The biggest free agent signing the Colts made this offseason wasn't a newcomer at all, rather it was a re-signing of one of their own. The Colts gave cornerback Vontae Davis a 4-year, $36 million deal with $20 million guaranteed, obviously signifying their trust in him and the fact that they're committed to him as one of the foundations of their defense.
Neither one of those things are misplaced, either. I was adamant that the Colts needed to re-sign Davis, and the fact is that he's a 26-year old corner with great man coverage skills and with the ability and potential to be a top-tier cornerback. I explained in great detail why I considered re-signing Davis to be such a priority in this article, and looking at this position now, it's amazing how crucial that decision was. Davis is a top-tier cornerback who fits what the Colts are trying to do perfectly - he's about as good of a man cover corner as you're going to get, and that's what the Colts like to run. They often leave Davis on an island without much safety help, and in order to do that you need a guy who's very strong in man coverage, which is Vontae Davis. He has his struggles, but when it comes to man coverage, the Colts weren't going to get much better. He's a clear number one cornerback (and on more teams than just the Colts) and he's a difference maker in the secondary. If he can get more consistent this year, that will ease the concerns of those hesitant to re-sign Davis, because there's no one who doubts his talent or skill. But for a few games last year Davis struggled a bit, and he needs to eliminate those games.
Interestingly, much of those struggles Davis had seemed to come shortly after the loss of Greg Toler. The game before, in the week seven win against the Broncos, Davis turned in a simply incredible performance, but just two weeks later (following the Colts bye) Davis didn't have a good game against the Texans. That timeline also coincides with another significant event in the Colts secondary, and that was the loss of Greg Toler for what would end up being pretty much the entire season. There has been a lot of discussion about Toler, and the most common response seems to be that he just isn't that good. I, on the other hand, actually think he played pretty well before his injury, but therein lies the huge problem with Toler - he has a very hard time staying healthy. He played in just 9 games for the Colts last year, and in his five year career the most games he's played in a season is 14. He was a solid corner for the Cardinals when he was healthy, and I thought the same was true for him with the Colts last year. Let's not factor contract into it at all, and I think he did a good job. The problem with him, however, is that he is hurt often (ironically, though, he was the only member of the starting secondary healthy enough to practice at minicamp last month). Toler is a good player - but how often can he be on the field and healthy? That's the big question.
One of the hidden secrets of the success of the secondary for the Colts (which, contrary to what some might think, was actually pretty good in 2013) is corner Darius Butler. Two years ago he played a major role in the Colts playoff run, and last year he did a very good job in the slot - most notably, like Davis, in the Denver game where he matched up with Wes Welker and did a great job. In the slot, he's a very good corner, and that's where he'll play in 2014 as long as Davis and Toler stay healthy. It's if they don't that the Colts have question marks, as Butler is much better in the slot than he is matched up out wide. Last year Cassius Vaughn stepped into Toler's role while Butler remained in the slot (since teams often run three wide anyways), but the Colts opted not to bring back Vaughn this offseason (which surprised me a bit, as he wouldn't have commanded a huge contract by any means). Does that mean Butler will be forced outside if there's an injury, or will someone step up?
The Colts have several other corners on their roster, but almost all of them are unproven. Outside of Davis, Toler, and Butler, six of the eight remaining corners have one year of experience in the NFL or less. The only two players with more experience are Josh Gordy and Brandon Burton, who are both entering their fifth year. Gordy has played in 43 career games (starting 10) and has played in 27 games over the past two seasons for the Colts. He's easily the most proven outside of the top three corners, and right now he would figure to be the slight favorite for the fourth corner based purely on the fact that he's proven himself. That said, he's not even guaranteed of a roster spot yet, but he seems to have the best chance of all of the other corners and he'd likely be asked to contribute - especially in case of injury. Don't lock Gordy into a roster spot yet, but I'd be surprised if the Colts went with unexperienced guys at the fourth corner spot, especially considering the injury history of Toler. As far as Burton goes, he doesn't have near as much experience as Gordy, playing in just 15 games over the past three years (starting 1) with both the Minnesota Vikings and Buffalo Bills. While Gordy is valuable because he's proven himself in the league, I could see Burton's experience actually hurting him a bit as the Colts might be more inclined to go with a younger guy with more potential. That said, like with all of these players, the depth at the position isn't that great so there are spots to be won with an impressive showing in camp and preseason.
Speaking of guys with a chance to make the roster, the way the cornerback position is for the Colts right now offers a great opportunity for some of the undrafted free agents the team brought in, and three of them are currently on the roster: Qua Cox, Kameron Jackson, and Loucheiz Purifoy. Here's what I wrote about each of them in my look at the undrafted free agents:
Qua Cox, CB, Jackson State
At 6-0, 185 pounds, Cox was a star corner for Jackson State and in his junior season he led the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference) with five picks. In his senior season, he racked up 32 tackles and 6 pass breakups.. He was a two-time first team All-SWAC player and was a late invite to the Senior Bowl this year. He was a three-year starter at Jackson State and his brother Patrick spent three seasons in the NFL and is now in the CFL as a safety. The folks over at Draft Diamonds called Qua Cox"the most underrated player in the 2014 NFL Draft" and one scout told them that at the Senior Bowl Cox "looked very fluid, and does not lack confidence going up against the best wide outs in the country."
