Friday, January 16, 2009

Know Your Colts: Cornerbacks

This is the second in ColtPlay’s series of offseason positional breakdowns. This one concerns the cornerbacks.

Kelvin Hayden
Numbers: 5103/197/4.48c in 05
2008 stats: 10 GP/10 GS (8-2 LCB), 36 TK, 6 AT, 1 FF, 12 PBU, 3-135-1 INT, 2-7 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 3 GP/3 GS, 6 TK, 1-67-1 INT, 1-10 PEN
Status: Unrestricted free agent

I remember back in 2005 when I wrote for some website about how much I wanted the Colts to draft Hayden. I saw him as a good athlete with a high ceiling who still had lots to learn about the cornerback position, but had shown some great flashes.

A day hadn’t passed when some guy wrote a long and impassioned e-mail to me about what a big mistake that would be. It made sense, so I, credulously, took Hayden off my list. That was the last time I listened to “some guy.”

To be honest, Hayden (who started college as a wide receiver, but couldn’t catch) took a while to develop, but once he did, he became a superior Cover-2 corner. He’s not a star — corners don’t have to be in this defense — but he is very effective.

He’s an unrestricted free agent, but he’s a Polian favorite and Polian has a habit of handing blank checks to cornerbacks’ agents. If the Colts are slow with their offer, or Hayden is determined to test the free-agency waters, things could get ugly. But the past has indicated that Polian very rarely loses any free agents he intends to keep.

Marlin Jackson
Numbers: 6005/198/4.52c4.48pd in 05
2008 stats: 7 GP/7 GS (3-4 RCB) 41 TK, 6 AT, 1.5 TFL, 1 FF, 1 PBU, 5-42 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 4 GP/4 GS, 7 TK, 1 PBU
Status: Signed through 2009, due for a raise, ended season on injured reserve

It’s hard not to compare Jackson to Hayden. They were drafted together and became starters together.

So, okay, let’s compare them. Hayden is a little better in coverage, both man and zone. Hayden leaves less of a cushion, and allows fewer short completions. Hayden has better hands (which is a terrible, terrible indictment of Jackson because Hayden’s hands are like stone) and is more of a threat with the ball in his hands. Jackson is a better tackler, especially in the open field. When Jackson hits you, you know you’ve been hit and you may not remember to hold onto the ball. Jackson is also a better blitzer and is better at shedding blocks, but he also racks up more penalties.

But in truth, the differences — all of them — are slight. Think of Jackson as the tougher, big brother and Hayden as the slightly more athletic little brother. The difference? Hayden has a contract due and Jackson doesn’t until next season.

Tim Jennings
Numbers: 5077/185/4.32c4.28pd in 06
2008 stats: 15 GP/12 GS (7-0 RCB, 3-2 LCB), 49 TK, 14 AT, 1 QBH, 2.5-2.5 TFL, 2 FF, 2 FR, 7 PBU, 2-9-0 INT, 2 STT, 2 STA, 5-55 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 5GP/3 GS, 16 TK, 1 AT, 2-4 TFL, 2 QBH, 3 PBU, 1 STT, 1-15 PEN
Status: Signed through 2009, due for a raise

If you read what the Colts fans have to say about Jennings, you’d think he was sent to Indy by the devil. Oh, I only wish they would watch the game more closely. I’m gonna say this and I don’t care what anyone thinks — Jennings is, by a distinct margin, the best coverage man in the Colts’ secondary. Seriously, watch this kid. He swims around receivers like a piranha. No matter where you are, there he is — in your face. And if you watch the tape, you will see that this guy is fearless against the run, taking on backs far bigger than himself and blitzing like a teeny, tiny linebacker.

But there are significant drawbacks: a) Jennings is so short, he can walk under most tables without bending; as good as he is in coverage, those tall guys are always gonna eat him for breakfast, b) Jennings is willing to sacrifice his body to make a tackle, but just doesn’t have the frame or the technique to be very good at it, and c) Jennings is something of a nut, grabbing facemasks and jerseys and hitting guys whenever and wherever he feels like it, no matter what the rules say. And sometimes he just plain blows coverages. He gets especially sloppy when he feels overmatched.

