We've spent a lot of time recently talking about the center position for the Colts, and understandably so. It's the biggest glaring concern right now, and it looks increasingly probable that Khaled Holmes will get every chance to start. Another position that there is a question mark at, however, is at safety.
The Colts lost Antoine Bethea in free agency to the San Francisco 49ers, and although it is a big loss it was one that many (including myself) saw coming for over a year and was one that probably was the right decision, all things considered. The Colts didn't break the bank for Bethea and as a result he's with the 49ers, where I'm sure he will continue to play well. Whether or not you think it was a good move for the Colts to let the veteran team leader walk in free agency, the bottom line is that there is now a question mark at the safety position that Bethea vacated and that he had manned for the past eight seasons. And, so far, the only move the Colts have made at safety is to bring back Sergio Brown, but by all indications that move was absolutely for special teams purposes while also having a nice depth safety - but definitely not as a starter, despite what Brown may say or want. The move to re-sign Sergio Brown was primarily motivated by special teams - where he indeed excels. Also currently on the roster at safety are David Sims and Corey Lynch. Lynch is an interesting player but I have a hard time seeing him as the starting safety next year - it would take a phenomenal training camp for him (or Brown or Sims) to earn the starting safety spot.
That leaves Delano Howell. Many fans have wanted the Colts to add a veteran safety for cheap in free agency, and that might still happen. However, at this point I think that it is more likely that they won't do that than that they will. I'm not saying that it won't happen, just that at this point it doesn't look to be in the works. I could absolutely see them adding a safety in the draft, but even then without a first round pick there isn't any guarantee that the rookie would be a good player or even that he would start. (On a related note, the Colts drafted safety John Boyett last year in a later round and he had potential, and I said at the time and still think the reason they drafted him was to see if he could be the eventual replacement to Bethea. Boyett, however, was arrested before the regular season and released.)
At this point, it looks like the safety position vacated by Antoine Bethea will be filled this fall by Delano Howell - he'll get the first chance at replacing Bethea, at least. In his press conference last week, general manager was (obviously) asked about the safety position and about whether the Colts would have to add anybody after losing Bethea:
"You lose a player like Antoine Bethea, obviously that's going to be an area of concern, need. We have some players sitting there at that position. Delano Howell is no slouch when he played last year. When he came in, for a guy that was on Buffalo's practice squad the year prior, he did a heck of a job. We will of course look at the draft. We are still looking at some other options. We want to solidify every position group possible the best we can. You lose a stud like Antoine who meant so much to this organization, obviously it's going to leave a mark, but at the same time, you can't keep everyone. That's just the harsh reality of this business."
It certainly will be hard to replace a guy like Antoine Bethea. He had started every single game for the past six seasons and totaled at least 100 tackles in five of them. While a few years ago he was among the league's top safeties, he had dropped off the past two seasons and wasn't great. His 2013 campaign was an improvement from 2012, certainly, and Bethea proved to be a reliable and consistent player. He showed some limitations, but he also brought a lot to the table and especially late in the season we really saw the impact he could have.
Thanks to an injury to the other starting safety, LaRon Landry, however, Delano Howell saw significant playing time and in addition to appearing in six games he started three. He honestly seemed like an improvement over Landry when he was playing and he was a solid player. After Landry returned from injury, though, he obviously got his job back, but it eventually got the point where I advocated benching Landry for Howell. Shortly after that, however, Howell was placed on season ending injured reserve, as he suffered from both neck and foot injuries last season.
If the Colts were to start Delano Howell alongside LaRon Landry, I see two big areas where it would be a step down from Antoine Bethea:
Tackling - My biggest knock against Howell on the field last year was his tackling. In short, he missed too many of them. I thought Howell did a good job in coverage and I thought he made good decisions in reading the opposing offense, but there were times when he didn't make the tackle. I think it's an area that he can definitely improve on and I expect him to have improved too, but Antoine Bethea was usually a very reliable tackler. Howell's biggest liability on the field last season, in my opinion, was his tackling and that would be a significant step down from Antoine Bethea. Even then, I don't think it's a deal-breaker and should keep him from starting and I do think Howell will improve at it if he gets more work, but based on what we saw in 2013 it could be an issue.
Durability - The far bigger issue to me, however, is Howell's durability. He struggled with (and played through) injuries at Stanford and then last season he struggled with both neck and foot injuries. Contrast that with Bethea, who has a current streak of 96 consecutive regular season starts in a row and hasn't missed a single game since the 2007 season and it's clear how it would be a significant step down in terms of durability to go from Bethea to Howell. Making this concern even more prominent is the fact that LaRon Landry, the guy who would be starting at safety alongside Howell, is also injury prone and has dealt with those issues too, including last year as well.
I think it's clear that going from Antoine Bethea to Delano Howell will be a step down, but then again the same could be said of most players the Colts could get to replace a guy like Bethea. Howell doesn't bring the physical skills that Bethea or Landry bring and so therefore he relies on his instincts more, but that seemed to work for him very well in 2013 and I don't see any reason why that would be different in 2014. There are some question marks with Howell - such as his tackling and durability - but I think that overall he could do a good job starting at safety and I think he would continue to be a solid player. He probably won't be a superstar or anything like that, but you don't need stars at every position but rather a guy who is willing to get physical and who is a solid player. Howell is a high-effort guy who by all indications is a very hard worker and he has enough skill and talent that I would be perfectly fine with the Colts starting him in 2014. I don't know if he's the long-term answer and therefore think it would be wise to draft a safety in this year's draft and then evaluate Howell based on his play in 2014, and also drafting a safety would add depth behind two safeties who both dealt with injuries last year.
Some people have said that the Colts "NEED" to add a safety, but I don't consider it to be as much of a need as a position like, say, center. They have Delano Howell at safety and based on what we saw in 2013, I have confidence that he could be a very solid starter for the Colts. By all indications right now, it seems like he'll get the first shot at that starting spot.