Outlook: Of all the UDFAs the Colts signed, Cox might be the one I'm most interested in seeing take the field. I would like to see him bulk up some and I could even see him moving to safety, but I could also see him fitting in as a nickel or dime corner and I think he has one of the best chances of any of these guys to stick around. He brings nice skills at corner and a developmental guy who could contribute on special teams (likely as a cover guy and/or as a return guy) while either being moved to safety or while being a solid dime corner. Qua Cox is a guy who really intrigues me.
Kameron Jackson, CB, Cal
Someone received some bad advice. A record number of underclassmen declared for the NFL Draft, and there were a lot of them who went undrafted - one of them was Kameron Jackson. The small corner (at 5-9, 175 pounds) started 14 games (playing in 30) at Cal, totalling 75 career tackles, 9 passes defended, 4 picks, 2 tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery. He once had a 3-interception game, but in the other 29 games of his career he picked off just one pass. He played in all 12 games in his junior season in 2013 and started 11 of them, even being named Cal's defensive player of the week for one of them.
Outlook: I don't think it's very good. Perhaps Jackson will surprise us in camp, but I just can't help but think that he should have stayed in school another year to try to continue to improve his game. At this point, he's just a guy who doesn't have the size nor the skills to warrant consideration for the final roster, and I would say even the practice squad is a long shot for him. If the Colts want a corner, there are plenty of other guys on this list alone better than Kameron Jackson.
Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida
Entering the 2013 season, many people ranked Loucheiz Purifoy as a first-round talent and one of (if not the) top corners in the 2014 draft. The 6-1, 189 pound corner played in 37 career games for the Gators (19 starts), making 102 career tackles (4.5 for loss), 12 passes defensed, 5 forced fumbles, 2 picks, 2 sacks, and a fumble recovery. He also is a very good special teams contributor and led the team as a freshman in 2011 with 22 special teams stops. Alligator Army's Andy Hutchins wrote that, "Purifoy, whose first-round hype entering 2013 was built on measurables and projection, regressed as a full-time corner in the 2013 season" and also concluded that, "He never made good on that first-round hype on the field. And off the field, Purifoy's last 16 months have been a disaster." A lot of off-the-field issues, mainly drug-related issues, resulted in Purifoy going undrafted.
Outlook: Of everyone I looked at on this list (20 guys), the guy who impressed me as the guy with the most talent was clearly Loucheiz Purifoy. He has great skills for a corner, and while they aren't quite as good as many thought they'd be entering last season, he's still a talented corner who probably would have gone in the 3rd-4th rounds if not for his off-the-field issues. That's a huge question mark and honestly is the biggest thing standing in the way between himself and making the Colts roster. If he can stay out of trouble, I think he'll be able to play his way onto the roster in some capacity, where he'll be able to keep developing. Of course, that also depends on his play in camp and preseason, but if he stays out of trouble, I think the biggest obstacle to making the roster will be out of the way.
Basically, all three guys are worth keeping an eye on in camp. There are spots to be won and some very talented guys the Colts got as undrafted free agents. I really like Purifoy's talent, but by all indications it seems like Qua Cox is the one that has really stood out among this group and I will especially be keeping my eye on him, as he's been catching the eye of the coaches in the offseason.
Lastly, there are three guys with a year of experience on the Colts roster, but none of the three has a whole lot of actual experience on the field in the NFL. Johnny Adams played in four games last year with the Bills but didn't record a single stat to appear on the stat line. Marcus Burley took it a step further and not only did he not appear on the stat line, he didn't even appear in a single game with the Jaguars last season, and then Sheldon Price didn't appear in a game last year either, though with the Colts. I really liked Price's potential last offseason, though he didn't see any work last year and it doesn't sound like he's become the player I thought he could perhaps be. All three seem to be in the same position as Burton and the undrafted guys - not out of it whatsoever but needing a very impressive camp to earn a spot. The spots are open, and these guys will need to go take them if they want a chance of making the roster.
The summary of the cornerback position for the Colts is a big, huge question mark. Can Vontae Davis live up to the contract he received this offseason? Can Greg Toler stay healthy? Who will be the fourth cornerback (a pretty important position regardless but especially considering the injury history of Toler)? Who will be the depth guys on the roster, and will the Colts keep five or six cornerbacks? Some questions, like the first one, won't be answered, though the last two will certainly be answered in camp. What will the Colts do at the position? I can make a good guess on how it would shake out right now, but there are spots for the taking, and that'll make for something to watch in training camp. This position has talent for the Colts, but the potential the position has is overshadowed by the question marks it also brings.
Week One Starters: Vontae Davis, Greg Toler; Backups: Darius Butler, Josh Gordy, Qua Cox; Cut: Johnny Adams, Marcus Burley, Brandon Burton, Kameron Jackson, Sheldon Price, Loucheiz Purifoy
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson's other position previews: