Previous to the 2013 season, the Indianapolis Colts brought in Greg Toler in free agency to improve their cornerback base that lacked a true number two corner opposite Vontae Davis. Toler brought a brief, injury laden resume', having never finished an NFL season, and missing the entire 2011 season. Last season would prove to be much of the same. Darius Butler has solidified the nickel corner spot, largely keeping slot receivers in check. Having a host of undrafted free agents, former practice squad guys, and Josh Gordy battling to make the roster- can anyone set themselves apart from the others in camp, to back up Davis and the oft-injured Toler heading into the 2014 season?
I wish I had more faith in Toler to finally stay healthy, or produce for a full season, I just don’t. This pains me to say, more for my own ego, mainly because I really liked the signing. I expected to see his 2010 season, having him opposite Davis. Instead, we got 9 games, decent tackling and coverage at best when he was healthy, and a guy who looked very much like he was in a new system. I expect Toler to be better performance-wise this year, but I’d be foolish to assume he’ll be playing all season. Josh Gordy did come on strong towards the end of ’13 and into the playoffs, including the coverage on Dwayne Bowe to seal the Colts miraculous wildcard comeback against Kansas City. Albeit with a more limited role, Gordy (1.0) actually had a better coverage grade (per Pro Football Focus) than both Cassius Vaughn (-3.1) and Toler (-0.8).
Likely after Gordy on the early depth chart is (in no specific order) Sheldon Price, Brandon Burton, Johnny Adams, Marcus Burley, Qua Cox, Kameron Jackson and Loucheiz Purifoy. In this group Burton holds the most experience as he is heading into his fourth season (and locker room alike). Burton has 23 career games under his belt and will need to harness all that he has learned if he wants his fourth team to be the Colts. The rest of this crew are a host of rookie and second-year undrafted free agents, but don’t let the stigma fool you. This collection has some real talent. Price, Adams and Burley are all second-year guys who spent virtually all of last season on the practice squad or on the roster and not seeing the field much - if at all. Adams did play in 4 games as a rookie with the Buffalo Bills before moving on to the Oakland Raiders midway through last season.
Price was one Chuck Pagano wanted to keep around last season to watch progress with hopes of grooming him into this system. That could possibly give him some extra looks throughout camp. The rookies - Cox, Jackson and Purifoy - are a very interesting trio to say the least. Purifoy could be the most widely known of the three, and possibly the most gifted as well. However, coming off of a less-than-stellar senior year at Florida, questions about his effort and love of the game have been brought to the surface as of late. This is one reason for Cox being my early pick (and personal favorite) to make the final roster. Jackson is also very interesting for me because of his skill set. Both Cox and Jackson are physical corners with great ball skills, attack the ball well and possess very good timing.
Jackson stands 5’9” and weighs 175 pounds but plays far bigger. He is suited best for a slot corner, but has no issues being on an island and standing his ground matched up against bigger receivers. Jackson showcases very good footwork, both in coverage and breaking down for open field tackling. His fluid hips help him rarely lose sight of, and challenge a lot of balls. While Jackson is more fundamental in his technique, Cox tends to rely a bit more on his size and athleticism to make plays. Cox is 6’, 185 pounds and very active at the line of scrimmage. He presents a bigger frame for receivers to battle past, and uses the boundaries well in coverage. Cox is less fundamental in coverage, but tackles very well in the open field, sheds blockers effectively and has fantastic timing when challenging receivers for the ball. Cox will likely be used in a more traditional press man role, rather than in the slot should he make the cut to 53, while Jackson, simply put, is very light and small for this scheme and appears to be quite a long shot to be around after the initial cut to 75.
Assuming that the Colts will only keep five corners, my picks today would be: Davis, Toler, Butler, Gordy and Cox. Cox would hold quite an advantage over the rest of the field, if all is even, for the fact that he has shown good instincts and results when returning kicks. I think there is a solid chance that six could be retained come week one due to Robert Mathis’ suspension. In this case, Purifoy and Price would be the two vying for that spot and could become one of the more interesting and competitive camp battles that we’ll see this summer.
