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Training Camp Preview: The Battle at Safety

The Colts players report to Training Camp on July 23 and will practice in the blistering late summer heat in Anderson through August 13, overlapping with everyone’s favorite thing to dislike, the preseason (blech).

The point?  Football is coming, ladies and gents, and it’s time to look at the potential Training Camp battles.  On the menu for today: safety.

With Antoine Bethea’s near-inevitable departure in March, the safety position is shaping up to be one of the few camp battles with a starting job up for grabs.

Many Colts fans hope for a speedier, coverage-oriented player to compliment the skills of the hard-hitting LaRon Landry.  The frontrunner, though widely predicted, is not yet determined, and there are some solid candidates on the current, bloated 90-man camp roster.

I’ve broken them up into three categories, the starter(s), contenders – those with the highest hopes for a starting job, and the wild cards – the ones fighting for a backup position, or just a chance to play in the NFL.

 

The Starter

LaRon Landry (6-0, 229, 29 yrs old) Assuming he’s healthy, Landry is the only sure starter in the group this year.  A high profile signing from Indy’s 2013 free agent class, Landry had 87 tackles and 2 passes defensed in 12 starts/games played last season.

Landry’s Pro Football Focus grades didn’t actually reflect his run-stopper reputation.  He finished with a 3.5 score in coverage (zero is average) and a -1.7 against the run.  Negative scores for penalties (-1.3 for 3 flags) and pass rushing (-1.6) drove the veteran safety’s overall PFF grade into the negative at -1.1, 30th out of 57 players who saw 60% or more of their teams’ defensive snaps – six spots ahead of Bethea.

Landry seemed to fall off toward the end of the season, eventually allowing opposing quarterbacks a cumulative 109.7 rating against him.  He’ll be looking to build on last season with greater consistency and better health, but, unlike the rest of the safeties, he likely won’t be looking over his shoulder this offseason.

 

The Contenders

Delano Howell (5-11, 197, 24 yrs old). As early as May, media types and those in the know began touting the fourth year UDFA out of Stanford as a leading candidate to start alongside Landry.

Howell started the Week 3 win over San Francisco (54/54 snaps, 3 tackles, 2 missed tackles, 1 solo defensive stop), the Week 4 win over Jacksonville (36/56 snaps, 2 tackles, 0 missed), and the Week 6 loss to the Chargers (73/78 snaps, 6 tackles, 1 missed, 3 defensive stops)

He also played 49 of 71 defensive snaps in the win over the Seahawks (3 tackles, 2 missed, 1 stop).  Opposing QB’s went 6/9 for 73 yards 0 TDs, 0 INTs against him for a 91.4 rating.  – stats from Pro Football Focus

It’s a small sample size, but overall, Howell was a solid backup last year.  He’s young, quick, stronger than his size might indicate (21 bench reps at the 2011 combine), and he knows the system.  Delano Howell definitely has all the makings of a frontrunner to start in 2014.

Sergio Brown (6-2, 218, 26 yrs old) The quick, confident Notre Dame product re-signed in March, and, shortly thereafter, was quoted on the team’s website as saying he wants to earn a starting job:

“Ultimately, I want to contribute and show the Indianapolis Colts I have what it takes to be a starting safety in this league”

Brown has great size for the safety position and some nice measurables from his 2010 pre-draft workouts: 4.49-second 40-yard dash, 6.58-second 3-cone drill (that’s some serious agility), and a 10’3” broad jump (that means something, right?).

Primarily a Special Teams gunner, Brown only played only 28 defensive snaps last season (2 defensive tackles, one pass thrown his way – incomplete). He finished the year with just 9 total tackles and two fumble recoveries.  Of course, there’s no official stat for how many punts a guy downed inside the 10 or how many times he took out the last blocker on a punt return.

Brown has spent four years in the NFL, honing his mechanics and coverage discipline to compliment his impressive physical gifts.  The team brought him back to compete, and while he may not have Howell’s numbers, he should make it a fierce battle for the starting job.

Mike Adams (5-11, 200, 33 yrs old) Adams, a 10-year veteran and 73-game starter who can play nickel corner as well as safety, began 2013 on the bench for the Denver Broncos – one start in the first 11 weeks – before taking over full time over the last nine games, including the playoffs.

Adams, who signed after safety Cory Lynch’s season ending injury, told reporters in mid-June that he wasn’t assured of a starting position according to Ryan Grigson, but that he intends to compete for it.

