The Colts Mold: Free Agent Cornerback Market Values

Any defense that runs a base Cover-2 scheme requires a strong secondary to succeed. The Indianapolis Colts strategy has always been to over-power opponents with a dynamic passing game, while the defense stifles the opponent’s passing game by refusing to give up big plays.

When Tony Dungy and Ron Meeks oversaw Indy’s defense the players needed were — in many ways — interchangeable because cover corners were not necessary. A strict zone discipline was instilled and the scheme itself “did the work.” Under defensive coordinator Larry Coyer that is starting to change, and a greater emphasis on man coverage has developed to support a more aggressive defensive style that includes blitz packages.

With players like Jerraud Powers and Justin Tryon already showing real potential, things could be coming together in Indianapolis. Heading into 2011 there are two primary questions. The first is, should the Colts retain Kelvin Hayden at his $9 million salary cap level? The second is how talented is Indy going to be behind these players?

With 2010 third round draft pick Kevin Thomas returning from injury, Jacob Lacey still under contract, Cornelius Brown playing a role for the Colts late in 2010, and Chris Rucker joining the team via the sixth round of the 2011 NFL Draft, there will be a healthy competition for the backup spots. Players like Jordan Hemby and Brandon King will stick their noses into the race as well and attempt to find their way onto the roster.

The issue is that paying Hayden $9 million to play a nickel back role in the defense is too much. It is not certain that he will lose the competition with Justin Tryon to be a starter but the chances are close enough to question paying him that kind of money. Accordingly, if Hayden does go, it may be in the team’s best interest to acquire a player more talented who has a smaller price tag. If Indianapolis chooses to go that route, these three players deserve their attention:

Josh Wilson – previous contract 4 years, $3.08 million – 2009 cap hit $686k
Drayton Florence – previous contract 2 years, $6.6 million – 2009 cap hit $2.9 million
Carlos Rogers – previous contract 1 year, $1.54 million – 2009 cap hit $3.2 million

*Approximate cap hit for starting cornerbacks in 2009 $3.5-6 million

Josh Wilson is a 26-year old cornerback with the range, coverage, and ball skills to immediately upgrade the Colts secondary. He excelled in the Ravens aggressive defense, is a solid tackler, and has improved each year in the NFL. Adding Wilson to a mix of Powers and Tryon would give Indianapolis three defensive backs who are built to excel in Larry Coyer’s defensive scheme. He is coming off of his rookie contract and will be looking for a sizable payday, so it will take a four-five year $4.5-5.5 million cap hit to bring him to the Colts.

Drayton Florence has proven throughout his career that he is a top 10 cornerback talent and is capable of playing a big role in his defenses. His career numbers for passes defensed, interceptions, tackles, and forced fumbles display a resume that is exactly what the Colts would want in a defensive back. The problem is that Florence is now 30 years old and will likely begin to decline in performance sooner rather than later. The Colts could still land Florence for a one-two year $6-7 million cap hit that is lower than Kelvin Hayden’s and allow Kevin Thomas, Chris Rucker, and Justin Tryon more time to develop.

Carlos Rogers has a nose for the football that makes him a very special coverage cornerback. What frustrates a lot of fans in Washington is that he does not have great hands and will drop “sure interceptions” more than anyone would like. While interceptions are game-changing plays, Indianapolis should focus more on how clearly he could upgrade the man-to-man coverage responsibilities placed on Colts defensive backs. Like Florence, Rogers is starting to get to the age (29) where one would reasonably expect to see a drop-off in his performance. Nonetheless, he could land in Indianapolis for a two-three year $3.5-5.5 million cap hit and bolster the secondary.

Although it is relatively unlikely that Indianapolis will spend significant money on a free agent cornerback, there are players hitting the open market that would save the team money against the cap and improve the team’s talent. Kelvin Hayden is a starting-caliber NFL cornerback but he has not justified the $9 million cap hit due to him in 2011. If Chris Polian decides to be more aggressive in the open market during an uncharacteristic off-season like this one, one of these players may catch his eye.