So what do we do with a problem like Timmy? It’s important to make sure he plays where he belongs. Note that in 2008, the Colts were 3-2 when Jennings played LCB (ie. covering the opposing team’s top receiver), but 7-0 when Jennings started at RCB (ie. covering the opponent’s No. 2 receiver). Ideally, Jennings would be the third corner, covering all those slippery little guys who would give Hayden and Jackson headaches, slipping outside when a team has a Wes Welker or a Ted Ginn in the starting lineup.

But injuries to the starters prevented that in 2008. So Jennings played — basically out of position — outside. He was beaten sometimes, but not more often than the starters would have been, and his aggressive nature turned to frustration and he was responsible for more penalties than I think he’d like to remember.

It appears likely that Hayden will be re-signed, and that Jackson will recover from his injuries before next season. In that scenario, Jennings would return to his familiar and effective spot as the third guy, the guy who covers the slot man, and all will be well again at the top of the Colts cornerback corps.

Keiwan Ratliff
Numbers: 5107/188/4.62c in 04
2008 stats: 10 GP/4 GS (2-0 RCB, 1-0 LCB, 1-0 NB) 22 TK, 4 AT, 1 FR, 5 PBU, 2-37-1 INT, 5 STT, 1 STA, 16-89-0 (12 FC) PR
2008 preseason stats: 5 GP/1 GS, 11 TK, 1 AT, 2 PBU, 1-4-0 INT, STT, 3-12-0 (3 FC) PR
Status: Unrestricted free agent

When the Bengals selected Ratliff in the second round of the 2004 draft, I remember thinking that he was a great college player who didn’t have the speed to cut it in the NFL. I watched him for years at Florida. He did everything right, but just wasn’t fast enough and didn’t have the size to offset it. When Cincinnati cut him later on, I felt like he was done.

But then he shows up in Coltland, brushes aside some vaunted recent draft picks, installs himself as No. 4 corner (which meant four starts in an injury-riddled secondary) and even returns punts.

I still say he’s slow. But now I see what the Bengals saw. Ratliff is an intelligent, disciplined defensive back who uses his instincts and positioning to come up with some unlikely plays. He’s quick in confined spaces and never backs down, often wrestling for the ball or dragging a man down. He’s one of those guys that GMs want to replace, but coaches want to hang onto — kind of like a 21st-century Eugene Daniel, but to a lesser extent.

As far as Ratliff’s contributions as a return man, I’m not as impressed. He has vision and can cut, but his lack of footspeed prevents him from making much of an impact there. I think he was back there simply because he was the only available guy the Colts had who the coaching staff thought would catch the ball every time. Not surprisingly, he had almost as many fair catches as returns.

If we continue with the Hayden signed/Jackson healed scenario, I think Ratliff has a good chance at a roster spot on the team if he re-signs. He has clearly outplayed the younger options at the position, is durable and has the mentality to play on specials. The Colts would be smart to offer him a short-term contract (perhaps one with a number of incentives geared towards starts, interceptions and/or return yardage). His market value is likely to be limited because he’s been cut a few times and many teams are wary of signing Colts as the memories of guys like Rick DeMulling and Jason David tend to cause other NFL GMs nightmares.

Dante Hughes
Numbers: 5101/190/4.65c4.56pd in 07
2008 stats: 9 GP/0 GS, 6 TK, 1 AT, 2 PBU, 1-16-0 INT, 12 STT, 2 STA, 2-25 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 5 GP/1 GS, 7 TK, 1 PBU, 1 FF, 1 STT, 1-10 PEN
Status: Signed through 2010, ended season on injured reserve

When the Colts drafted Hughes (then called Daymeion) in the third round of the 2007 draft, they thought they were getting a player a lot like Ratliff — a guy who does everything right, but just lack a little in the deep speed department. But since logic dictates that corners don’t really need all that much deep speed in the Colts defense, Hughes should be fine. Right?

So far, wrong. Injuries and ineffective play have kept Hughes off the field. When he has played, he hasn’t done much and has sometimes looked totally lost in coverage. While many fans expected him to dislodge Jennings from the No. 3 spot, Hughes never came close and actually lost the No. 4 spot to Ratliff midway through the 2008 preseason.

