Colts’ offseason concerns: Cornerback

Indianapolis Colts

Indianapolis Colts cornerback Xavier Rhodes (27) and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin (26) walk off the field after an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

INDIANAPOLIS – We’re reaching the do-it-or-else milepost with Rock Ya-Sin.

Or have we already passed it?

The Indianapolis Colts were convinced they solved a long-term issue at cornerback when they resisted the temptation to trade out of the 2nd overall spot in round 2 of the 2019 draft and selected Temple’s Rock Ya-Sin. They loved his size (6-0, 190), physical style that was rooted in his prep days as a two-time state wrestling champion at Southwest Dekalb (Ga.) H.S. and competitive disposition.

As the second day of the draft began, general manager Chris Ballard was fielding inquiries to trade down.

“We had action,’’ he said at the time. “I kept telling our guys, ‘Look, we move down and we pass this guy that we love . . . we’re going to be regretting it.

“At the end of the day we end picking a guy we loved.’’

Two years later, the Colts still are waiting for that guy to establish himself.

There have been flashes, to be sure, and it’s worth reminding everyone that cornerback might be the NFL’s most unforgiving position.

“It’s hard to play corner in this league. The rules make it hard,’’ Ballard said. “They call PI on any freakin’ bump that happens.’’

That reality aside, here’s another: Ya-Sin is entering into a consequential year 3. He’s started 21 of 28 career games, but his lack of consistency has frustrated the coaching staff and resulted in diminished playing time over the final half of last season.

As a rookie, Ya-Sin logged more playing time than anyone on defense: 851 snaps, 82.3%. All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard was next at 80 percent. Last season, Ya-Sin’s playing time dropped to 53.3%. After handling a season-high 93% of the snaps (56 of 60) in the week 11 win over Green Bay, his snap counts dropped to 37.5%, 45.3%, 67.6%, 33.3% and 57.4% as coordinator Matt Eberflus turned to T.J. Carrie.

Losing too many coverage battles and drawing too many penalties forced the team’s hand. Ya-Sin has been penalized 15 times in 28 games (one was declined), the most by a Colt over the past two seasons. Guard Mark Glowinski is next with 12.

A concussion forced Ya-Sin to miss the regular-season finale against Jacksonville and the playoff loss at Buffalo.

“Rock had his good moments and he had his rough moments, no different than a lot of second-year corners,’’ Ballard said. “Rock knows he’s got to make some improvements, but I think he’s got the right attitude to do it.’’

Ya-Sin insisted he’s “harder on myself and more critical of myself than anybody is. My putting the defense in a bad situation, that’s unacceptable.

In the Colts’ 45-26 loss to Tennessee in week 12, Ya-Sin aided a Titans’ drive that broke a 14-all second-quarter tie. On third-and-5, his pass interference penalty wiped out a Ryan Tannehill incompletion. On a third-and-goal at the 3, he was flagged for illegal use of the hands that negated a sack. Instead of settling for a field goal, the Titans scored a TD.

“Having fouls is frustrating to me, not necessarily being frustrated with the officials or the offense, just being frustrated with myself knowing that I can play better,’’ Ya-Sin said. “I just have to do that moving forward.’’

The options as the Colts look to upgrade their cornerback situation:

INTERNAL SOLUTION

  • Going?: Xavier Rhodes (expiring contract), T.J. Carrie (expiring contract).
  • Here: Kenny Moore II, Rock Ya-Sin, Marvell Tell III, Isaiah Rodgers.
  • Comment: Moore is the constant, the difference-maker on the back end of the defense. Over the past three seasons, he’s piled up a team-high 10 interceptions, 26 passes defensed, 12 tackles for loss and 6 sacks. His leaping, one-handed interception in front of Raiders tight end Darren Waller was nothing short of spectacular.

Whether the returning supporting cast will suffice hinges on Ya-Sin’s ability to emerge, Tell to be a factor after opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID-19 concerns and Rodgers to take that necessary step from year 1 to year 2.

The key to the position, though, is how aggressive Ballard is at re-signing Rhodes and perhaps Carrie. The Colts invested modest one-year, prove-it free-agent contracts on both last season, and the returns exceeded expectations.

Rhodes bounced back from two subpar seasons in Minnesota and established himself as the Colts’ top corners, and one of the best in the NFL. Pro Football Focus ranked him as the league’s No. 9 corner with a 77.3 rating. His last two seasons with the Vikings: No. 109 (47.9) and No. 100 (58.2).

Rhodes, who turns 31 in June, had two interceptions – one a pick-6 against the Jets – and tied Moore with 12 passes defensed, and Ballard wants to retain him.

“We like Xavier,’’ he said. “I think we’ll wait and see how it works out in free agency.’’

Considering the depressed salary cap for 2021, the market might not be as robust for Rhodes as he’d like. His best option might be from Indy.

The Colts signed Rhodes to a one-year, $3.25 million contract offseason. Spotrac.com projects he could command a two-year, $14.7 million deal this offseason.

VETERAN SOLUTION

  • Free agents-to-be: Patrick Peterson, Arizona; Richard Sherman, San Francisco; Jason McCourty, New England; Josh Norman, Buffalo; A.J. Bouye, Denver; D.J. Hayden, Jacksonville; Brian Poole, NY Jets; Mackensie Alexander, Cincinnati; Mike Hilton, Pittsburgh; Michael Davis, LA Chargers; Kevin Johnson, Cleveland; Ronald Darby, Washington.
  • Comment: Re-signing Rhodes undoubtedly would eliminate this from the Colts’ “To do’’ list. Failing that, it would be out of character for Ballard to throw a big contract at a corner. Might Hilton, 26, or Poole, 28, be reasonable alternatives?

DRAFT SOLUTION

  • Top prospects: Patrick Surtain II, Alabama; Caleb Farley, Virginia Tech; Jaycee Horn, South Carolina; Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky; Elijah Molden, Washington; Aaron Robinson, UCF; Asante Samuel Jr., Florida State; Kary Vincent Jr., LSU; Shaun Wade, Ohio State; Israel Mukuamu, South Carolina.
  • Ammunition: 21st overall pick in round 1; 22nd pick in round 2, 54th overall.
  • Comment: The Colts have traveled this route with mixed results. While the jury remains out on Ballard’s 2019 draft – Ya-Sin, a second-rounder, and Tell, a fifth-rounder – similar investments in ’17 didn’t pan out. Quincy Wilson, a second-rounder, was traded to the New York Jets after three seasons while Nate Hairston, a fifth-round pick, was sent to the Jets after two seasons.

Even if Ballard is able to re-sign Rhodes, no one should be surprised if he looks to add a young corner through the draft. And we’re not necessarily talking about a mid- or late-round pick.

The Athletic’s Dane Brugler has Ballard taking Georgia corner Tyson Campbell with the 21st overall pick. NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah agrees with the targeted position, but not the target. He projects Northwestern’s Greg Newsome II to the Colts at No. 21.

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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