Rock Ya-Sin’s development, Xavier Rhodes’ return key to Colts’ defense

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Rock Ya-Sin #34 of the Indianapolis Colts against the Carolina Panthers at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – Patience paid off for the Indianapolis Colts and Xavier Rhodes as their veteran cornerback dealt with another foray into the NFL’s free-agent market.

But will patience pay off with Rock Ya-Sin?

Each figures to be instrumental as the Colts look to build on last season’s 11-5, wild-card success.

It’s imperative coordinator Matt Eberflus gets more consistent play from the back end of his defense, but that hinges on Rhodes building on the strong bounce-back season he enjoyed in 2020 and Ya-Sin becoming a more disciplined and reliable sidekick in the starting lineup.

James Rowe, the new cornerbacks coach, still is in the process of learning the room he’s overseeing, but believes it possesses the required talent.

“I haven’t gotten a chance to meet many of the guys yet, but watching them on film, we’ve got a good group,’’ he said last week. “We’ve got some youth, we’ve got some older guys.’’

Rhodes, who turns 31 in June, is back as the veteran presence. He found tepid interest on the free-agent market that was complicated by the repressed salary cap. After biding his time and considering his options, he returned to the Colts on another one-year contract, this one worth roughly $6.5 million if incentives are met.

His patience was tested.

“It’s a waiting game, just like the draft,’’ Rhodes said. “I mean, you don’t know where you’re going to go. You don’t know anything. You just have to sit back and relax and let your agent do his job and let him talk to the guys that want to sign you.

“It’s not easy at all. You want to be back on the team ASAP, but like I said, you just have to realize the moment and you have to realize what’s going on around you.’’

Again, Rowe must rely on video study to evaluate the corners until the offseason program commences later this month. Even so, it’s been difficult to not notice Rhodes.

“He is a big, strong, fast athlete,’’ Rowe said. “He’s a very noticeable guy when he steps on the field. I remember when we played Minnesota when I was at Washington. He stands out.

“Obviously he has great physical attributes.’’

Two subpar seasons with the Minnesota Vikings led to Rhodes’ release last offseason and relocation to Indy. He signed one of those one-year “prove-it’’ deals that would pay him $4 million, and was worth the investment.

Rhodes regained his top-tier corner status with two interceptions and 12 passes defensed. Quarterbacks targeted him 80 times and completed just 51.9% of their passes for a 78.3 rating. Pro Football Focus gave Rhodes a 77.3 grade last season – tied for 9th among corners. His last two years with the Vikings, he graded at 47.9 and 58.2.

“They just allow me to play my ball,’’ Rhodes said. “I’ve been in the league eight years. I’ve played almost everything. It was just that they allowed me to be confident within myself, play myself, play football, be free and be myself, allowing me to just be confident and be strong.’’

Now, it’s up to Rowe and Eberflus to unlock the potential possessed by Ya-Sin.

It’s worth wondering if the Colts’ patience with their 2019 second-round pick is wearing thin.

“Rock is a good young talent,’’ Rowe said, “and I think with anybody coming into the NFL there is a process of growth and I think he is going through his process right now.’’

It’s been a rough process. Ya-Sin has started 21 of 28 games and posted two interceptions and 12 passes defensed.

But those aren’t the numbers that have drawn attention, and criticism. He’s been inconsistent in coverage and attracted too much attention from the officials. Ya-Sin has been penalized 15 times for 193 yards the last two seasons, both team highs.

He’s been his own worst critic, and his issues usually come down to faulty fundamentals.

“Technique early on in the down and then in the move area, keeping my hands down,’’ Ya-Sin admitted last December. “You have to be extra careful in the move area, just not getting into those hand fights. That’s what it comes down to with me.’’

Rowe has noticed.

“One of the main things we’re going to work on most of the spring is hand placement,’’ he said. “Sometimes he gets his hands a little high on wide receivers, causing him to tug a couple of times.

“Just getting him used to playing the ball better and feeling more comfortable out there. Like I said, he has all the ability in the world. I think he’s going to be really good in this league.’’

Rowe is back in the NFL after spending last season at Appalachian State. The previous three seasons, he was assistant defensive backs coach with the Washington Football Team. In 2016, he was on the staff at Valdosta State and worked with Kenny Moore II, the Colts’ premier nickel corner.

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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