Previewing the Colts 2011 Safeties

Melvin Bullitt running with the football against the Houston Texans during the Colts Week 1 game in Houston. (Ronald Martinez | Getty Images)

No position more closely resembled a MASH unit for the Indianapolis Colts than safety. Consider that undrafted free agent rookie David Caldwell suffered a shoulder injury that landed him on injured reserve before having the chance to play in a preseason game. Veteran backup Jamie Silva went down for the season with a torn ACL in the Colts first preseason game — against the San Francisco 49ers. Undrafted rookie free agent Donye’ McCleskey was waived/injured following the same game. After Bob Sanders traversed all of training camp and the preseason completely healthy, he went down with his second torn biceps in an many years in Week 1 against the Houston Texans.

Dependable backup strong safety Melvin Bullitt lasted until Week 4 in Jacksonville where his season ended to a shoulder injury of his own. Undrafted rookie cornerback Brandon King moved to safety to fill-in for the injury depleted unit. His stay lasted only two weeks before a hamstring injury prematurely ended his rookie season. If that list isn’t long enough, the Colts brought in Chip Vaughn, formerly with the New Orleans Saints, hoping to stop the bleeding. After three weeks on the team, along with one tackle, Vaughn’s year ended due to a foot injury.

Outside of offensive line concerns, the safety position is a bolded, highlighted question-mark for Indianapolis as they head into the 2011 off-season. Rumors have already started to circulate that the Colts will be negotiating with super agent Tom Condon to reduce Bob Sanders’ hefty contract to reflect that the former Defensive Player of the Year has not finished a game in the last two years — he played in only six regular season games in 2008. This could give fans in Indianapolis some confidence that the biggest difference-maker at the position can still be retained for the upcoming season, but his injury history leaves even the most faithful Sanders fan (this guy) with very little confidence that he can make it through the regular season and make an impact when the Colts make it back to the playoffs.

Jamie Silva is a reliable backup and special teams ace who would make a lot of sense. The difficulty is that he is a free agent and will be returning from a serious knee injury. Additionally, because the franchise had so much injury-caused turnover at the position throughout the season, the competition for that final spot has ballooned. If Silva is willing to sign the cheapest one-year contract he is eligible to sign, he may keep his spot and have a chance to prove himself a second time. Otherwise, Indianapolis may be wise to let the reliable special teamer go in favor of one of the new options the team acquired in 2010.

Melvin Bullitt is a must-sign free agent because no matter what happens with Sanders and his new contract, Bullitt is an insurance policy the team cannot afford to enter the season without. Bullitt started 29 — and played in 36 straight — regular season games before his injury this year. Although Bullitt will probably not threaten his competition for a Pro Bowl bid at any point in his career, he has been one of the best and most dependable backup safeties in the NFL over the last three seasons.

There is no doubt that the only sure-thing heading into 2011 is Antoine Bethea. He led the team with 106 total tackles in the regular season, continues to play tough football, and has managed to stay healthy throughout his career. His two Pro Bowl bids, along with two alternate bids, make him one of the NFL’s best free safeties over the last four seasons.

The young players with the most potential and experience include Chip Vaughn, Al Afalava, and Mike Newton. Newton was a training camp favorite but was unable to wrestle the starting strong safety job away from Aaron Francisco. Vaughn was one of this writer’s selections as a potential Colts draft pick in 2009. He is known for his solid run support and hard hitting. Al Afalava is very similar to Vaughn but was not as highly regarded entering the draft. With the three players hanging around this summer, there is a chance the Colts could find a gem.

This makes Aaron Francisco and David Caldwell’s jobs even more difficult. While Francisco did not stand out as making huge mistakes that cost the Colts games, and did make a big play against the Kansas City Chiefs to help seal a win, he too often gets heavy feet and allows ball carriers to dictate to him which direction they will move with the ball. This hesitation can be devastating, particularly against the run.

Caldwell models his game after his NFL hero, Sanders, and completed an interview with Coltzilla prior to training camp last year. He comes across as a player who realizes the uphill battle in front of him and who is not afraid of working very hard to stake his claim for a spot on the roster. Once he recovers from his shoulder injury, a process that is still ongoing, he will get his chance — assuming the Colts keep him around.

The problem with the Colts’ safety landscape is that there are way too many “ifs,” “mays,” and “coulds.” Indianapolis may successfully renegotiate a contract with Sanders. He may stay healthy and completely change the Colts defense in 2011. Indy may re-sign Melvin Bullitt for insurance. Jamie Silva could return to the team for cheap and offer experienced depth. Chip Vaughn, Al Afalava, and Mike Newton could all develop in the Colts system and make other moves unnecessary. David Caldwell and Aaron Francisco may have a chance to keep their roster spot to compete against the others. These are all unknowns and in that kind of environment, drafting a safety at some point in the first three or four rounds of the upcoming NFL Draft starts to make a lot of sense.

Monitor how aggressive Indianapolis is with the contracts of their many safeties prior to the draft. If Sanders restructures, Bullitt is resigned, and Vaughn, Afalava, and Silva are all retained before the draft, the priority may diminish. If many of the questions and uncertainty remains, Polian will not hesitate to pounce on a safety he likes, even in the first two rounds.

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