Still, it’s too early to give up on Hughes. Cornerback is one of the tougher positions to adjust to in the pros, so the jury’s still out on this kid. He was a big-time producer at Cal, so there’s a good chance the light could turn on sometime soon. But if it doesn’t this year, I think it’s over.

Michael Coe
Numbers: 6005/190/4.53c4.49pd in 07
2008 stats: None
2008 preseason stats: None
Status: Signed through 2010, spent season on injured reserve

This guy’s still around? He played six games as a rookie in 2007 and blocked a punt against the Ravens. Since then, he hasn’t really gotten out of the whirlpool.

If he comes back, he’ll have to work for a spot. The scouting report on him thus far is that he’s a smart kid (a coach’s son who got a degree despite transferring from Arkansas to Alabama State) who lacks deep speed and, far worse, closing speed. He’ll work hard and play aggressively, but really hasn’t shown he can withstand the punishment an NFL player must.

I actually do remember him from 2007. He impressed me far more as a special-teamer than he did as a defender. He’ll need to get tighter in coverage to earn a spot as a cornerback.

T.J. Rushing
Numbers: 5090/186/4.45pd in 06
2008 stats: None
2008 preseason stats: 4 GP/0 GS, 4 TK, 1 PBU, 2 STT, 2-26 (1 FC) PR, 3-104-0 KR
Status: Signed through 2009, spent season on injured reserve

Let’s get one thing straight, Rushing isn’t really an NFL cornerback. I mean he’s played cornerback when injuries have forced him to (and in the preseason) and the more I’ve seen him play on defense, the more I don’t want him to. If he’s playing back there, the Colts are desperate.

What he actually is is a return man. At that position, he excels, despite the Colts’ lack of blocking for him. He’s got straight-line speed, more than a little niftiness and generally sure hands. It’s hard to judge exactly how good he is because of how bad the Colts special teams have been, but he should enter camp as the No. 1 option on both punts and kicks.

He’s also a pretty fair special-teams tackler, so if he’s healthy, he should be tough to dislodge from the roster.

Nick Graham
Numbers: 5101/190/4.55pd in 07
2008 stats: 4 GP/0 GS, 4 STT, 1 STA, 4-40 PEN
2008 preseason stats: 3 GP/0 GS, 3 TK, 1 AT with Philadelphia
Status: Signed (I think) through 2009, ended season on injured reserve

When the Colts signed Graham last season, I recalled him from Tulsa. Played faster than he timed, a bit of a hitter, but was no great shakes in coverage. I considered him not really worth drafting. As an undrafted rookie with the Eagles in 2007, he was a solid special-teams contributor, but did little on defense. Part of that may be because the Eagles play almost exclusively man coverage, while Graham is better in zone (which the Colts play almost exclusively).

Keep an eye on Graham. The Colts need special teamers, and Graham has proven he can do that and has shown some potential as a defender. The Colts put Graham on injured reserve last season rather than come to a waiver agreement with him, so they expect him back for camp. Still, it’s hard to see how a guy who had as many penalties as he did tackles in his first season in Indy would have much of a future.

Brandon Foster
Numbers: 5075/185/4.28pd in 08
2008 stats: None
2008 preseason stats: 5 GP/0 GS, 4 TK, 1 PBU, 1-18 PEN
Status: Signed through 2010

Somehow, Foster is actually smaller than Jennings. And even more unbelievably, he’s even faster. But he’s not as strong, not quite the hitter and nowhere near as aggressive. The flipside of that is that he’s smarter, more disciplined and far less prone to mistakes. He played a bit in the preseason as a rook, and didn’t get totally abused. He showed good instincts, but not much tackling ability.

He did make one great play, downing a punt at Atlanta 4-yard line, showing off his crazy speed. So he could be a special teams guy. There’s little doubt he’ll be the first guy down there if he’s not blocked out of existence, but what can he do once he gets there?

The one thing that gets me about Foster is that he has never been used as a return man. Last season, after Rushing went down, the Colts paraded all kinds of guys back there including scrapheap pickup Justin Forsett and slow-as-dirt Ratliff, but didn’t give lightning-fast Foster a shot. Neither did the Longhorns when he played in Austin (unless you count the one onside kick he recovered). But as a senior at Texas, he had four picks for 115 yards and two scores to go along with two fumble recoveries for 25 yards and another touchdown. Obviously, the kid can run — why not give him a shot?

How this affects the draft and free agency

There is talent and depth at the position, but of the Colts’ top four cornerbacks, two are due to be unrestricted free agents this year, and the other two will be after the 2009 season. Behind them are question marks and unknowns.

But keep in mind that Polian has shown a history of paying, even overpaying cornerbacks. It’s likely that the Colts will retain most if not all of them. Part of the reason that they will be so aggressive in keeping them is the fact that they don’t have many other options. Hughes played himself out of the defensive rotation, and Coe just can’t stay healthy enough to show that he deserves a roster spot. Rushing’s a cornerback in name only, while Graham hasn’t proven anything and Foster’s probably too small to be a contributor on defense.

No matter how many of the top four (if any) leave, don’t expect to see the Colts sign a name free agent. While Polian has signed free agent cornerbacks to big contracts in the past, it should be noted that both of them happened when he was new to the Colts and both of the players — Jeff Burris and Tyrone Poole — were guys he had drafted in the first round when he was in charge of other teams. That window has since closed.

Far more likely, they will get potential contributors through the draft. But that’s kind of risky. Not only haven’t Hughes or Coe worked out as planned, neither have most of the guys Polian has brought to Indy.

There is a chance the Colts will draft a cornerback on the first day. If you look at the players who are current successful in Indy, you’ll notice that Jackson was a first-round pick, while Hayden, Jennings and Ratliff were second rounders (although Ratliff was chosen by Cincinnati). All of the guys who haven’t worked out have been drafted in the third round or later.

While it may make sense for the Colts to grab a cornerback early, I don’t think they will. Here’s why:

1) This draft will be dedicated primarily to the offense
2) I expect at least three of the top four cornerbacks will be back at least for one season
3) If top cornerbacks are so important, why did the Colts go 3-4 with Jackson in the lineup and 9-0 without him?
4) Polian is loathe to change his philosophy, and is likely to keep drafting lots of cornerbacks, hoping to strike it rich with some late-rounder

As far as who they’ll draft, your guess is as good as mine. Will it be a big guy like Jackson or a shrimp like Jennings? A speedster or a slug? A ballhawk or a tackler with hands of stone? A clean Marine or a character problem? A Big-10 star or a D2 phenom? Could be any of them, because if you look at the list of Polian draftees below, you’ll see it has been all of them.

I know some people have been talking up Jackson State’s Domonique Johnson, but I’m wary. He has prototypical NFL cornerback skills, and some believe his small-college background and character issues will drive his draft stock down. But I’m pretty sure that NFL teams will forget both of those things when they see him work out and he’ll go on the first day. Some guys I like include San Jose State’s Coye Francies (who can also return kicks), Troy’s Sherrod Martin and my current favorite, Maryland’s Kevin Barnes.

Cornerbacks drafted by the Colts since Polian took over

2007 Third round Daymeion (now Dante) Hughes
2007 Fifth round Michael Coe
2006 Second round Tim Jennings
2006 Seventh round T.J. Rushing
2005 First round Marlin Jackson
2005 Second round Kelvin Hayden
2004 Fourth round Jason David
2004 Sixth round Von Hutchins
2003 Third round Donald Strickland
2002 Third round Joseph Jefferson
2001 Fifth round Raymond Walls
2000 Third round David Macklin
2000 Seventh round Rodregis Brooks
1999 Fourth round Paul Miranda

1 comment:

shake'n'bake said...

"Citing team record in the Jackson and Jennings Evals"

Really? Come on, I've been reading this site for about an hour and know you are better than that. How about passing yards allowed or something a little bit more targeted to the issue?

On the plus side, I totally agree with you on Rushing. A lot of people didn't see, or remember anything special there, but he's a great returnman, especially on punts.