Entering the 2010 season, the Indianapolis Colts faced uncertainty at cornerback.
-2010 third round draft pick Kevin Thomas suffered a season-ending knee-injury during rookie camp.
-Veteran Tim Jennings departed the team and ended up in Chicago.
-The only options behind starters Kelvin Hayden and Jerraud Powers were aging veteran DeShea Townsend (first year in the Colts system), second-year veteran Jacob Lacey, and undrafted free agents Brandon King, Jordan Hemby, and Thad Turner.
As soon as preseason ended, Colts President Bill Polian traded a draft pick to the Washington Redskins for young veteran Justin Tryon. Tryon ended up starting Week 1, and filled in as the most reliable backup corner on the Colts roster for the remainder of the season.
Indianapolis did not get healthier at cornerback. Kelvin Hayden missed the final five games of the year, Jerraud Powers missed six games — including the final four on injured reserve, DeShea Townsend was cut following the Colts eighth game, and Brandon King had to move to safety after Melvin Bullitt went down in Week 4 — only to go on IR following Week 6 (Hemby went on injured reserve following the second preseason game and Turner did not make the final roster).
The only meaningful corner addition for the Indianapolis rotation was undrafted free agent Cornelius Brown, who spent much of the season on the practice squad before he was activated following Powers’ move to injured reserve. Although Brown did not light the world on fire, he did take advantage of his opportunity to make an impact and showed enough promise for fans to pay attention to his development.
Not including the rash of injuries the Colts suffered at the safety position, and considering the team was still able to reach the playoffs and have one of the better pass defenses in the NFL, the team’s future at corner may be brighter in 2011 than it has been in a long time — assuming all players return from injury.
Consider that Jerraud Powers has proven that he is the team’s top cornerback, capable of man coverage, zone coverage, a solid tackler, and a disciplined NFL player. Justin Tryon was the Colts big free agent acquisition discovery in 2010. Tryon made few mistakes, was a special teams stalwart, and proved that he was superior to former number one Kelvin Hayden, Indy’s highest paid cornerback. Hayden was inconsistent, appeared lazy at times, and did not perform at a level that justifies his high contract. Jacob Lacey took a step back from a solid rookie season, when he was thrust into a starting role for the injured Hayden, though some of that may have to do with his move to nickel back from playing much of 2009 on the outside.
This leaves the Colts with a potential cornerback roster of Powers, Hayden, Tryon, Lacey, Brown, and Thomas. The rookie camp injury to Thomas makes it impossible for fans to gauge what role the former third round pick will play but if he is very similar to Powers — as Polian suggested following the draft — there is a chance that the Colts could have Hayden as a nickel back, Powers and Tryon as starters, a Powers-like Dime corner behind them (Thomas), with Brown and Lacey fighting it out for a roster spot.
The only way Hayden should remain with the team is if he agrees to take a sizable pay cut to reflect his actual on-field performance. If he is unwilling to do so, the Colts should cut Hayden, free up cap space, and consider a cornerback worth Hayden’s salary. One option could be the Steelers’ Ike Taylor, who signed a contract very similar to Hayden’s in 2006. Otherwise, the Colts could find a cheaper option with promise like Josh Wilson, who will demand a solid contract as he comes off of his rookie deal in Baltimore — but not one as lucrative as Hayden’s.
Much of the free agency decisions will also come down to who drops where in the upcoming NFL Draft, and what players the Colts target at other positions in free agency. If the Colts plan to trade up or have their eye on an offensive tackle prospect early in the draft, as well as a safety prospect for depth at that depleted position on the first day — or in the third round — a free agent cornerback could make a lot of sense. Otherwise, the Colts could go after a veteran offensive tackle in free agency and have the luxury of selecting for depth and development at corner.
Either way the team goes, Indianapolis has a solid group of players at cornerback heading into the off-season. Bill Polian and Jim Irsay have a lot of flexibility to decide which direction they want to take with the position. Even if no moves are made, the Colts will have a very competitive, cost-effective, and experienced group of options in the front of their secondary in 2011.