Colts Secondary: No Need To Panic

The Indianapolis Colts secondary has gone through a lot of transition during the 2010 off-season.  Gone are former first round draft pick Marlin Jackson, former second-round draft pick Tim Jennings, and back-up corner and punt returner T.J. Rushing.  Kelvin Hayden is joined only by second-year players Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey from the 2009 Colts Super Bowl team.  At first glance, that looks troubling, particularly when the loss of this year’s third round pick Kevin Thomas is thrown into consideration.

But before fans get become inoculated with worry, doubt, or lose sleep over what would appear to be a depleted depth chart at corner back, let’s consider what the Colts really have to replace.

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Tim Jennings saw a lot of action in the 2008 and 2009 seasons.  In 2008 he started 12 games, six of those at left corner back and six on the right.  In both situations he was replacing injured starters Marlin Jackson and Kelvin Hayden.  He used those opportunities to make 74 tackles, reel-in two interceptions, defended eight passes, forced and recovered two fumbles, and added four special teams tackles.

In 2009, he started five games but saw most of his time as a nickel back behind rookies Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey.  When Lacey, Powers, and Hayden were all healthy his role diminished significantly.  Still, he managed to gather 51 tackles, intercepted two passes, defended 10 others, and contributed five special teams tackles.

The underlying theme for Tim Jennings, however, was not a matter of his statistical production, nor a lack of physical ability, nor even a lack of desire or hustle.  What Jennings lacked was size and the ability to play close enough in coverage to not allow his assignment to not just make the catch, but more importantly, use the reception to give the opposing offense a new set of downs. 

Football Outsiders does excellent work with analyzing the performance of offensive and defensive players by the numbers, comparing each player to other players at their position.  The statistics illustrate that Jennings was one of the worst corners in the league at keeping his assignment from making catches that highly valuable to an opponent’s offense.

An astonishing 58-percent of the time, Jennings was unable to stop his man from making a reception that gave the offense a high likelihood of ultimately continuing its drive.  That percentage is good for third worst in the NFL.  What Jennings was great at doing, however, was keeping his assignment from earning yards after the completion.  He tied for second in the league allowing an average of only 1.8 yards average after a receiver made a catch.

The ability to keep receivers from generating yards after-the-catch should not be marginalized but if a corner back is only able to do so after allowing the receiver to make a reception, when he has already picked up the yards he needed to pick up a first down, it does not do the defense much good.

Ultimately, this means that the Colts need to replace Jennings with a corner that at bare minimum is able to provide opposing receivers with enough cushion to maintain a good angle to make a tackle after the catch.  Any improvement, any better man coverage skills from a corner back that was not on the 2009 roster will result in an upgrade.  When it is also considered that Jennings special teams value was minimal, a strong special teams presence from the team’s fourth corner will also be a net gain for the franchise.

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Marlin Jackson joined the Colts as a first round draft pick in the 2005 NFL Draft.  The biggest play of his career was the game-ending interception of Tom Brady to ice the 2006 AFC Championship, which would put the Colts in position to win the Super Bowl in Miami.

Since starting 16 games the following year, and helping the Colts boast the second ranked pass defense in the NFL, he has rarely seen the field and put in much more time in the training room.  In fact, Jackson has been on the injured reserve list for all but four of the last 21 regular season games.

As a result, despite Jackson’s potentially strong presence as corner back depth on the 2010 Indianapolis Colts roster, it should be noted that 2009 Super Bowl team functioned without Marlin Jackson for all but the first four weeks of the season.  Accordingly, any discussion about the Colts 2010 secondary depth should not consider Jackson’s spot as a void to be filled (Jackson is now a safety with the Philadelphia Eagles).  Jackson was, for all tense and purposes, not a functioning member of the Colts secondary for much of 2009.

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T.J. Rushing joined the team in the seventh round of the 2006 NFL Draft.  He spent his first two seasons on the team as the primary kick and punt returner, and as an emergency back-up in the secondary.  In 2007 he put up 24 tackles on defense, defended one pass, and added six special teams tackles.

Rushing missed all of 2008 with a knee injury.  His return in 2009 put him in an even more limited role, this time as an emergency back-up corner and back-up returner.  In 2009, Rushing made one defensive tackle, three special teams tackles, and returned four punts on the season.

It should be obvious that, functionally, T.J. Rushing was not a defensive back and was on the team primarily for his return abilities.  He saw very little time on defense over his four years with the Colts and lost his return role after he suffered his knee injury in 2008.  Any player that fills Rushing’s spot on the roster will be as much a contributor to the Colts defensive depth and he ever was while with the team.

Ultimately, this leaves the Colts with a few realities.  The first is, absent catastrophic injury, the squad really only uses four corner backs for defensive purposes.  Second, the only defensive contributions that require a replacement were those made by Tim Jennings, who was statistically and visually one of the worst pass defenders on the Colts.

So, even despite the injury to Kevin Thomas, all the Colts need to do is get a strong back-up and nickel contribution from one of Ray Fisher, Brandon King, Thad Turner, or Terrail Lambert in order to boast a secondary as strong 2009, with any additional contributions netting the team an upgrade.

With the potential return of Bob Sanders, and the possibility that one of the safety prospects like David Caldwell could also be used in a back-up nickel role, there is no reason to believe that the Colts secondary will be in bad shape when the season starts, and even less of a reason to believe it will be in bad shape come January.

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