INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An offseason of major change ramps up July 29 when the Indianapolis Colts report to their Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center for the start of training camp.
Over the next week, we’ll take a positional look at how general manager Chris Ballard has structured the roster. Is the team equipped to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 or will it miss the postseason in three consecutive seasons for the first time in more than two decades (1988-94)?
Today: Defensive backs.
Projected starters: CB Vontae Davis, CB Quincy Wilson, FS Malik Hooker, SS Clayton Geathers/Matthias Farley.
Others: S Darius Butler, CB Rashaan Melvin, CB Darryl Morris, CB Nate Hairston, CB Chris Milton, CB Tevin Mitchel, CB Dante Blackmon, S T.J. Green, S Tyvis Powell, S Andrew Williamson, S Lee Hightower, S Tyson Graham.
How can we not be a bit concerned about the position heading into training camp? The projected starters – Geathers, the veteran, and Hooker, the much-hyped first-round draft pick – missed all of the Colts’ offseason work while rehabbing from surgery.
Everyone has been upbeat regarding Hooker’s availability for the start of camp, including Hooker. Geathers is a different story altogether. His surgery was to repair a herniated disc in his neck.
“The neck is something serious,’’ Geathers said in May. “You don’t want to play around with the neck. But I believe in a higher power, and I just pray about it . . . everything will work out.
“I’m just listening to the trainers, listening to the doctors. When I’m ready, I’m ready.’’
Until Geathers gains medical clearance – early, late, who knows? – the last line of the Colts’ defense rests in the hands of Hooker, one of the nation’s biggest playmakers last season at Ohio State, Butler, Green and Farley.
Hooker’s charge is to replace departed Mike Adams as a defensive difference-maker. We’re not going to revisit the ridiculous hype of him being the second coming of Ed Reed, but there’s no denying Hooker’s knack for finding the football. Remember, he gobbled up 7 interceptions and returned 3 for TDs last year for the Buckeyes, his only season as a starter.
“They just want me to go out there and be me,’’ Hooker said. “They didn’t put too much pressure on me to go out there and do anything spectacular. Just get in the playbook and be yourself because that’s why they drafted me.’’
While Geathers and Hooker looked on from the sideline during the offseason, Butler, who’s making the transition from nickel corner, took the majority of the reps at free safety. Green, the 2016 second-round draft pick, initially was the starter at strong safety but soon was supplanted by Farley.
Green struggled as a rookie and no one should be surprised if Farley emerges as Geathers’ replacement if Geathers’ rehab forces him to miss time. The Colts claimed the rookie off waivers from Arizona in September and he went on to appear in all 16 games.
The DB room belongs to Davis, and it’s up to him to be a leader on and off the field. He’s the two-time Pro Bowler entering his ninth season in the NFL and sixth with the Colts.
Davis’ supporting cast includes four players who have never played at the pro level, including three rookies – Wilson, Hairston and Blackmon. Wilson, taken in the second round of the April draft, likely starts opposite Davis while Hairston, a fifth-round pick, could replace Butler as the nickel corner.
Chuck Pagano pointed out during OTAs Wilson needed to get into “football shape,’’ but praised his intelligence, work ethic and potential.
Wilson is ready to challenge for a starting position.
“Yeah, definitely,’’ he said. “I just have to come in and compete and show that I have what it takes.’’
The backups with experience are Melvin (27 games, 11 starts) and Morris (48 and 3). Melvin started nine games in 16, his first season with the Colts, and contributed seven defended passes and two forced fumbles.
Regardless how the position shakes out, so much hinges on Davis returning to his Pro Bowl form of 2014-15. His overall efficiency has been undercut the last two years as he’s battled a variety of injuries.
“I just want to lead by example and do all the right things,’’ Davis said. “I have been in the league a long time and I had success in this league. Those guys being young – they probably won’t say it – but they’re going to come in and look up to me.
“I just want to set a great example.’’
There’s ample motivation. Davis, 29, will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season. Another big payday – the Colts signed him to a four-year, $39 million contract in 2014 – awaits.
“He knows that one way or another, he’s either going to get paid or not paid a year from now,’’ defensive coordinator Ted Monachino said. “And the way he’s going to get that done is by playing at a very high level and being a ‘1,’ and that’s what our system requires.’’
In the past, the Colts occasionally have assigned Davis to cover the opponent’s top receiver. Those instances likely will increase in ’17.
“He’s extremely motivated,’’ Monachino said. “I’ll leave it at that.’’
Creating takeaways has been an offseason emphasis, and for good reason. The Colts came up with just 8 interceptions last season, tied for the second-fewest in the NFL and tied for the fewest in franchise history.
Here’s where we remind you Hooker collected 7 by himself last year at Ohio State.