A Closer Look at Newcomer Vontae Davis

Whether or not the Colts “won” the Vontae Davis trade, whether or not they overpaid for the young cornerback, Vontae Davis is a Colt now.

What matters for fans now, at least in the short term, is what Davis brings to this team. First, let’s look at the hole Davis filled.

It was well documented how futile the Colts were going to be in the secondary this season. Ryan Grigson brought in several newcomers, such as Justin King, Cassius Vaughn, and Josh Gordy, while recently jettisoning former Colts in Kevin Thomas, Chris Rucker, and Terrence Johnson. One of the most important factors in the cornerback transactions was the transition for the Colts in defensive schemes.

Under Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell, the Colts ran the familiar Tampa-2 defense (although Larry Coyer did his best to muddle it up) the vast majority of the time. The cornerbacks were most often in zone schemes, and needed to support the run and tackle well. Under Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 scheme (or hybrid scheme), the defensive backfield is much different, and much more unpredictable. Instead of cornerbacks and safeties sitting back in their predictable zones, each play can change in terms of responsibilities in coverage. Generally though, these cornerbacks will need to be able to cover wide receivers in man-to-man coverage.

Instead of needing good closing speed and breaking-on-the-ball skills in a zone coverage, these cornerbacks need to be able to stay with a receiver “stride-for-stride,” have the size to physically matchup with their counterparts, and lockdown one guy with good footwork and instincts.

Vontae Davis just might have those characteristics.

According to our talks with Bleacher Reports’ Erik Frenz on the Monday Night Breakdown show, Davis has all the talent in the worls to be a shut down corner, when his game is on. He can match the receiver up and down the field, he can make a play on the ball in the air, and he can be physical with the receiver.

As I watched highlights of Davis after the trade, I was astounded at how physical he often got with the receiver. It will likely get him in trouble at some point during the season in terms of pass interference or personal fouls, such as his little tiff with Steve Smith during the Panthers-Dolphins preseason game. To be fair, Davis didn’t look to initiate the over-the-top contact, but he wasn’t backing down from it either. This aggressive, ‘handsy’ behavior will be both a blessing and a curse, leading to both pass breakups and unnecessary penalties (such as his pass interference against the Falcons this preseason, that nullified an 84-yard interception return).

Looking at Davis’ stats over the last few years, it’s tough to predict how he’ll fare in the future.

In terms of coverage statistics (brought to you by Pro Football Focus), Davis generally projects in the top 30, but has been inconsistent over the last three years.

In chronological order:

Cover Snaps per Target (higher is better): 4.8 (57th out of 65), 7.5 (7th out of 74), 6.3 (33rd out of 65)

Yards per Cover Snap (lower is better): 2.4 (65/65), 0.98 (13/74), 1.19 (34/65)

Cover Snaps per Reception (higher is better): 7.6 (56/65), 12.0 (16/74), 11.6 (27/65)

Opposing Passer Rating (lower is better): 112.1 (61/65), 92.9 (26/74), 68.8 (17/65)

Now, on the bright side, Davis did progress nicely into his second year, having very good statistics all around, although the opposing passer rating is still a little high. Unfortunately, Davis took a step back in his third year, and that’s why Miami eventually traded him away, as Joe Philbin said on Hard Knocks, they just weren’t sure he’d turn into the player he COULD be.

In 2010, Davis had the 11th highest overall grade from PFF, but in 2011, he was just 43rd. Regardless, he deserves to be a starting cornerback. The question is can he become a shutdown corner?

One of the reasons Davis may have struggled in 2011 was a difference in scheme. When I went back and watched some of the All-22 film on Davis from 2011, I was very surprised to see him sitting on a big cushion and back in a zone coverage. Based on my impressions, Davis is a much better man-to-man corner, and sitting back in the zone didn’t seem to fit him. He just didn’t seem to have the quickness and instincts to break on the ball in a zone coverage.

I was generally impressed, however, with his ability to stay with a receiver one-on-one. For example, one of Davis’ most impressive plays from 2011 was actually a 40+ yard completion. During Week 2, Davis faced Andre Johnson and the Texans. Again, he lined up in zone far more than I expected, but on this play he was actually pressed up to the line of scrimmage, directly across from Johnson (arguably the number one receiver in football when healthy). Johnson ran a deep skinny post, and there was no real safety help on the play for Davis. Davis was right on Johnson’s hip the entire play, matching him for forty yards. Unfortunately for him, Schaub threw an absolutely perfect ball, the only place where Davis couldn’t get a clean look at it (high and opposite side of Johnson’s body.

Still, Davis still got a hand up to disrupt the pass, and it looked like the ball may have popped out and hit the ground as Johnson rolled on the ground. It was a completion technically, but Davis did everything right on the play.

If the Colts keep Davis in his niche, that is, locking down one receiver on each play, I believe he can get back to that 2010 form. They’ll need him to match up with guys like Johnson, Kenny Britt, and Justin Blackmon, which seems more likely than Powers, simply because of Davis’ man-to-man natural ability. If he can do that with success, then the Colts’ defense will be in a much better place.

Kyle J. Rodriguez

About Kyle J. Rodriguez

A film and numbers guru, Kyle writes about the NFL and the Indianapolis Colts for Bleacher Report, Draft Mecca and The Football Educator, and is a co-founder and associate editor of Colts Authority. Kyle also is a high school sports reporter for the MLive Media Group in Michigan, covering high school sports across the state.