The Colts' biggest weakness this season is an interesting, albeit sad, battle.
On one hand, you have an abysmal offensive line in a system that was based around deep passing. That's not a good match.
On the other hand, you had a thin, injury prone secondary in a defensive system that likes to bring the blitz. Also not a good match.
The combination of the two helped kill the Colts at crucial times throughout the season, none bigger than the team's season ending loss in Baltimore. The offensive line allowed Luck to be pressured all game, negating the deep ball, and the defensive backs allowed Joe Flacco and Anquan Boldin to connect on rainbow throw after rainbow throw in the second half, allowing the Ravens to get two second half touchdowns. If not for a couple of Ray Rice fumbles, it could have been even worse.
Today, I want to talk abou the latter as the Colts look towards 2013. Specifically, Cassius Vaughn and Darius Butler, two players who started for the Colts, despite having no business being starters, and who are free agents this year. Butler is an unrestricted FA, while Vaughn is restricted. But who is better for the Colts as they look forward?
Let's start with the basics.
Cassius Vaughn– 5-11, 195 lbs
Played in all but one game this season, was a starter in 12 (including playoff game)
70 combined tackles (according to NFL, 73 according to PFF), 9 passes defensed (7 according to PFF), 1 INT
Darius Butler– 5-10, 185 lbs
Played in 12 games, was a starter in four (incl. playoffs)
35 combined tackles (PFF: 36), 8 passes defensed (PFF: 2), 4 INT
Now let's look a few stats that aren't kept by the NFL.
Here are the two's game grades for the season:
In terms of specific grades, Vaughn had the lowest overall grade on the defense for the season, while Butler was second only to Kavell Conner. Butler was second to Vontae Davis in coverage grades, while Vaughn was second to last (ahead of only Robert Mathis). Vaughn was also last in penalty grades, racking up 11 penalties on the season. Meanwhile Butler led the team in penalty grades, getting called for zero and drawing two offensive pass interference calls.
Now, moving away from grades, let's look at some coverage numbers from PFF.
Attempts: 112, Completions: 70, Comp. %: 62.5%, Yds: 891, YAC: 296, TD: 5, INT: 1, PD: 7, Passer Rating: 98.5
Attempts: 52, Completions: 29, Comp. %: 55.8%, Yds: 336, YAC: 172, TD: 1, INT: 4, PD: 2, Passer Rating: 49.8
And a few more numbers to look at.
Run Stop %:
Butler- 3.2 (30th among corners), Vaughn- 1.0 (107th)
Tackling Efficiency (number of tackles per missed tackle):
Vaughn- 14.6 (79th), Butler- 7.4 (148th)
Snaps Per Reception Allowed:
Vaughn- 7.2 (166th) Butler- 9.4 (102nd)
Yards per Snap Allowed
Vaughn- 1.68 (165th) Butler- 1.21 (90th)
In short, I think Butler is a better player than Vaughn, and I'm surprised that Vaughn started over Butler all season. Vaughn was picked on often by opposing quarterbacks (See Boldin, Anquan) and tended to give up a lot of space. Despite being the bigger corner, Vaughn was often noted for playing off coverage, reminding Colts fans of the Tim Jennings of old. Butler would play tighter coverage, but also missed tackles at a higher rate, allowing some big plays and yards after the catch. He also tended to be in the right place at the right time more often than not, adding a turnover potential the defense sorely needed.
If this defense was going to play more zone coverage, looking for more Jerraud Powers types, I would say Cassius Vaughn is the better fit. But if the Colts are trying to fill the defense with corners that can play tighter coverage, although they may be weaker tacklers, Butler is the pick.
This season, Butler's poor tackling still didn't make up the difference, as Butler still allowed, on average, less yards than Vaughn per snap.
Looking forward, the Colts really should be looking for a new starting corner. Neither Vaughn or Butler are starting caliber corners, and we saw that repeatedly this season. If I never see Cassius Vaughn celebrate another play where a wide open receiver drops the ball I will be all too happy.
But, one of the two very well could be resigned in the offseason, given their knowledge of the scheme and ability to add depth at the position. Neither corner should get any big payday, so money really isn't an issue.
So, if the Colts have to pick one for next season, I'd go with Butler. He fared well as a nickel corner this season, and while not ideal as a starter, can fill in ably when needed. Vaughn simply is too big of a weakness, and the upside isn't big enough to be worth it. He was brought in as a potential special teams contributor as well, but amassed negative grades from PFF in both returns and on coverage teams, where he earned two penalties on the season and made just one tackle.
Unless Butler is asking for a big raise, I'm more than willing to resign him to a light contract next year. Depth is key in the NFL, and holding on to a cheap, capable nickel corner who knows the defense can't hurt.