The strength of the Colts defense in 2014 was their cornerbacks. The trio of Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, and Darius Butler gave them a very formidable group against the pass and it was one that was very much needed. The team struggled to generate a pass rush without blitzing, and the ability of their corners to play man coverage allowed them to send the extra players to rush the passer.
It's scary to think about where the Colts would have been in 2014 without their corners, as they had enough to worry about - such as run defense, pass rush, and covering tight ends in the passing game. While their secondary wasn't perfect and their corners had their missteps, as an overall unit they were the most important factor to the defense in 2014.
Of course, they were led by the Colts' best defender and their second most important player overall, besides for Andrew Luck, and that is Vontae Davis. There's really no other way to say it: Vontae Davis was elite in 2014. Using Pro Football Focus' signature stats (subscription required), the argument could be made that he was the best cornerback in football. Among players who played at least 50% of the snaps, Davis was second in the league in number of times spent in coverage compared to receptions allowed (with 15.5), was first in opposing passer rating allowed (38.8), was tied for third in the league in interceptions (4), and did not allow a single touchdown all year long despite spending 479 snaps in pass coverage. Furthermore, he was in the top 20 among corners in run stop percentage (1.6) and ranked second in combined tackle efficiency (22.5). Simply put: Davis was fantastic. He was a shutdown corner who perfectly fits the Colts' press man system and more than lived up to the big contract he got last offseason. Not only does he provide tremendous help in coverage but he's also very good against the run too, which is an added bonus.
The player who filled the left cornerback role opposite of Davis' right corner role was Greg Toler, and he's the subject of a lot of conversation among Colts fans. He was tied for the third-most touchdowns allowed this year (8) and had the 16th-worst opposing passer rating, as quarterbacks had a 102.8 rating when throwing against him. Toler also had the seventh-worst tackle efficiency of any cornerback. By all indications, Toler was awful in 2014. But let's look a little deeper than those numbers. If you take out the awful performance against the Cowboys in week sixteen, Toler allowed five touchdowns in the other 154games (in 528 snaps spent in coverage) and had an opposing passer rating of 89.2 (include the three playoff games and that opposing passer rating goes down to 86.4). Those stats are closer to average than they are to bad, and that's a much more accurate representation of what Greg Toler was this season. He filled a role in the Colts defense and he was an average player. They need a guy like Toler who can play man coverage opposite of Davis, and while he wasn't great he did provide value to the Colts defensively.
The team's slot cornerback, Darius Butler, also provided a valuable role to the Colts' defense, as in today's NFL teams play nickel coverage often - many times more often, in fact, than their base defense. Statistically, Butler was around the middle of the pack among slot corners by allowing an opposing passer rating of 104.2. Like Toler, however, Butler fills a role, and he does so very well. He plays in the slot and he is very strong there, providing the key third member to the Colts' pass defense. He doesn't do too well when forced outside, but that's not where the Colts ask him to play. He's the slot corner and he does a very good job there, rounding out the Colts' cornerback trio nicely.
The only other corner who saw significant time for the Colts in 2014 was Josh Gordy, who would step in to whatever role necessary when one of the top three went down - and Gordy's play made Davis, Toler, and Butler even more valuable. Though he spent just 188 snaps in coverage, Gordy allowed four touchdowns and allowed an opposing passer rating of 121.4. And unlike with Toler and Butler, this number actually reflects incredibly accurately what we saw on the field this season. Gordy was not very good whatsoever.
The other corners who saw action for the Colts that we should mention are Loucheiz Purifoy and Jalil Brown. Purifoy was a talented undrafted rookie who was released mid-season. Reportedly, he was released for a number of minor team violations, and the Colts cut him on Thanksgiving. He primarily was a special teams player for the Colts (doing a very job there, too) but had a lot of talent defensively too. Jalil Brown spent time on special teams as well, as he didn't see much playing time at corner.
Moving forward, the Colts would do well to keep their trio of cornerbacks together, which would mean re-signing Darius Butler this offseason since he's a free agent. There are those who want the team to cut Greg Toler as well (which would save the Colts $5.5 million), but that should be a move that would happen only if the Colts needed the cap room and could get an upgrade at the position. There are plenty of corners better than Toler, but there are also plenty worse than him. I think the Colts should keep Toler around and work on adding another member to the secondary, upgrading instead from the fourth cornerback spot and Josh Gordy. Plus, adding legitimate pass rush help and an overall stronger defense would just continue to help the unit that was the biggest strength of the defense this year.
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2014 season, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews: