2009 Colts Training Camp: Nickel corner

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Last week we talked about who will win the third running back position (I said Lance Ball; most think Mike Hart). Today, we talk about who will play the all important nickel back spot on defense.

The nickel corner in a Tampa 2 is, essentially, another starting corner. The Colts play a lot of nickel, especially on third down. For years, Marlin Jackson has played in the nickel spot. Even since he has started, in nickel packages Marlin has moved from his normal starting spot to the nickel spot (with Tim Jennings stepping into the spot Jackson normally starts at).

This season, with Marlin coming back from injury, the Colts may not move him down to nickel on third down. They may keep him at his normal spot (where he is very effective) and have a new player work at the nickel back position. In this article, Stampede Blue will breakdown who will likely win the job, and why.

Cornerbacks currently on roster: Kelvin Hayden, Marlin Jackson, Tim Jennings, Dante Hughes, Michael Coe, Jerraud Powers, T.J. Rushing, Nick Graham, Brandon Harrison, Jacob Lacey
Cornerbacks competing for specific roster spot: Tim Jennings, Dante Hughes, Michael Coe, Jerraud Powers, T.J. Rushing, Nick Graham, Brandon Harrison, Jacob Lacey

Traditionally, the Colts carry a lot of defensive backs (6 or 7) on the regular reason active roster. Back-up DBs are often asked to play a ton of special teams and, if possible, fill in at one of the safety positions in case of an injury. In 2006, Marlin Jackson played several games at safety because of injuries to various Colts players, including Bob Sanders. It's likely the Colts will retain six corner backs with the hope that one or two of them will be needed as special team returners.

The starting corners for 2009 are Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson. Hayden just signed a new contract with the Colts this off-season, and Jackson is on the fast track to recovery after a knee injury ended his 2008 season. When healthy, Jackson and Hayden are arguably the one of the best (but least talked about) CB tandem in football. Last year, the Colts set an NFL record for pass defense allowing only 6 TDs (NFL record) and collecting 15 INTs. It is very difficult to throw effectively on the Colts, and nearly impossible to beat them with a big play in the passing game. Their corners play excellent Cover 2 and Cover 3 zone. They also tackle extremely well and play tough in order to come up and handle run support. Corners in Tampa-2 must tackle like linebackers. This is a man's defense. Deion Sanders can wait outside, thank you.

With safety Melvin Bullitt likely to see more playing time in dime situations, the nickel corner is crucial to the Colts having as many  quality "coverage guys" as possible. Bullitt is a fine player and a very under-rated safety, but he cannot run with premiere WRs, or even the Wes Welker types of this league. That's where the nickel back must shine.


Necessary attributes: Strong zone coverage skills; good tackler; ball hawk; able to step up and support run defense; physical at point of attack; intelligent, able to stay disciplined in coverage; special teams skills as either a gunner or returner


Tim Jennings  

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Photo: Colts.com

At A Glance
Position 1: CB Height: 5-9
Position 2: Gunner Weight: 185
Year: 4th Age: 25
Number: 23 Note: 

 

Every fanbase for a team has their "whipping boy." This is the player that fan's consistently blame for EVERY team loss. When the player plays poorly, fan's cite it as yet another excuse as to why that player should be bagging groceries instead of tackling running backs. When the player plays well, fans simply write it off as luck, or say the opponent was so bad a blind walrus could cover their receivers just as well.

For Colts fans, Tim Jennings is their whipping boy.

For years, it was LBer Rob Morris. But, Rob managed to quiet all his critics when he replaced Gilbert Gardner at SAM backer prior to the 2006 playoffs. Rob's play, along with Booger McFarland's and Bob Sanders', was a major reason why the Colts won the Super Bowl. Rob's retired now, and it seems Tim Jennings has filled the "fan whipping boy" void Rob left behind.

For two seasons, Jennings has been Indy's "nickel back." Though he does not play the nickel back spot (Marlin Jackson does), he enters games when the Colts go to nickel and he plays the outside corner spot Jackson vacates when he shifts to nickel. At 5'8, 185 pounds, he does not have the size that Jackson and Hayden have (both roughly 6'0). But, as I often preach (to the point where many are annoyed with me for doing so, but whatever) size is one of the most over-rated attributes when it comes to measuring how good a football player is. The Colts won a Super Bowl with a 5'8'' CB starting. His name was Jason David, and despite the last two years languishing with the Saints, he was a damn fine corner for the Colts, in my not-so-humble opinion.

