in the past, but having four undrafted cornerbacks on the roster would be a tall order, even for him.
In the free agent market, though, Indianapolis has tended to target young veterans. There are plenty of veterans available at the position, but none of them could be classified as young by any stretch of the imagination. Rushing is the youngest of those free agents, but it is highly unlikely that the Colts would want to bring him back, especially since they need a cornerback and not a return man. From there, the players that are near the age of 30 — note that did not say under the age of 30 — are Anthony Henry, Ken Lucas, and Nick Harper. Lucas and Henry are more adept at man coverage and may not fit into the scheme.
Harper knows the scheme from his days in Indianapolis and served the team well as a Cover 2 cornerback when he was with the Colts. Whether or not he has lost yet another step remains to be seen. He will be 36 by the time Week 2 rolls around, though, so his best days may well be behind him.
There are sure to be players jettisoned between now and when training camps break, so the best course of action for Indianapolis at the moment is to assess what they have, try to build on what already exists, and see what happens — especially with young veterans being cut in the final cutdown to 53 players in September — in free agency from now until the start of the season. If there is a silver lining to this situation, it is that time is on Indianapolis' side. They don't need to make a snap decision at this point. They can trust their scouting department, wait to see what happens with cuts and roster trimmings, and re-evaluate where they are in June. And July. And August.
Things may look grim at the moment, but the magic of the offseason is that fortunes can change, rookies can stand out, and roster spots can be won and lost. By the time the 2010 kicks off, the depth chart will probably look much different than it looks now. It should be fun to watch.
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