The Colts are in a state of transition at the safety position. 2007 Defensive Player of the Year Bob Sanders will not return to Indianapolis and has signed a one-year contract with the San Diego Chargers. While this arguably “weakens” the position, what offsets the blow is that Sanders has not been a meaningful part of the rotation for three years. Losing Sanders, in some regards, is like losing something that was not really there.
What the Colts can be sure of is that safety Antoine Bethea is with the team long-term and is playing at a very high level. He is one of the league’s top safeties and is also one of the most reliable.
The uncertainty surrounds what will happen with strong safety Melvin Bullitt when the collective bargaining agreement negotiations are ironed out in court. If the Colts are able to honor the offer they made to Bullitt prior to the lockout, the team has a starter who is durable enough and strong enough in the Colts system to be a part of a very strong secondary. If, on the other hand, Bullitt’s restricted status is nullified from the court’s ruling, Indianapolis will be faced with players who have either never started in the NFL, who have not spent meaningful time in the Colts system, or who are coming off of relatively major injuries. Assuming they do not work out a long-term weal with Bullitt.
Former undrafted free agent Jamie Silva has been a special teams stalwart and a reliable backup. He must recover from an ACL tear and surgery. Veteran safety Ken Hamlin could be retained, but his career has declined significantly since his breakout year in 2007. Interestingly enough, once Hamlin got his big six-year contract from the Cowboys, his performance dropped noticeably. Former Bears safety Al Afalava has potential, even though Chicago chose to release him after he started 13 games as a rookie. Undrafted free agent Mike Newton turned a few heads during scrimmage at the Colts training camp in Anderson last year. Injuries forced him into the rotation but his biggest impact was on special teams, where he registered three tackles.
Three more safeties finished the 2010 season on the injured reserve. Undrafted free agent David “DaC” Caldwell was unable to make it through training camp but has been rehabilitating from his shoulder injury. Cornerback turned safety, Brandon King ended the season on the injured reserve (hamstring). He may move back to cornerback if the team is comfortable with their other safety options. Chip Vaughn has struggled through numerous injuries of his own but was projected to be a solid player in the Colts system.
The question becomes – which of the players will actually be re-signed or retained by Indianapolis out of this list of nine possibilities, and how confident is the Colts front office in the prospect of any of these players developing into a solid rotation. If the team is unsure, and especially if Bullitt leaves in free agency, the need for a safety is relatively high. If the team is happy with two or three of the nine players they have had a chance to look at over the last season, the need could be lower than it appears.
Round 1 – Pick 22
Rahim Moore - UCLA – A few things work against Moore. First, he is better suited to play free safety, based upon his play style. Second, where Moore is weakest — tackling and run support — is what Indianapolis would most likely need to replace. Third, his draft stock is too high and his skill set too detached from the Colts needs to make him a good option. Low value.
Round 2 – Pick 53
Quinton Carter – Oklahoma – Carter has been in competition amongst Colts fans this spring as the top early round safety prospect. There is a lot to like about his game, his aggressive nature, his ability to close on ball carrier, strength against the run, and his ability to put big hits on opponents. His draft stock fluctuates regularly, not because he could go as early as the early to mid second round and as late as the mid third round. Either way, if the Colts grab him in the second round, he may be capable of starting at some point during his rookie season. High value.
DeAndre McDaniel - Clemson – McDaniel is the kind of safety prospect a team like the Colts may consider if they are looking to get a little bit bigger. At 6-foot tall and 217 pounds, he could be a more durable option than the departing Sanders. The question-marks surrounding McDaniel regard his decrease in production from his junior to senior seasons. 73 tackles and 4 interceptions is not bad production but after 98 tackles and 8 interceptions as a junior, his draft stock dropped. High value.
Round 3 – Pick 87
Tyler Sash - Iowa – Per usual, Big 10 players get a great deal of attention from the Colts and fans in Indianapolis. The fact that Sash plays for Bob Sanders’ alma mater only makes the intrigue more likely. There is little doubt that Sash is the type of player that the Colts like and would be a great value in the third or fourth rounds. High value.
Round 4 – Pick 119
Jaiquawn Jarrett - Temple – On tape Jarrett looks like a taller Bob Sanders clone. He plays with intensity toward the line, places big hits on ball carriers, and is an exceptional form tackler. What he lacks is the speed and potentially the range to be a steady pass defender. Fortunately for Jarrett, his 40-yard dash time is as fast or faster than any of the safety prospects in front of him except Moore. Moderate to high value.
Round 5 – Pick 152
Joe Lefeged - Rutgers – Lefeged has the speed that many of the other safety prospects in the 2011 NFL Draft lack. He ran a 4.42 second 40-yard dash at the Combine and was an excellent college returner. He is very comfortable playing up in the box, defending the run, and has the speed to cover a lot of ground in coverage. His skills defending the pass, however, as he had only two interceptions in his junior and senior seasons. He did defend some passes but he had the speed to make up for mistakes in college that will be much more difficult against NFL caliber receivers. High value.
Shiloh Keo – Idaho – Keo is another late round dual-threat safety prospect. He has experience returning and plays a similar style to both Lefeged and Jarrett. His 4.72 40-yard draft time was disappointing but his performance in drills encouraged Mike Mayock to name him the highest value pick in late rounds for the safeties at the Combine. Moderate to high value.
Round 6 – Pick 188
Jeron Johnson - Boise State – Johnson is another player with good enough speed and athleticism to cover a lot of field. Additionally, he gained a reputation in college for putting punishing hits on his opponents. While he may need to learn a bit to not get hit with mountains of penalties in the NFL, he has the tools to develop into the kind of safety the Colts typically target. Moderate to high value.
Chris Prosinski - Wyoming – Prosinksi is the kind of player in the late rounds who reminds me of getting value like Bullitt or Matt Giordano. Both players started their careers as backups and spent time filling in for injured teammates. Bullitt became a legit NFL starter, Giordano brought more value on special teams. In either case, a player like Prosinski shows the intelligence and athletic ability to compete at the next level. Moderate to high value.
This year’s safety draft is not particularly loaded with early round talent. In fact, the best values come in the second and third round, if a team is capable of getting the right player. Also, the late round prospects would be very high value picks for a team looking for depth at the position. Again, the decision on draft day will always be affected by who is still on the board at other positions, and by how highly the Colts front office ranks the need line of the most valuable player available spectrum for the safety position. If Indy is confident that Bullitt will return and has plans to sign him to a long-term deal, a late round player Lefeged, Keo, or Prosinski could be enough. If not, players like Quinton Carter or Tyler Sash may be the only real options the team has for immediate help.