INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The first step has been taken, but leading where? That’s what the next few months will determine.
Before Frank Reich addresses the latest edition of his Indianapolis Colts in April, Chris Ballard and his personnel staff must make the necessary additions and adjustments to a franchise that reached the playoffs following a three-year absence. That means utilizing every option at their disposal: re-signing their own pending free agents, procuring talent on the free agent market, the NFL draft and the post-draft signing frenzy.
Before we get to that, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts. More to the point, we’ll take a look at how they got to where they are – coming off a 10-6 record and a first-round playoff win – and what needs to be done to take them further in 2019.
- Starters: CB Pierre Desir, CB Kenny Moore II, CB Quincy Wilson, FS Malik Hooker, SS Clayton Geathers.
- Backups: CB Nate Hairston, CB Chris Milton, CB Jalen Collins, S Matthias Farley, S Mike Mitchell, S George Odom, S J.J. Wilcox, S Corey Moore, S Ronald Martin.
There were numbers that might raise eyebrows without the proper context. Opposing quarterbacks completed 70.8 percent of their passes, the second-best rate in the league and the second-highest allowed in Colts’ history. QBs also generated a 93.5 passer rating, the fourth-highest yielded in the Indy era.
With few exceptions, first-time coordinator Matt Eberflus got more than anyone could have reasonably expected from the back end of his defense. The Colts allowed 21 TD passes. Only Minnesota (15) and Jacksonville (17) allowed fewer. The defense gave up just 52 big plays – 20 yards or more – which was tied for the sixth-fewest in the league. That included 41 in the passing game.
The simplistic concept of Eberflus’ 4-3 defense is for defenders to keep everything in front of them and attack the ball carrier. That often results in third-down conversions – the Colts were an inadequate 23rd in the NFL (41 percent allowed) – but the acceptable tradeoff is limiting chunk plays and forcing offenses to grind out drives.
And keep in mind, the secondary had to operate much of the season without the aid of a consistent pass rush.
Cornerbacks Pierre Desir and Kenny Moore II enjoyed career seasons, and excelled at finishing plays. Desir’s 79 tackles ranked third in the league among cornerbacks while Moore’s 76 ranked fifth. Desir added 8 defended passes and an interception. He was a major factor when the Colts aced road tests against Houston and All-World wideout DeAndre Hopkins in December and the first round of the playoffs. Hopkins was limited to 9 receptions and 73 yards on 20 targets in the two Colts’ wins.
Moore settled in as Desir’s steady running mate in his second season in Indy. He complemented his 76 tackles with 4 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. He had 3 interceptions and 11 defended passes, both team highs. Eberflus tapped into Moore’s blitzing prowess in the playoffs and Moore responded with 3 sacks, a franchise record for one postseason.
In a strange twist, a pair of 2017 draft picks saw their career arcs switch. Nate Hairston, a fifth-round pick, was heavily involved early but something of an afterthought late. Quincy Wilson, erratic and injured early, benefited from the guidance of veteran free-agent acquisition Mike Mitchell and finished strong.
At safety, Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers dealt with a variety of injuries but still managed to start 14 and 12 games, respectively. Hooker saw his big-play numbers lag in Eberflus’ scheme – 2 interceptions after 3 as a rookie in just seven games – but was instrumental in the decline in over-the-top completions. Geathers’ versatility remained invaluable as a safety capable of staying deep, or lurking near the line of scrimmage as a pseudo linebacker.
And no one should dismiss Mitchell’s contributions. Brought in in mid-October when injuries hit the position, he started four of six games before being placed on IR with a calf injury suffered during the first-round win at Houston. In the week 7 blowout of Buffalo – his second game and second start with the team – Mitchell earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors on the strength of seven tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one defended pass.
A facelift might be looming. Or not. That’s up to Ballard and a few of his back-end starters eligible for testing the free-agent market starting March 13. It’s doubtful Mitchell returns. He turns 32 in June and most certainly wants another shot at a decent contract, which isn’t likely to come from the Colts.
However, Geathers and Desir probably will draw interest on the open market. If they get there. Ballard already has re-signed placekicker Adam Vinatieri and guard Mark Glowinski, and might keep Geathers and/or Desir from leaving with pre-March 13 extensions.
Desir should draw significant interest. He’s coming off the best season of his 5-year career and is 28. Geathers’ situation is more difficult to gauge even though there’s no question Ballard is a huge fan.
“I love everything Clayton Geathers stands for,” he said last month. “I watched a guy every week fight his tail off to get ready to play.”
No one should question what Geathers brings to the defense. The wild card is his availability. The 2015 fourth-round draft pick has missed 22 games over the last three seasons with a variety injuries, including a neck injury that required surgery and a concussion.
Ballard probably will ensure some level of depth returns by extending a one-year restricted tender to Matthias Farley, who spent the final 11 games of last season on IR.
High. Even if Geathers and Desir return, we get the feeling Ballard views his secondary in the same vein as his offensive line. To be a championship-caliber team, top-end talent and depth are a must.