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How does Malik Hooker impact and fit in with the Colts?

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Michigan v Ohio State Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

Last night, as I’m sure you’re aware, the Indianapolis Colts selected Ohio State safety Malik Hooker with their first round pick, number 15 overall.

The pick was very much about value and BPA, as the Colts got a guy who was rated “very high” on their board and who they didn’t think would actually fall to them. When it happened, they had no hesitation about the pick.

The majority of Colts fans seem to really like the pick, and understandably so. Hooker is a very good player who was tremendous at forcing turnovers for Ohio State a year ago. At the same time, however, there are a few Colts fans that haven’t been particularly happy with the pick, primarily because of the desire for an EDGE or an inside linebacker (in other words, the Colts’ biggest needs). While Hooker doesn’t directly address one of the Colts’ top needs, however, I do think he could really help the defense in a variety of ways.

A lot of it comes down to the fact that Hooker gives the Colts a lot of flexibility, more so than they already had at safety. The Colts now have a safety group that features Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers, Darius Butler, and T.J. Green, meaning the Colts have three young guys with upside and a veteran making the move to safety. This pick gives the Colts the flexibility to utilize some of those guys in other areas that could help mitigate some of the concerns about other areas of need.

Consider, for instance, the linebacking corps. Already we knew that the Colts’ defensive line has the potential to be the defense’s best unit, though that’s not saying a lot. The addition of Johnathan Hankins in the middle of that d-line was huge, and if Henry Anderson and Kendall Langford can both return to their pre-injury, 2015 forms then the Colts could have a very good starting trio up front. When you add to that rotational/depth guys like Hassan Ridgeway, T.Y. McGill, Al Woods, David Parry, and Margus Hunt, the unit doesn’t look too bad at all. That has a big impact on the inside linebackers in a 3-4 scheme like the one the Colts run, because it takes some of the pressure off of the linebackers. If the defensive linemen can eat up blocks, it makes it easier for the linebackers to make plays. So already, the Colts might have a way of masking their need at inside linebacker, at least somewhat. But consider the possibilities of playing Clayton Geathers in the box more, like the Colts liked doing last year. Adding Malik Hooker in the backend of the secondary could allow the Colts to use Geathers in the box more, which would in turn help the linebackers out which would in turn help to cover up that big need in some ways.

Also consider the cornerback position, another huge area of need for the Colts. They need a starting cornerback to play outside opposite of Vontae Davis (though Rashaan Melvin isn’t a bad option), but they also need a cornerback to play in the slot (likewise, Darryl Morris could be an interesting name there). The Hooker pick isn’t going to magically erase that need, just like it’s not going to erase the need at linebacker. But guess what it does do? It likely will allow the Colts to play Darius Butler more as a nickel cornerback, moving him down from safety to the slot perhaps more frequently than they thought they would when they re-signed him. Butler is a safety now (though Chuck Pagano didn’t firmly commit to that Thursday night, simply saying: “It’s early. It’s so early, we have so much time. We haven’t even been outside yet”), but the Colts will have more flexibility to move him into the slot now that they have Hooker. So the Malik Hooker pick could also have an indirect impact on the cornerback need too (and it should be noted here that Chris Ballard on Thursday revealed that the Colts have had discussions about moving T.J. Green to cornerback “but right now he’s a safety”).

The key for the Colts will be figuring out how to utilize all four of their safeties, but they don’t seem concerned about that. After all, Chris Ballard’s main emphasis since joining the Colts has been about competition.

“Absolutely. We can’t create enough,” Ballard said. “We can’t create enough competition. And the good thing is at safety, so you have Darius who can play safety and play some corner in nickel. You have Geathers who can drop down and play some dime linebacker. We think T.J. Green can do some of that. So they’ll all find a role on Sunday.”

What in particular will Hooker’s role be? I think he’s certainly got the chance to be a starter right away, at least talent-wise, though we’ll have to see how he adjusts to the NFL with missing OTAs. Hooker can be a very good centerfielder right away, however, and he has the ball skills and the instincts to make plays. You may remember Mike Adams forcing a number of turnovers in 2014 and 2015 with the Colts, and while not taking anything away from Adams, Hooker is more adept at that area.

Those two things are major factors in what Chris Ballard looks for in defensive backs: instincts and ball skills. Hooker checks both boxes.

“Yeah. Instincts,” Ballard said when asked if there were similarities between all of the good defensive backs he’s been around. “Instincts. All the good corners I’ve been a part of and safeties, from Nathan Vasher, Charles Tillman, Marcus Peters, Chris Harris, who was a sixth-round pick for us in Chicago. They all had instincts and took the ball away. They all had a common trait.”

Ballard has a bit of a track record with defensive backs, so it’s noteworthy that he thinks instincts are the common trait the good ones have shared - and that Hooker has good instincts. But Ballard also thinks ball skills are crucial.

“Yes, so that goes back to Chicago with Lovie [Smith],” Ballard explained of his philosophy. “We would not take players if they couldn’t catch the football at any position on defense other than defensive line. But if a linebacker couldn’t finish on the play with a catch, if a corner didn’t have ball skills, if a safety didn’t have ball skills – we weren’t going to take them. Look, those are extra possessions. Those are game-changing plays. You think of times in games when guys don’t finish on the football and take the ball away, that gives the offense another opportunity.”

If you want to know how Hooker could impact the Colts’ defense right away, those two things are a good place to start. He has good instincts and can catch the ball, leading to big-time playmaking potential. That’s something that is desperately needed on this Colts defense, a unit that generated the second-fewest interceptions in the league last year. In fact, in 13 games at Ohio State last year Hooker recorded nearly as many interceptions by himself (seven) as the Colts recorded as a team in 16 games (eight). Playmaking ability at any level of the defense, including in the secondary, has been lacking.

One of the concerns that some have about Hooker is his tackling ability, and in that regard there’s still some work to do. But Chuck Pagano is confident that Hooker will improve, and here’s why: Hooker’s willing to work at it.

“No, you can develop and you can work on that,” Pagano said of Hooker’s tackling. “He’s willing. He had 74 tackles last year according to the stat sheet. He’s a big dude. He’s 206 pounds and a little over six foot. Again, he’ll get guys on the ground. As long as they are willing and they’re not sitting there, making business decisions and things like that. I didn’t see that. Get a little scared of guys making business decisions, but that’s not in his DNA. He’ll be fine.”

Here’s the thing about Hooker: I don’t expect him to be a finished product in 2017. He was only a one-year starter in college and still needs work in several areas, and so the Colts will certainly be patient with him - and that’s where having Geathers, Butler, and even Green helps. But even right away, I expect Hooker to make his presence known as a center fielder against the pass and I expect him to flash with his playmaking skills.

So in summary, I think Malik Hooker is a very good prospect with room still to grow and improve but who could really help the Colts right away too. Furthermore, I think the Hooker pick, while not directly addressing one of the biggest needs, does help alleviate a tiny bit of the concern at linebacker and cornerback because it frees up the Colts to be more flexible and creative with some of their other safeties, namely Clayton Geathers and Darius Butler. And most of all, the Colts added a playmaker - the biggest thing their defense needs, regardless of what position it’s at.