Adams ranked 29th – just above LaRon Landry – among safeties who played at least 60% of the available snaps last year, according to PFF.  He finished with a -1.1 overall grade including the playoffs (-0.8 for the regular season), 2.5 in run defense and -2.3 in pass coverage, nearly the opposite of Landry, but the same overall score.  In coverage, opposing QBs went 26/45 (57.8%) for 406 yards and a 93.4 rating against him.

For what he may lack in speed and agility at his age, Adams makes it up in experience and discipline.  The Colts likely would rather a younger player earn the job, but if they don’t show enough promise, Adams could be a realistic option.

 

The Wild Cards

Colt Anderson (5-10, 194, 28 yrs old) Anderson spent the past four years as Philadelphia’s own version of Sergio Brown.  He totaled 11 tackles, a pass defensed, and 1 forced fumble last season, spending most of his time on special teams last year.

Anderson played 38 defensive snaps, earning a -2.1 overall PFF grade, with 1 defensive tackle, 1 QB hurry, 4 missed tackles, and 0 stops.  He covered two passes, knocking down the one.  However, like with Brown, it’s difficult to quantify his Special Teams contributions.

Anderson isn’t sitting atop anyone’s list of potential starters this year, but he has a good chance of replacing whichever safety earns the starting job on punt and kick coverage units.

David Sims ( 5-10, 207, 27 yrs old) The former Butte Community College running back and Iowa State safety is entering just his second season in the NFL after mostly bouncing around the league’s practice squads and the occasional active roster since 2011.

According to their pre-draft measurables, Sims is somewhat similar to Delano Howell.  Both have deceptive upper body strength (26 and 21 225-pound bench reps respectively), good quickness and athleticism, and both can jump (36.5” and 38.5” verticals respectively), though Sims may have a little more top end speed (4.50 vs 4.61-second 40-yar dash times).

Sims’s NFL dreams are still alive after just one full season in the league (2012 with the Eagles), but with the top three safeties all likely to make the team, he’ll be in a four-way fight for either one or two roster spots.  It’s an uphill battle, but Sims is no stranger to it.

Dewey McDonald (6-0, 220, 24 yrs old) McDonald signed as an undrafted rookie on May 12th.  He had 89 tackles, 3 picks (all touchdowns according to his profile on Colts.com), 6 tackles for a loss, and 8 passes defensed last year at California University of Pennsylvania (almost as good of a name as Indiana of Pennsylvania).

Beyond that, we know his 2014 pre-draft workout numbers: 4.50 40, 6.99-second 3-cone drill, 23 bench reps, and a 34.5” vertical.

McDonald has nice size and top speed, but as an undrafted rookie, he isn’t likely in the running for the starting job unless he just spectacularly outplays everyone during Training Camp and the Preseason.  He would be a marvelous find if that happened, but most likely, McDonald is fighting for that last safety spot and will be looking to make a statement early and often to make the team.

 

Prediction Time

(Warning: shameless, semi-random prognostication, the likes of which isn’t likely to hold water before September)

With the one entrenched starter, there are two – possibly three – players battling it out for the other starting position.  The main two, Brown and Howell, look like locks to make the roster, barring unforeseen injuries or precipitous drop offs in play.

After that, there will be either one or two more slots available, depending if the Colts keep four safeties, as they did last year, or five, as they did for most of 2012.  If the coaches want an experienced player as an insurance policy, Adams looks like the man for the fourth spot, followed by Anderson.

However, if the team chooses to go the developmental route with their backups, the chances for Sims and McDonald rise significantly.  They’ll have to show some serious potential to knock off the vets, though.

My prediction: Landry and Howell start, Brown becomes the top backup, and for the fourth spot… I’m going with Adams, unless one of the young guys looks really solid in camp.  They could still decide to keep that fifth safety, especially if cornerback depth doesn’t look very strong.  Either way, we should see a great positional battle in the coming months.

If you’ve read this far, then this whole training camp thing must not be boring you to tears.  You might even be a little like me and actually…like it, in which case, you might as well add your predictions in the comments.

Marcus Dugan

About Marcus Dugan

Marcus is a husband, dad, twitter geek, and all around average guy who covers news, game recaps, and additional material for The Colts Authority, while working even harder as an Indy area real estate broker. He's been known to overuse parentheses while editorializing (but who doesn't?)

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