Something that excites me about this group is, as a whole, they are a bigger, more physical and a better coverage (scheme specific) depth chart than last year’s crew. The average size with a six-man unit including Davis, Toler, Butler, Gordy, Purifoy and Cox would be 5’11 ½ “, 192 lbs and over 6-foot should Price make his way onto the roster. Last season the Colts only kept five for their initial 53-man roster (which is more likely) with Cassius Vaughn as the fifth corner. That unit was only slightly shorter and comparable in weight, however Vaughn never played up to his measurables. Due to his lack of ability at the line of scrimmage and in man coverage, Vaughn was not a great fit in this scheme, which was apparent that the coaching staff agreed, as they made no attempt to re-sign him this off season.
Davis is coming off of a season in which he was a top-5 graded corner in the league and was instrumental in some huge wins for our Colts. Butler also quietly had a good season notching 4 interceptions and was, somewhat surprisingly, the highest graded corner on the Colts roster against the run. The top four also now have another season of experience in Pagano’ system and as teammates, creating some much needed continuity among them. Toler may be the one guy that has more catching up to do - but I feel strongly that Butler, Davis and Gordy will show the chemistry they have gained together making an exciting group to watch.
Ryan Grigson and Pagano had their plan within their war room for the 2014 NFL draft, and “stuck to it.” There was an obvious need at safety that wasn’t addressed, however, I saw a strong need for another quality big-bodied corner, yet these gentlemen failed to call me, and in turn chose to wait and sign their corners after the draft. Keon Lyn was one of my favorite undrafted free agents that they brought in. He was released in early June as he was injured and never had an opportunity at OTA’s. It is widely thought that he could be someone the Colts may bring back when healthy to see what he can do. What does all of this matter? Corner, for me, is a very concerning position this season for the Colts for a couple reasons. The obvious issue with Toler’ health would be the most likely of all the possible problems to arise but, one that many aren’t thinking about is, Davis could be the most serious for not only the cornerback position – but for the defense in general.
Why Davis? Most would rightfully think Vontae would be the least of our worries for the ’14 season. Being that he was so healthy last season, many forget that he was often injured in 2012 only playing in 10 games and likely playing injured in at least 3 or 4 more. In 2011 in Miami he struggled, which led to the Dolphins letting him go for a second-round pick, and played in 12 games. This offseason Vontae received a pretty handsome stack of cash from the Colts to keep him in Indy. You can call it dumb intuition, or whatever you need to, but there are a couple of trends that seem to rear their ugly heads after big free agent signings. Injury or severe lack in work ethic and performance are very real worries after getting the big money. Should Vontae go down for any significant amount of time this season, it could wreak havoc on this corps' coverage ability. The Colts need to have at least one, if not two, of these little known corners show some serious skill in camp and maybe even battle for the fourth spot with Gordy to ensure quality depth - and trust from their defensive colleagues to get the job done.
I expect this to be the best cast of cornerbacks we have seen in Indianapolis for quite some time. From top to bottom, they will be better than the 2013 version of themselves, but as I’ve hit on several times – health will mean everything. I understand that this may be some wishful thinking, but the core of this group is as solid on paper as it gets in Indy’s recent history. I expect Vontae to have his fundamental game in check and to have learned a lot from his mistakes in that category from last season. Toler simply MUST stay healthy for a full season, and the supporting cast must shine as well and become “real depth” to spell the top three throughout this 2014 campaign. Toler is the only chink in the armor at this point in my expectations. He simply hasn’t given us a reason to assume he’ll stay healthy - however, a healthy Greg Toler is very good for Colts fans. There is no lack of talent or athletic ability at cornerback for the Colts, just a lot of unknowns. This ultimately creates a great training camp.