INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield Tuesday for the start of training camp.
Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team that must rebound from its crushing loss in Jacksonville and return to a serious playoff contender.
Today: defensive backs.
Starting CBs: Stephon Gilmore, CB Isaiah Rodgers.
Nickel CB: Kenny Moore II.
Starting Ss: Julian Blackmon, Rodney McLeod
Depth: CB Brandon Facyson, CB Marvell Tell III, CB Anthony Chesley, CB Tony Brown, CB Alex Myers, CB Chris Wilcox, CB Marcel Dabo, S Armani Watts, S Will Redmond, S Nick Cross, S Trevor Denbow, S Rodney Thomas II.
Bold Move at CB
In so many other offseasons, the addition would have ranked as Chris Ballard’s most significant. But there were a trio of trades that commanded the most attention: Carson Wentz to Washington, Matt Ryan from Atlanta to Indy and Yannick Ngakoue from Las Vegas to the Colts.
Even so, the free-agent signing of cornerback Stephon Gilmore in mid-April – two years, $23 million, $14 million guaranteed – injected another veteran difference maker into Gus Bradley’s defense.
“Good player,’’ Ballard said. “Feel fortunate to get him. Not only the player, but who he is, what he stands for.’’
The Colts had Gilmore on their radar screen the entire offseason. They finally brought him in for a visit and a physical – he missed portions of 2020 and ’21 with a torn quadriceps – and determined he was too good to let out of the building.
“Anytime you get a chance to add a corner with his pedigree at a price tag that you think is good for both parties, I think you do it, and we did,’’ Ballard said.
Gilmore turns 32 in September and is entering his 11th season, but there’s no indication he’s in the midst of a decline. The 2019 Defensive Player of the Year is a two-time first-team All-Pro (2018-19) and has been selected to four straight Pro Bowls, five overall. The latest came with Carolina and was achieved after the Panthers acquired him in a mid-season trade with New England. He started eight of nine games and managed two interceptions and a pair of defended passes.
Gilmore, though, isn’t dwelling on the past, which includes a Super Bowl ring with the Patriots after the ’18 season.
“I think every year I play the game, I start over and try to re-establish myself because every year is a different year,’’ he said. “You have to prove yourself every year. So, I take that mindset into each and every year.’’
Gilmore is considered an ideal fit for Bradley’s cover-3 scheme. He brings speed, length (6-1, 202 pounds) and versatility to the position. He’s comfortable and effective in zone or pressure man-to-man.
“I think people who have played in it or watched it, they know we like to be aggressive on the perimeter,’’ Bradley said. “So, to be able to play press coverage, and even in our zone coverages, we play press.
“I mean, he can play either side. He can be a read corner for us, he can be the zebra corner, and he’s shown it. He’s had past where you look at his production, I mean, the ability to play press coverage like we like to play, aggressive on the perimeter . . . he brings that veteran presence, too.’’
The addition of Gilmore took on more importance because the trade a month earlier to acquire Ngakoue cost starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin.
Gilmore’s likely running mate in Bradley’s base probably is Isaiah Rodgers, the 2020 6th-round pick who has shown impressive ball skills – three interceptions, seven PDs last season in 17 games and one start.
More from Moore
A new coordinator shouldn’t result in a major adjustment for one of the NFL’s premier players. The defense will continue to maximize Kenny Moore II’s diverse game.
“Very sharp, very athletic nickel,’’ Bradley said. “To have that skillset, he can play the run, he can blitz, good in man coverage, zone coverage.
“So, to have a player like that and those capabilities is always an added bonus, especially at the nickel spot.’’
Consider Moore’s bottom line since being acquired off waivers from New England in September 2017: 14 interceptions, 7 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, 20 tackles for loss, four forced fumbles, 358 tackles, including 295 solos. He was named to his first Pro Bowl last season.
Moore arguably is the NFL’s top nickel corner, but he’s been so much more. Often, he’s started outside when the situation has warranted. And the sack/QB hits are evidence of his effectiveness as a blitzer. His 3 sacks during the 2018 postseason are a franchise record.
“I don’t like the whole nickel/slot corner thing,’’ Moore said. “I’m a corner at the end of the day. You guys watch the same games we play.’’
He added playing nickel “you wear a lot of hats. You’re not just on the outside just covering the No. 1 receiver, which that is a tough job and tough duty to have all game.’’
Does Moore anticipate his role changing in Bradley’s scheme?
“I’m still going to be a corner, still going to be a nickel, still going to have a lot of duties,’’ he said. “I think everybody has a pretty strong role on the defense.
“It’s not completely the same as the system we were in for four years, but everybody is held to the same standard.’’
It remains to be seen if Moore will be around for the start of camp. He missed a portion of the team’s voluntary work to express his desire for a new contract. He has two years remaining on the four-year, $33 million extension he signed in June 2019.
At the time, that deal made him the NFL’s highest-paid nickel. Now, the $8.35 million average ranks 27th among cornerbacks.
“Sooner or later every player will come to grips of everything that’s going on as far as value and all that stuff,’’ he said. “At the end of the day, I want to play football.’’
Moore insisted he would “love to be on the field at training camp,’’ but stopped short of guaranteeing that would be the case.
One of most encouraging sights during the team’s offseason work involved Julian Blackmon. Roughly eight months after tearing his left Achilles tendon during an Oct. 20 practice, the team’s starting free safety was back at work. He was running, cutting, backpedaling. Most of that was at full speed.
“I feel good,’’ Blackmon said. “My progression’s been good. One day at a time. It’s a blessing to see the light at the end of the tunnel.
“It’s been a fun journey, but a lot more work to do.’’
The torn Achilles was the second significant injury that’s impeded Blackmon’s development. He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in the same leg in the 2019 Pac-12 championship game.
Blackmon has started 20 of 21 games since being taken in the 3rd round of the 2020 draft and probably exceeded expectations. He ball skills and speed have contributed to two interceptions, seven passes defensed, two forced fumbles and five tackles for loss. As a rookie, he sealed a win over Cincinnati with a late interception of Joe Burrow and had a forced fumble in overtime that led to a win over Green Bay.
A busy offseason included several additions, but one notable subtraction. After three seasons and 33 starts, strong safety Khari Willis announced his retirement to pursue a future in the ministry.
Willis’ departure should be mitigated by Blackmon’s encouraging rehab and several additions. The latter includes free-agent Rodney McLeod (123 starts in 10 seasons with the Rams and Philadelphia) and 3rd-round pick Nick Cross.
Proven depth at corner was added with free-agent Brandon Facyson, who’s started 13 of 56 games, including nine starts in 2021 for Bradley’s Raiders.
By the Numbers, Part I
The stats are incongruous. Over the past four seasons, the defense has allowed quarterbacks to complete a league-high 67.9% of their passes and ranks a middling 18th in total sacks (152). But it has generated 64 interceptions (3rd most) and 107 takeaways (2nd).
Last season, the defense ranked 2nd in takeaways (33) and tied-3rd in interceptions (19) even though its 33 sacks were tied for 7th fewest.
By the Numbers, Part II
The secondary features a pair of Pro Bowlers (Gilmore and Moore) for just the third time since the team’s relocation in 1984. The others: 2014-15 (Vontae Davis and Mike Adams each season).
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.