INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A season of great expectations awaits, as does a second summer at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.
They go hand in hand.
After three months of offseason work and a five-week lull, the Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park next week for the start of training camp. They’re on the practice field for the first time on July 25.
Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team coming off a 10-6 season and wild-card playoff appearance, and considered by many observers to be one of the trendy picks to make serious noise in the postseason.
- Starters: CB Pierre Desir, CB Quincy Wilson, SS Clayton Geathers, FS Malik Hooker.
- Cornerback depth: Kenny Moore II, Nate Hairston, Jalen Collins, Chris Milton, Rock Ya-Sin, Marvell Tell III, Shakial Taylor.
- Safety depth: Matthias Farley, George Odom, Derrick Kindred, Khari Willis, Rolan Milligan, Isaiah Johnson.
Safety first: It was a unique offseason for Malik Hooker. More to the point, for the first time since the Colts selected him with the 15th overall pick in the 2017 draft, it was a normal offseason. Instead of spending his time with the team’s rehab staff, Hooker rubbed elbows and worked up a sweat with his teammates.
“No surgeries for me,” he said with a wide smile. “This is my first actual offseason where I can fully do everything – work out and everything.
“It’s going to be great for me. I’m excited for this year for myself – mentally, emotionally and physically – because this is the best I’ve felt since college.”
Hooker’s rookie offseason was spent rehabbing from hip and hernia surgery. Last offseason was committed to returning from torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee, injuries suffered week 7 against Jacksonville.
But now, it’s been all football, all the time.
“I just see a guy who is dialed in, not just physically, but mentally,” Frank Reich said. “I just see him dialed in.”
That should be great news for coordinator Matt Eberblus’ defense. A 100-percent Hooker represents a playmaker as the unit’s last-line-of-defense. Hooker snatched seven interceptions in his final year at Ohio State – he returned three for TDs – and has five in 21 games with the Colts. He had three in seven games as a rookie before suffering the season-ending knee injury.
“I feel like coming in my rookie year I did a great job of showing the type of player I can be before the injury happened,” Hooker said. “Last year was a little bit more quiet.
“This year is the year I’m going to be the player the Colts brought me here to be.”
Now if only Hooker’s projected sidekick – Clayton Geathers – can finally avoid injury. The Colts re-signed him in the offseason, but the contract – one year, $2.75 million – reflected their general lack of confidence in his ability to stay on the field. Geathers started 14 games last season, including the postseason, but has missed 17 of the last 36 games.
And unlike Hooker, Geathers was in rehab mode the entire offseason after undergoing a knee procedure.
“You’ve just gotta keep growing,” Geathers said. “It’s another year, another opportunity to be around the guys, another chance to lead, another chance to make plays.”
Cornering the market: Continuity can be difficult to maintain in the nomadic NFL, and massive change loomed for the Colts’ secondary. Four key components, including three starters, were unrestricted free agents when the new league year opened.
Chris Ballard ensured there would be no seismic shift. He signed Geathers and Matthias Farley to one-year deals, and invested heavily in cornerbacks Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore II. The size of the new deals for Desir and Moore spoke volumes regarding the Colts’ confidence in each: a three-year, $25 million contract for Desir and a four-year extension for Moore that involved nearly $30 million in new money. The combined guarantees: $30 million.
“Chris has made it clear those guys really embody what being a Colt is all about,” Frank Reich said of Ballard’s offseason work in retaining core players. “I just think that sends the right message that those are the kind of guys we want around for the long term.”
The return of Desir and Moore – the latter was under contract through 2019, so he wasn’t going anywhere – allows the defense to grow in Eberflus’ second season. Desir emerged as a solid outside corner while Moore established himself as one of the NFL’s premier slot corners. Desir and Quincy Wilson probably open camp as the starters in the base defense, but Moore can anticipate extensive exposure since the Colts probably will be in nickel coverage more than 60 percent of the time.
The question is how the rest of the corner group shakes out. Prospects include Nate Hairston – this might be a make-or-break season for the 2017 fifth-round draft pick – Jalen Collins, Chris Milton and rookies Rock Ya-Sin and Marvel Tell III.
“It’s great,” Eberflus said of the anticipated corner competition. “We are always looking at who is going to be the No. 1 and then all the way down to six or seven. When you have that much depth, that is what you’re looking at.
“Who is going to be the No. 1 corner? Who is going to be No. 2? We don’t know the answers to that right now. We really don’t. It’s all competitive from one all the way down to five, to six, to seven. It puts it on the players and lets them compete, let’s them play and let it happen naturally.”
Ballard anticipates Wilson taking yet another step in his NFL development. The 2017 second-round pick has battled immaturity – he’s 22 even though he’s entering his third season – and inconsistency, but seemed to settle in over the second half of last season.
“You guys are going to see it,” Ballard said. “Look at his body, man. He’s transformed himself. He’s changed his body. He came in (as a rookie) at 214 pounds. He was 192-193 the other day. He was 14 or 15 percent body fat. Now he’s like 7.”
Wilson was held out of the June minicamp with an injury to his left thumb.
The April draft bolstered depth. Ya-Sin is coming off a solid offseason and the coaching staff might have to be creative in getting him on the field. Tell was a safety at USC who’s making the transition to corner.
Worth noting: While maintaining continuity during the offseason was critical, something’s got to change. The Colts allowed quarterbacks to complete 70.8 percent of their passes last season. That was a league-high and the second-fattest percentage allowed in franchise history. The dubious team mark was set in 2011: a 71.2 completion rate en route to a 2-14 record.
The high completion percentage contributed to the defense allowing 41 percent conversions on third down, which ranked 23rd in the league. The goal this season is to be better at getting off the field and giving the Andrew Luck-led offense more opportunities and better field position.
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