IFR recently offered readers an interview with Jennings:

I learned just the speed and the mental part of the game. What I mean by mental part is you have to go out there and concentrate. I think that was real helpful for me last year. I was able to go out there and be more healthy than I was before, which was a key factor. Now, as I start to play, I’ll start to pick up on the mental things and the concentration level that you need to be on to go out there and play the game and stay healthy and produce. . . . I wish last season had been my rookie year.

The legitimate knock against Jennings is he is not consistent. In IFR's interview with him, he even hints at this. Last year, he played well against the Baltimore Ravens only to stink it up royally against the Green Bay Packers. In that game, he was called for several bad interference and holding penalties. That was a costly game. If Indy had won that contest, the Colts could have won the AFC South and hosted a playoff game. Indeed, even in the playoff game against San Diego, Jennings could not avoid inconsistency. He was called for a VERY key penalty in overtime. And for a guy with good speed and quickness, Jennings seems to surrender a lot of "cushion" to WRs.

Right now, the nickel corner spot is Jennings' to lose. But, he must prove he can play the position consistently week in and out. If not, Larry Coyer needs to consider other alternatives.

 

Dante Hughes

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Photo: Colts.com

At A Glance
Position 1: CB Height: 5-10
Position 2: Gunner Weight: 190
Year: 3rd Age: 24
Number: 20 Note:

 

Dante Hughes has been a rather disappointing player for the Colts. He was drafted in the third round in 2007, the same third round that produced DT Quinn Pitcock, who quit on the Colts (and football in general) last year after just one season. Hughes has good height and weight for a Cover 2 corner. He plays well in zone, tackles well, and helps out on run support. But after playing significant snaps in 2007 as the nickel back, Hughes seemed to rarely see the field in 2008 despite injuries to starters Kelvin Hayden and Marlin Jackson as well as reserve corners T.J. Rushing and Michael Coe. Keiwan Ratliff managed to leap-frog Hughes on the depth chart last season despite the before mentioned injuries.

The reason Ratliff supplanted Hughes on the depth chart last season was because Hughes played poorly in the month of October. The October 31st Titans games is one example. Hughes dropped an INT and allowed Justin McCariens a big completion during the game. All game long, he gave up too much cushion, and was burned by Tennessee's rather pedestrian WRs. After this game, the Colts seemed to demote Hughes to dime coverage and promote Ratliff. It paid off. Ratliff made several big INTs during the 2008 season, and was also a punter returner. Ratliff signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers this off-season.

2009 is a make-or-break season for Hughes. The coaches have clearly lost confidence in him. While Hughes was never known for having great speed, he simply must stop giving WRs that much cushion. He needs to be more disciplined in his zone coverage and not surrender so many big completions. Otherwise, there is a very real chance Dante Hughes will not survive the cut down to 53. If he doesn't make the 2009 active roster, the 3rd round of the 2007 draft looks like another house of horrors, adding more credence to the notion of the CURSE OF THE THIRD ROUND PICK!

 

Michael Coe

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At A Glance
Position 1: CB Height: 6-0
Position 2: Punt returner
Weight: 190
Year: 3rd Age: 25
Number: 25 Note: Returning from injury

 

Michael Coe, like Dante Hughes, was drafted in 2007. However, after a so-so rookie year, Coe missed all of 2008 after injuring his knee during punt returning drills in training camp. He now seems recovered from his injury, but we have no idea if Coe has lost any speed or quickness as a result of the injury. Unfortunately, because of his 2008 injury, Coe hasn't really shown the Colts that he was worth taking in the 5th round in '07. In fact, other than Anthony Gonzalez, the 2007 draft is looking more and more like a disaster for Bill Polian.

If Coe is healthy, he still has a long shot at making the active roster. His ability to return punts might make him attractive to keep, especially if fellow corner T.J. Rushing is still not 100% after injuring his knee last year. But with Jennings, Rushing, and the rookie Jerraud Powers now on the team I just don't see how Coe can survive the cut down to 53 unless his pre-season is eye out of the skull great.

 

Jerraud Powers

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Photo: Colts.com

At A Glance
Position 1: CB Height: 5-10
Position 2: Gunner Weight: 192
Year: Rookie Age: 21
Number: 42 Note: 

 

The Colts did not draft this Auburn product just so he could sit on the sidelines and take notes. Indy expects Powers to contribute immediately, using his good speed and excellent burst in (potentially) dome situations and most certainly on special teams.

