During the 2014 offseason, Colts Authority is making a concentrated effort to have a complex understanding of as many of the players on the roster as possible. It’s all a part of the Colts Authority Charting Project, an intentional effort to chart as many statistical and strategical details about the team as we can. In that vein, we have several film-review series going thoughout the next few months. Ben Gundy has already gone through the offensive linemen, and will continue the Dregs of the Roster series in coming weeks. After doing this piece on Howell, I’ll be moving on to the newly-signed free agents. You can see all of the 2014 film review pieces at the CA Charting Project page.
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While he played just over 200 snaps last season, Delano Howell has been one of the most talked-about players on the Colts roster this offseason. With Antoine Bethea signing with San Francisco, the Colts have a significant hole to fill. Alas, the team hasn’t gone to free agency to attempt to fill the void, and it doesn’t seem like they’re going to make another significant move before the draft.
Rather, Ryan Grigson named Delano Howell, the draft and “other options” as the direction the Colts will take to replace Bethea.
“You lose a player like Antoine Bethea, obviously that’s going to be an area of concern, need,” he said. “We have some players sitting there at that position. Delano Howell was no slouch when he played last year. When he came in, for a guy that was on Buffalo’s practice squad the year prior, he did a heck of a job. We will of course look at the draft. We are still looking at some other options. We want to solidify every position group possible the best we can.
“You lose a stud like Antoine who meant so much to this organization, obviously it’s going to leave a mark, but at the same time, you can’t keep everyone. That’s just the harsh reality of this business.”
Unless the Colts draft a safety early in the draft, Howell seems to have the inside track on the starting safety job alongside LaRon Landry. But how exactly would he fare as a full-time starter?
That’s the question I aimed to tackle over the last few days, as I charted each of Howell’s defensive snaps from the 2013 season. For this piece, I tracked Howell’s pre-snap alignments, his coverage roles and results, and a few other things.
The versatile roles that the Colts use their safeties in was clear in Howell’s numbers. A free safety in 2013, Howell still spent a third of his time within eight (or so) yards of the line of scrimmage. The “On WR” designation was given when Howell lined up directly across from a receiver, which usually was in the slot.
While the numbers were manipulated a bit by the Chargers’ success running the ball, forcing Howell into the box more often, it was clear that the Colts trusted Howell with a wide range of duties. I would say that in general, it was a success. The Colts’ defense had a negative DVOA in each of those games, and it was particularly good in pass defense, notching defensive pass DVOAs of -35.3%, -49.3%, -11.6% and -4.4%. The Colts finished the season with a defensive pass DVOA of 1.5%, so those games were above average for the year.
Granted, Greg Toler being healthy at the time definitely helped those marks, but those four games were also noticeable improvement from the first two weeks of the season.
But the question isn’t “Can we replace Landry with Howell?” It’s “How would he fit in next to Landry?” To answer that, let’s look at the different roles that showed up on film.
Against the Run
This may be the most important role for Howell if the Colts attempt to put him in Bethea’s role at strong safety. I didn’t chart Bethea’s numbers, but during these four games he probably spent half of his snaps in the box.
Howell didn’t show any hesitation in getting physical against the run, although he didn’t go and seek it out unnecessarily either. But Howell also understood the value of filling holes and blocking running lanes, re-routing the runner without actually attempting a tackle. Howell didn’t rack up a ton of tackles against the run, but he rarely took a bad angle or left the runner with an open cutback lane. Howell’s instincts are his best asset, and when not in a single-high look, he was swift to attack runners.
None of that, however, means that he was a particularly stout tackler. This play against San Francisco really sums up the best and the worst from Howell against the run. He assesses the play quickly and darts into the backfield, but he whiffs on the tackle and Kendall Hunter is able to pick up a few yards.
On the bright side, Howell’s penetration slowed Hunter enough for Kavell Conner and Jerrell Freeman to bring him down before he was able to get a first down.
But overall, Howell’s tackling was a concern in 2013. I charted six missed tackles in the four games (PFF charted five, they didn’t count one that I did in the San Diego game), which would have placed Howell in the bottom five among safeties in 2013. Bethea is one of the most reliable safeties out there when it comes to missed tackles, and Howell would be a noticeable drop off.
Apart from the tackling, Howell doesn’t shed blocks, or avoid them, quite as well as Bethea does, but there isn’t a gaping difference. If he can clean up the tackling, Howell’s instincts and willingness to mix it up physically should be enough, especially if the Colts defensive line is improved with the Arthur Jones addition.
Like in the running game, Howell’s best asset in zone coverage is his instincts. The second-year player had a good sense of who he was supposed to be shadowing based on when and where they entered his zones. Teams rarely targeted Howell’s zones, as he generally had them well-covered.
Howell reads the quarterback’s eyes and reacts well to where the quarterback is focused, but it does mean that he’s occasionally susceptible to being manipulated by a veteran signal-caller. Take the Keenan Allen touchdown in Week 6 for example.
