Positional Training Camp Battles, Part I: Cornerback

Despite the recent release of Kelvin Hayden, the Indianapolis Colts sport a talented group of cornerbacks heading into the 2011 NFL season . The hope is that they continue to improve (and stay healthy), as the team transitions from a conventional Cover-2 defense, to a more complex, man-to-man scheme that features different looks up front and a more variety of blitzes.

In order to blitz on a consistent basis (well, inconsistent as to throw off the offense), a team must have a set of cornerbacks that can play man-to-man coverage, and must do so close to the line of scrimmage.  The hope is to force a release off the line from the WR, disrupt the timing between the QB and WR, and ultimately force the QB to hold onto the ball for as long as possible.  

All of this obviously affords the blitzers with more time to get to the QB to create sacks and pressures. This also applies to the Colts’ base defense, since they sport the best pass-rushing duo in the league.  The last few years, teams have picked apart the Colts' Cover-2 defense with a quick passing, ball control approach, which all but negates the Colts' biggest defensive strength: Dwight Freeney & Robert Mathis. 

If the Colts can successfully trend away from the Cover-2, I believe the entire defense stands to improve.  And for once, I believe the Colts have the CB personnel to achieve this transformation. Kelvin Hayden has been a starter for the Colts for the past 5 seasons, but was released for a few reasons. 

For one, his contract – Hayden was due more than $8 million this year, which is too much money for an average CB.  He also hasn’t been able to stay healthy – he’s played in just 30 games over the past 3 seasons.  Finally, Hayden is known as zone CB – a good fit for the traditional Cover-2, but not a good fit for a man-to-man scheme. 

I’m hoping that his release (as well as acquiring physical CB’s Jerraud Powers, Kevin Thomas, and Justin Tryon in recent years) signals a shift in defensive philosophy.

So who will be the Colts starting CB’s come September 11th?  Let’s look at the options: Jerraud Powers, Jacob Lacey, Kevin Thomas, and Justin Tryon. Jerraud Powers was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2009 NFL draft.  He’s played in just 22 out of a possible 32 games, which means his durability is less than desirable.  However, when healthy, he has proven to be one of the Colts most effective CB’s (more on this in a minute).

Kevin Thomas is completely unproven.  He was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2010 draft, but missed the entire season due to injury.  Here’s what Consensus Draft Services had to say about him:

“Long, lean cut corner who does display upper body strength.  Press coverage is strong as he uses his arms to jam and reroute the WR.  Closes quickly on the corner blitz.  Has a good ability to jump the route and the ball skills to make the interception.”

Furthermore, here are some notes from NFLDraftScout.com, via cbssports.com:

“Read & React:  Savvy defender…does a nice job of squeezing the receiver to the sideline with his size and better than anticipated playing speed." "Man Coverage:  Good size and use of hands to knock receivers off their timing when in press coverage.”

Sounds like a perfect fit, if he can stay healthy.

Now let’s look at Justin Tryon.  He was the 124th selection in the 2008 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins, and was traded to the Indianapolis Colts prior to the start of last season for a 7thround pick.  Injuries forced Tryon into the starting lineup, as he started 6 games (and appeared in 6 more) for the Colts.  Although he’s undersized at 5’9”, 185 lbs, he proved to be the team's best cover CB last season. FootballOutsiders.com (who do a great job with advanced stats), measured Justin Tryon as the 3rd best CB in the entire league in Yards per Pass in 2010 (5.0 ypp), while Jerraud Powers ranked 10th in the league (5.6 ypp).  Tryon also graded out as the 13th best CB in terms of ‘Success Rate’, while Powers ranked 24th.  Tryon was ranked 6th in the league in YAC (yards after catch), while Powers ranked 23rd.  You get the point:  Tryon was great, Powers was very good.

While these numbers are obviously encouraging, one Colts’ CB didn’t grade out quite as well:  Jacob Lacey.  In fact, according to FootballOutsiders.com, Lacey was the 3rd worst CB in the league last year at ‘Success Rate’, and 9th worst in yards per pass.  Ouch.  If that wasn’t bad enough, Lacey got burned in the playoffs against the Jets late in the game, which set up the game winning field goal that ultimately ended the Colts’ season.

There is a silver lining, however:  Lacey, who is now entering his 3rd season, actually played well his rookie year before regressing in 2010.  So why did he regress?  Well, in his rookie season, Lacey operated almost exclusively out of the slot.  He matched up well against small, quick receivers that ran short & intermediate routes.  This past season, however, injuries to Hayden & Powers forced Lacey to line up outside, where he was clearly outmatched by bigger, physical receivers.  If the Colts can play him exclusively from the slot, there’s hope that he can return to his 2009 form.

So here’s my prediction:  The Colts have two very talented and young CB’s who play very well as man-to-man, outside CB’s in Jerraud Powers (24 years old) and Justin Tryon (27).  I’m hopeful that they will be the team's Week 1 starters, and long-term fixtures at the position.  Kevin Thomas also fits the mold as a physical, close-to-the-line CB, and can provide insurance outside if Powers or Tryon suffer injuries.  This leaves Jacob Lacey as the team’s nickel CB.  This may be a bit risky, but should he return to 2009 form, the Colts' CB stable should be strong. 

Even though losing Kelvin Hayden will challenge the position's depth, I think it opens up playing time for more capable, system-fitting CB’s.  I’m encouraged by these young players; now let’s see how the situation plays out in camp.

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.