Powers is an odd player for the Colts. He was taken in the 3rd round this year, and his scouting report suggests he is not someone best suited for a Tampa-2 style defense:

Weaknesses:
Does not have the ideal height or bulk that you look for...Isn't very strong...Not a great tackler...Struggles to get off blocks...Won't offer much in run support...Takes too many chances...Durability concerns.

As stated earlier, a corner who cannot tackle and offers little help in run support is utterly useless in the Tampa-2. This is especially true for the nickel back spot. One of the reason the Colts always rotated Marlin Jackson to nickel on third down was because of his ability to tackle and offer excellent run support should the opposing offense decide to run out of a three-wide set. So, unless Powers starts developing better tackling skills, he has no chance to win this roster spot.

Powers does offer some very intriguing coverage skills. He is very fluid with his hips and can stay with receivers once they make their breaks. He has good footwork and can play physical. Powers also has a strong work ethic, and I heard good things about him in OTAs and the camps this off-season. The key for him is tackling. He must show he can be consistent supporting the run defense.

A big positive for Powers is his special teams play. At Auburn he was good as a gunner, blocking a punt against Florida in 2008. Powers will likely have to earn his keep on special teams before he can see any other kind of meaningful playing time. Still, if Powers is not playing consistent snaps in (at least) the dime package by the end of the season, one really has to question why he was drafted in the third round. Third round picks must contribute immediately to validate the reasoning for taking them so early in the draft.

 

T.J. Rushing


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Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images Sport

At A Glance
Position 1: CB Height: 5-9
Position 2: Kick and punt returner
Weight: 186
Year: 3rd Age: 26
Number:  34 Note: Returning from injury

 

With so many players returning from injury in 2009, probably the least talked about individual returning after missing all of 2008 is T.J. Rushing. His absence in 2008 severely damaged Indy's ability to return punts and kicks consistently (ranked last in the league in returns). Polian had to play musical chairs with the 53 man roster, signing and cutting players week after week in a seemingly desperate attempt to find someone to replace Rushing, who injured his knee in pre-season. 

In 2007, Rushing developed into a pretty decent return man. But, equally impressive was his surprising development as a nickel back. I remember talking to a Colts team official sometime in 2007, and I asked him about how the Colts were going to incorporate T.J. Rushing int the secondary. This person laughed and said That guy wasn't drafted to cover anyone. Four months later, Rushing was the Colts nickel back, and playing very well in the role. He never seemed to back down from a challenge, and developed some strong skills with zone coverage.

More than anyone else in this group, the player that has the best chance to challenge Jennings for the nickel back spot is Rushing. If he is healthy, he has proven (in the past) to be more consistent in coverage than Jennings. If he can prove that this pre-season, he'll unseat Jennings.

 

Nick Graham, Brandon Harrison, Jacob Lacey

I don't mean any disrespect to these players, but I do not see any possible way any one of them will be able to truly compete for the nickel back spot. If one does (and Nick Graham offers to best potential to do so) than it is a testament to the Colts truly allowing anyone to compete for a job. Graham played significant snaps on defense in the dime package last season, and is returning after getting placed in injured reserve last November.

Free agent rookie Jacob Lacey out of Oklahoma State offers some intriguing speed at the CB position. He ran a 4.42 40 time at his college pro day, and a vertical leap of 41 inches. He shows some skills as a ball hawk. Though Lacey struggled to contain the explosive Jeremy Maclin in OK State's close loss to Mizzu, his speed could offer some interesting options on special teams. 

Brandon Harrison proves that Bill Polian really likes players from Michigan. At 5'8, Harrison does not offer much in terms of height. At 205 pounds, Brandon Harrison is one big dude playing CB. I mean, seriously! 5'8 and 205 pounds! I'm 6'5, and I am exactly at my goal weight of 205 pounds! Harrison ran a 4.54 at his pro day. He might offer more on special teams than a legit corner at the NFL level.


Analysis: This job is Tim Jennings' to lose. Jennings, while inconsistent last year, did provide some flashes of what kind of corner he could be. The one player that could really push him is T.J. Rushing, but Rushing needs to prove he is healthy. Hughes and Coe are fighting to stay on the roster, and Powers might not have the tackling skills necessary to play Tampa-2... yet.


For more, check out Colt Homer's roster position rankings. His take on nickel back:

Tim Jennings seems to be the favorite for nickelback, no matter how much that disappoints me.  I prefer corners like rookie Jerraud Powers and returner TJ Rushing who are big, good tacklers, but may not be the fastest.  Michael Coe could make an impact on special teams.  I would love to see Powers or Rushing become the nickelback at some point in the season, but sadly it looks like Jennings job.

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