INDIANAPOLIS, IN - DECEMBER 22: Arian Foster #23 of the Houston Texans fumbles the ball while being tackled by Antoine Bethea #41 of the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 22, 2011 in Indianapolis, Indiana. The Colts defeated the Texans 19-16. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Over the next week we will be wrapping up our position by position looks at the current talent on the Indianapolis Colts' roster and previewing the battles that may take place in training camp. Today we look at the safeties.
Over the past four seasons, the Colts have started six different players at strong safety, and week one of 2012 will likely make it seven. During that time, they have had only one starting free safety.
Perhaps the most underrated player on the Colts, and one of the most underrated players in the National Football League, is the one who holds the Indianapolis defense together. Free safety Antoine Bethea, playing alongside the likes of the oft-injured safeties Bob Sanders and Melvin Bullitt in recent years, appears to be an iron man. Bethea has not missed a game since the 2007 season, and he has provided excellent play as well. The two-time pro bowler (2007 and 2009) has recorded 596 tackles in six seasons, along with picking off 12 passes, batting down 33 more, and forcing 5 fumbles. In 2011 he made 139 tackles, and as stated earlier he really was the glue that held the defense together.
The starting strong safety is a newcomer, but not to Chuck Pagano's hybrid 3-4 defense. Tom Zbikowski followed the Colts' head coach from Baltimore this offseason, where he spent the past four seasons. The professional boxer started four games last season for the Ravens, appearing in 14, and made 23 tackles. In 2009, he recorded 29 tackles, batted down 4 passes and intercepted two more. Zbikowski, former collegiate All-American at the University of Notre Dame, is also a good punt returner and special teams player.
Zbikowski has never started more than 6 games in an NFL season and has appeared in over ten games just twice in four seasons (2009 and 2011). He is not used to a starting role, which is what he will have in Indianapolis. That will be key to watch - whether or not Zbikowski can adjust to being a starter instead of a role-playing backup. That said,though it will not be Zbikowski, the Colts would love to find that role-playing backup.
David Caldwell signed in 2010 with the Colts as an undrafted free agent, and in 2011 he started 13 games for Indianapolis at strong safety and played in all 16. He made 63 tackles and 4 pass deflections.
Jermale Hines was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the fifth round of the 2011 draft but was released soon after the season began. The Colts signed him, released him, and then the Panthers signed him to their practice squad before the Colts once again signed him on November 30, 2011.
The Colts signed Joe Lefeged as an UDFA in 2011. Last season he played in all 16 games for the Colts (starting 1). He recorded 34 tackles, batted down 4 passes and intercepted 2 more.
Mike Newton was signed as an UDFA by the Colts in 2010 but was released before the season began. He was then signed to the Colts'practice squad, but a month later was promoted to the active roster. He was released with an injury settlement before the start of the 2011 season. On February 9, 2012, Newton resigned with the Colts. In 2010 he appeared in 12 games, making 6 tackles.
The Colts also signed two undrafted rookies this offseason: Matt Merletti out of North Carolina and Latarrius Thomas out of Eastern Michigan.
Bethea will be starting at free safety and will in all likelihood continue his success of recent years. However, I hope that success comes with less tackles and more interceptions. Safeties are not supposed to be making as many tackles as Bethea has been, a sign of how bad the Colts defense has been. Under Chuck Pagano, hopefully we will see Bethea continuing to play like one of the best, but with more turnovers and less tackles. That would be a sign that the Colts defense is improving.
Zbikowski will start at strong safety, and while I do not think he is the long term answer I think that he is a very capable guy of holding the position down for now. He is best suited for a primary backup and special teams role, but with so many other holes on the Colts' roster I am not going to complain too much about Zbikowski. Also, he brings a winning mentality, a style new to Colts fans, and a knowledge of Chuck Pagano's system.
Of the guys fighting for a backup spot, I think David Caldwell and Matt Merletti stand the best chance. Caldwell brings starting experience and is not bad for a backup, while Merletti could provide quality depth while at the same time learning the system as a rookie.
I am really excited about watching Tom Zbikowski play and seeing what he brings to the defense. I am not worried about Bethea at all, as he is one of the best and most reliable players on the Colts' roster. And given how bad the cornerback position is, these two players are going to be even more important in the secondary.
PROJECTED STARTERS: Antoine Bethea, Tom Zbikowski
BATTLING FOR STARTING SPOT: --
BATTLING FOR A ROSTER SPOT: David Caldwell, Jermale Hines, Joe Lefeged, Mike Newton, Matt Merletti, Latarrius Thomas