The Indianapolis Colts have never shied away from a project player, no matter who’s been in charge. In the 2017 NFL Draft, general manager Chris Ballard made Nate Hairston their next work in progress.
Selected in the fifth round, 158 overall, the former Temple Owl spent his first two seasons in college as a wide receiver. Unable to earn substantial playing time, he converted to cornerback where he was able to establish himself. In 2016, his lone season as a full-time starter, Hairston amassed 2 interceptions, 3 broken up passes and 27 tackles.
Hairston fits the prototype of a defensive back that the Colts have sought out since Ballard’s arrival in Indianapolis. At just under 6 feet tall, with a 196-pound frame, Hairston possesses all of the physical tools needed to play at the next level. Ballard has also stressed bringing in the right people to the organization, and Hairston’s approach to the game suggests a good fit.
“I got the opportunity that no one in my family has gotten,” said Hairston to FootballGameplan.com. “I want to be the one to take advantage of it.”
Hairston’s motor is undeniable. Above his size and quickness, his desire to compete on every single down is his greatest asset. From the time he took the job, Ballard made it clear that competition fuels elite teams, and Hairston has all of the intangibles.
“[I’m not making] this bigger than it is. It’s football,” said Hairston. “At the end of the day, we’ve been doing this since we were six years old, so if you overthink it, you could get flustered and that’s when you play bad.”
Hairston moves like a wide receiver. While not the fastest player on the field, but he has the ability to shadow pass catchers during their routes. He is rarely beaten over the top due to a combination of athleticism and intelligence. His eyes never leave the quarterback, allowing him to read the play as it’s happening, and adjust accordingly.
Hairston is very physical for a cornerback. Built to help support stopping the run, he is an aggressive tackler, but also an effective one. He is not the fastest defensive back, but while in pursuit of the player with the ball, Hairston is a flying bullet. There is no give up in Hairston’s game.
His ball skills can continue to be refined at the pro level, but with his experience as a wideout, Hairston should be expected to make plays for the Colts in the future.
Hairston is far from a finished product, however. As Matt Miller from Bleacher Report put it, Hairston is still learning to move backward as a cornerback rather than going forwards as a wide receiver. His transition from backpedaling to running forward will also need some work, but his quick feet suggest he will be able to make this adjustment with proper coaching to guide him.
The best fit for Hairston would be in a zone scheme, ideally in the slot. He can also line up in man coverage, but he will need to jam the receiver to be successful as his transitions and footwork still need development. Unlike Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson, it would be unlikely to see Hairston starting this season. While he possesses all the physical tools, he lacks experience in the secondary. It will be up to Greg Williams (defensive backs coach) to work with Hairston and aid him in becoming more accustomed to the position that got him to the NFL.
Like Hooker and Wilson, Hairston represents the future of the Colts’ secondary. Over time, with the proper development and patience, combined with his athleticism and intelligence, Hairston can be an impact player in the NFL.
Jeff Tibbins covers the Indianapolis Colts for Pro Football Spot. You can follow Jeff on Twitter at @jeff_tibbins.