Phillip Rivers gets Howell to bite toward the sideline early, and he’s completely out of position on Allen’s cut inside, as the rookie receiver emerges right behind Howell for the touchdown.
But, I want to stress that this was an outlier for Howell. In general, he was in the right place in zone coverage.
The downside for Howell is that he doesn’t have the elite speed necessary to cover a large amount of ground quickly. Hence, his range is rather limited as a single-high safety. When asked to be the deep back in a Cover 3, Howell is forced to play ridiculously deep in order to get angles that work with his speed.
It doesn’t mean that he can’t play that role, again, his instincts can carry him pretty far. But it does mean he’s never going to be an above-average playmaker from the position. Even with his aging, Bethea still has noticeably more range from the back end.
Howell’s instincts and technique will allow him to play deep in a pinch, but he’s much better suited for Cover 2, where his positioning would outweigh his lack of speed.
This is where Howell’s biggest “wow” plays came from in 2013. While he didn’t play press coverage as Bethea did occasionally, Howell did great job of playing off-man and breaking on throws quickly to break up the play or take down the receiver for a minimal gain.
Howell wasn’t really challenged when asked to turn his hips and run, but he rarely put himself in that position either, choosing to keep everything in front of him. As a result, he was able to wind up and explode toward a receiver upon the quarterback’s release.
Howell is strong enough to be physical with tight ends, and his lack of speed isn’t a problem against them, so I am cautiously confident in his ability to play that role as well as Bethea did.
The biggest issues for Howell came once again in tackling. On one or two occasions, Howell missed a tackle on a quick screen, resulting in a big play. He has more than enough strength to tackle anybody, but he gets sloppy and lunges at players in open space at times. It’s not quite like a LaRon Landry missile launch, but it can have a similar effect.
Other than that, his completions allowed in man coverage averaged about six or seven yards. He didn’t allow downfield completions in man coverage, just quick passes when he was in off-man.
Of course, all this doesn’t matter if Howell doesn’t have grit, heart or simply isn’t a winner.
My disdain for buzzwords aside, one of Howell’s most endearing traits is his tendency to go full-steam from snap to whistle. This screen play by San Francisco is a good example of that.
Howell is lined up on the outside, across from RB Kendall Hunter. Hunter gets a screen pass, and Anquan Boldin comes across to block Howell, while LT Joe Staley comes out and takes Vontae Davis out of the play.
After Hunter (red) gets the catch, he comes inside as the screen is designed, but is turned away by Freeman and Kelvin Sheppard (yellow). So, he attempts to cut back to the outside, where Howell is still fighting with Boldin (blue).
Howell’s kept his head up the entire time, and manages to disengage from Boldin as Hunter tries to curl around, bringing him down for a four-yard gain. It would have been easy for Howell to count himself out of the play once Boldin turned him outside and Hunter went inside (and I’ve seen plenty of defensive backs do it), but Howell does a good job of staying engaged with the play and taking advantage of Hunter’s redirection.
It’s just one example, but I assure you, there are plenty in the four games Howell participated in.
One big issue in replacing Bethea is replacing his leadership in the defensive backfield, especially in seeing the field before the snap and getting the secondary in the right positions. Landry has the experience to take that role, but Howell may also be able to take some of the responsibility. Howell did take the role at times last season, and was a leader at Stanford. Can he do it to the extent Bethea did? I don’t know, but I definitely think he has the mental capacity to take on a larger role.
There is some concern for Howell regarding his health. Howell played through numerous minor injuries at Stanford, and he had both neck and foot issues last season. Considering that Landry struggles to stay healthy and Bethea was an ironman for seven years, it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.
It’s astounding how much Howell’s pre-draft scouting reports reflect my assessments from last year. I looked at some old write-ups after I’d watched film of 2013 and framed my analysis, and it’s amazing how close they come to what my summary would be.
From Draft Insider:
Instinctive defensive back with marginal size/speed numbers. Remains disciplined with assignments, puts himself in a position to make plays on the ball and gives effort until the whistle blows. Plays with pain and flies around the football. Quick up the field to defend screen passes and wraps up when tackling. Takes good angles to the action, displays a burst of closing speed and shows the ability to get outside the numbers to make plays on the ball.
The one thing that’s encouraging from this? Howell showed strong fundamental tackling in college, and his inconsistent tackling from 2013 may not be so difficult to clean up. That’s the biggest thing separating him and Bethea in this defense, so if Howell can improve there, it will go a long ways in replacing his predecessor.
Although Landry is better suited for a strong safety role, in my opinion, I think the Colts probably have to keep him at free safety if Howell is the other starter. Howell *might* be a bit more dependable in deep coverage, but Landry does have more range and has some potential for playmaking.
Howell’s best role is as a depth safety who can fill in in spots, but if he’s forced into a starting role this year, it won’t be the end of the world. They still need long-term talent, and I don’t think Howell’s ceiling is high enough to be that long-term guy, but he can fill in as the Colts focus on other areas of need.