Colts’ camp preview: Defensive backs

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INDIANAPOLIS – This is the next in a series taking a position-by-position look at the Indianapolis Colts heading into training camp, which is scheduled to open July 28 at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.

Today: DEFENSIVE BACKS

Starters: CB Kenny Moore II, CB Xavier Rhodes, S Malik Hooker, S Khari Willis.

CB depth: Rock Ya-Sin, Marvell Tell III, T.J. Carrie, Picasso Nelson Jr., Lafayette Pitts, Travis Reed (R), Jackson Porter, Isaiah Rodgers (R).

S depth: George Odom, Rolan Milligan, Julian Blackmon (R), Donald Rutledge (R), 

Offseason swap: It remains one of the more unexpected moves by Chris Ballard. Barely 12 months after giving Pierre Desir a three-year, $25.5 million contract with $12 in guarantees, the team released the veteran cornerback March 26. He earned the big payday by playing at a high level in 2018, but injuries greatly impacted his availability and effectiveness last season.

No sooner had Ballard jettisoned Desir than he filled the void by signing veteran Xavier Rhodes to a one-year, $3.25 million deal.

“Pierre was tough because he is such a great kid and a great human being,’’ Ballard said. “But at the end of the day, we made a decision that we thought was the best thing for the team here this year and going forward.’’

The team had ample internal support when it turned to Rhodes. Secondary coaches Jonathan Gannon and Alan Williams worked with him in Minnesota.

“But saying that, this guy has been a Pro Bowl corner in this league,’’ Ballard said. “He is only 29 years old. He’s got some unique traits and we think we can get him back to playing at that level.

“I think he is pretty hungry. I think being released by Minnesota sparked a fire in him. It’s going to be fun to watch him play with a chip on his shoulder.’’

Rhodes admitted he was surprised by the Vikings’ decision, but soon realized “this is the NFL. It’s a business.

“I just accepted the fact and moved on and I’m ready to play for Indy.’’

The Colts need Rhodes – he’s 6-1, 219 pounds and a physical corner – to put two subpar seasons behind him and regain his form. He was named All Pro and voted to his second Pro Bowl in 2017. Rhodes made his third Pro Bowl last season, but it clearly was on reputation. According to Pro Football Focus, quarterbacks posted a 127.8 rating (third-worst among qualifying corners) and completed 84.3 percent of their passes – highest allowed by any corner – when targeting Rhodes.

Rhodes dealt with hamstring and ankle injuries the past two seasons.

“It’s been a battle,’’ he admitted.

Coordinator Matt Eberflus got a good glimpse of Rhodes when both were involved with the Pro Bowl.

“I just fell in love with him in terms of his work patterns,’’ Eberflus said. “I was just amazed for how the guy could move for how big he is. I mean the guy looks like a big safety and he is playing corner.

“He is a physical, really good tackler and he has played at a Pro Bowl level.’’

Rhodes and Rock Ya-Sin should give Eberflus a pair of corners who relish man-to-man coverage.

More from Moore?: One of Ballard’s better behind-the-scenes reveals involved how Kenny Moore II arrived in Indy. Injuries were depleting the secondary as the 2017 season approached, and the Colts were looking for a healthy corner. Any healthy corner. Scouts wanted Ballard to claim Moore off waivers from New England, but Ballard resisted. Moore didn’t have the necessary measureables.

“I’m looking at 5-9, 185 pounds,’’ he said. “We’d be at 2 o’clock in the morning in here and you’re digging for a needle in the haystack on claim day.

“You see a good player on tape, but I keep saying, ‘He’s 5-9. A dime a dozen.’’’

Fast-forward to today. Moore isn’t a dime-a-dozen corner. Ballard made certain of that last offseason when he signed him to a four-year extension worth a possible $40 million with $18 million in guarantees. The too-small guy stands tall in the Colts’ defensive huddle.

Considered one of the NFL’s premier nickel corners, Moore has started 26 regular-season games the past two seasons and generated a fat stat line: 113 solo tackles, eight tackles for loss, 4 sacks, six quarterback hits and five interceptions.

Eberflus has maximized Moore’s versatility by frequently using him as a blitzer. In the 2018 playoffs, he set a franchise record with 3 sacks in a single postseason. And this is a franchise whose history includes Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.

At the risk of over-hyping Moore’s value, consider the defense’s top-to-bottom decline over the final four games coincided with Moore being out with a high ankle sprain.

“I don’t want to underestimate the loss of Kenny Moore,’’ Ballard said. “I think he’s the best nickel in the league for what he does. I think time will prove me right on that. I think he’s a real special player.

“We had a major drop-off when we lost Kenny.’’

The first two games Moore missed were road trips to Tampa Bay and New Orleans. Jameis Winston and Drew Brees combined for some numbing stats: 64-of-79 (81.1 percent), 774 yards, eight touchdowns, three interceptions, a 125.4 rating. Brees was a ridiculous 29-of-30.

Moore turns 25 in August and is heading into his fourth season. He already is a defensive cornerstone.

More in year 2: If players truly make the biggest leap from year 1 to year 2, the Colts should be downright giddy over cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and safety Khari Willis. Each was required to play extensively as rookies as Eberflus and Frank Reich opted to lean heavily on their young talent.

Ya-Sin started 13 of 15 games and survived his trial by fire. His struggles against Denver are well-documented – five penalties, getting worked by Courtland Sutton – but he never wilted. He participated in 82.3 percent of the defensive snaps, tops on the team.

“He had some really good moments, and he had some ugly moments,’’ Ballard said of his 2019 second-round pick. “Let me tell you what I love about this kid: he’s exactly what we thought he was going to be in terms of grit, toughness.

“Holy crap, you can line up 16 games and you’re asked to play some great players. All he does is work.’’

Willis appeared in 14 games, nine as a starter, and gave every indication he’ll be a part of the defense for the foreseeable future. He was on the field for 60 percent of the snaps (620).

“I’m really encouraged by what Willis is going to bring to our team going forward,’’ Ballard said.

Hooker’s response?: If Malik Hooker needed extra motivation heading into his fourth season, the Colts gave it to him when they decided not to exercise the fifth-year option in his rookie contract. Instead of being under contract in 2021 for $6.7 million, the 2017 first-round pick will be a free agent at the end of the season.

Hooker’s career with the Colts have been a mix of production and missed games. He’s produced seven interceptions, 11 passes and 116 tackles in 34 games, but also has missed 14 games with a variety of injuries.

The injury issue undoubtedly weighed heavily in the decision not to invest in Hooker beyond this season.

“What he does and what everybody else has to do is just be more consistent,’’ Eberflus said. “If you are going to be a high-performing player, an All-Pro player or a high-performing starter, the consistency just has to be there, OK?’’

It’s not out of the question that a big year from Hooker could result in a big contract from the team that drafted him. Let’s not forget he’s 6-1 and 214 pounds. And let’s not forget he turned 24 in April.

Fact worth noting: Two of the three highest completion percentages allowed by the defense in team history have occurred in the past two seasons. After yielding completions at a 70.8 rate in 2018, it dipped a smidge to 70.1 percent in ’19. Only the Los Angeles Chargers (70.7) were easier to throw against.

The dubious team record: 71.2 percent in 2011. We’re sure you remember the forgettable ’11 season (2-14, 13 losses to open the season, etc.).

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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