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Assessing Colts’ needs in NFL draft: Cornerback

Colts cornerback Vontae Davis makes an interception against Jacksonville in September of 2013.

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – No one should question what’s driving Chris Ballard these days.

It’s the April 27-29 NFL draft.

“We want to be a great drafting team,’’ the Indianapolis Colts’ first-year General Manager said. “We want to have a sound structure and foundation in place where we’re producing players every year for the Colts. You have to produce three or four players that are going to help you every single year.’’

The Colts hold seven selections in the seven-round draft, all in the first five rounds. Between now and the draft, we’ll examine some of the team’s more pressing areas of need.

Today: Cornerback.

  • Projected starters: Vontae Davis, Rashaan Melvin.
  • Backups:  Darryl Morris, Christopher Milton, Charles James II, Tevin Mitchel, Larry Scott, Frankie Williams.
  • Key stat: 8. That’s the number of interceptions the Colts posted in 2016. And that’s pathetic. It matched a franchise low in a non-strike season, and it’s worth noting the prior culprits. They set the record in 1998 en route to a 3-13 record and matched it in ’11, when they finished 2-14. Opposing quarterbacks also generated a 97.5 passer rating against the Colts, the third-highest total allowed in team history. Again, the prior culprits are telling: 103.9 in 2011 (2-14) and 100.2 in 1981 (2-14).

Interceptions and coverage in general can be misleading since the secondary is so dependent on a steady pass rush. And as we’ve mentioned before, the Colts’ pass rush last season was spotty at best and too often invisible. But the cornerback position was inadequate as Davis soldiered through an injury-plagued season, and injuries and substandard play were prevalent elsewhere.

  • Level of concern: High. Very high.
  • What about:  Marshon Lattimore, Ohio State; Gareon Conley, Ohio State; Marlon Humphrey, Alabama; Tre’Davious White, LSU, Adoree’ Jackson, USC; Kevin King, Washington, Sidney Jones, Washington; Teez Tabor, Florida; Desmond King, Iowa; Chidobe Awuzie, Colorado.
  • More about Conley: The cornerback buzz has increased as the draft has neared. The depth could allow teams to find a quality prospect or two into the third round. ESPN’s dueling analysts – Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay – each have 11 corners being taken in the first two rounds. Both consider Lattimore a top-5 talent and both foresee his Buckeye sidekick, Conley, falling no further than the 22nd slot.

It would be understandable if Conley left Columbus, Ohio, with an inferiority complex. Not only did he share the stage with Lattimore, but the Buckeyes’ secondary also featured Malik Hoover, the premier safety in this draft class and another consensus top-10 pick.

But the 6-0, 195-pound Conley established himself as an elite talent while starting 26 games over his final two years at Ohio State. He had six interceptions during that stretch, including four last season when he was named second-team all-Big Ten.

  • More from Conley: He insisted he prepared himself for so much pre-draft attention being funneled to Lattimore and Hoover.

“I knew that before they got shot up by the media,’’ Conley said at the NFL Scouting Combine in February. “I knew that from past years, camp, spring ball, how they work and just getting to know them. They’re like my brothers and they deserve everything they’re getting right now.’’

Does he feel overshadowed by his former teammates?

“I don’t feel forgotten about,’’ Conley said. “I embrace everything I get and take advantage of everything I get and that I’ve been given. I congratulate them for everything they’ve been given, too.

“It feels good that all of our hard work is getting shown and published out there. We played at a high level and it feels good that we accomplished that and we’re getting talked about for that.’’

  • Final word: Even though we’ll lobby for Ballard to use his first-round pick on someone to inject life into the pass rush, we could argue cornerback is the Colts’ most needy position. The only legitimate issue with Davis, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, involves injuries. He’s missed just nine starts since being acquired in a 2012 trade with Miami, but has battled an ankle, a groin, a knee or some other malady that has limited his effectiveness.

The issue is with every other option at the position, especially with long-time slot corner Darius Butler re-signing and making a switch to safety. The seven corners not named Vontae Davis share 16 career starts and 3 interceptions. Melvin started nine of his 11 career games last season after being signed off the street the week before the season opener. Injuries also pressed Morris and Milton into the starting lineup.

This is a mess of the Colts’ making. They whiffed on D’Joun Smith and Patrick Robinson. Smith was a 2015 third-round pick who was injured early and cut after appearing in four games. Robinson’s Colts’ career began last offseason with a three-year, $14 million contract and ended after seven lackluster games when he was cut in March.

And let’s not forget the Colts’ brief fling with another veteran corner. Desperate last August for a warm body with cover skills, they signed Antonio Cromartie to a one-year, $3 million contract. He lasted four games.

Ballard and coach Chuck Pagano need to get this position fixed. Davis, 28, is entering the final year of his four-year, $36 million contract. Even if he convinces Ballard to re-invest in him with a stellar season, the supporting cast must be greatly reinforced.

No one should be surprised if Ballard invests two of his seven picks in a cornerback.