With the news that Clayton Geathers will begin the season on the PUP list and be unavailable for the first 6 weeks of the season while he continues to rehab his neck injury, things look a bit rough at the safety position for the start of the upcoming season. Because of this, I decided it would make sense to take a look at some film and see what exactly we can expect from each of the guys filling out this position group for the first part of the season. So, we are going to go player-by-player through most of the safety group and break down their strengths and weaknesses to get a look at how they might be used and how they will impact the Colts defense.
Clayton Geathers - #26
At 6’2” and 220lbs, Geathers is the resident thumper of the bunch. He played the box safety role so well that he was even brought in as a hybrid linebacker at various points throughout last season. He is a superb tackler, nearly always takes a good first step toward the ball, and knows how to lay a punishing hit. In the passing game, he is able to track the ball well and has good instincts. In short, he is exactly what the Colts have lacked since a guy named Bob Sanders walked the halls of the Colts facility.
Colts fans can only hope that is where the parallels end. If he recovers from the neck injury and can stay on the field he is a solid addition to the back of the Colts defense.
Darius Butler - #20
When Darius Butler stepped in at safety, he got a trial by fire. Few players would choose Aaron Rodgers to be the guy they cut their teeth at a new position against. Yet that is exactly what Butler faced, and walked away with a pick to show for his efforts. At 5’11” and 192lbs, the converted cornerback is by far the smallest guy in this group. That makes him a poor fit to replace someone like Geathers because he is not going to provide a menacing threat in the box.
However, Butler has some big things going for him. First, he is the oldest guy in the whole defensive backs group at 31. The presence of a veteran who has been an effective defensive back, albeit mainly as a slot corner, will be an absolutely desperate need for a young and inexperienced safety group. As for his play in the free safety role, Butler does what he should, he keeps the play in front of him. His solid coverage abilities translate well. There is definitely room for improvement on his angles of pursuit, and like all Colts defenders, his tackling could be better. Overall, Butler should do an admirable, if not overly remarkable job playing as a coverage safety.
There are a couple of problems with Butler at safety, but neither of them actually have to do with him. If Butler is moved to the safety position, that leaves a hole at the slot corner position. I am not going to break down the cornerback positions in this particular post, but the experience is pretty thin in that group as well, so moving Butler to the free safety position actually seems like a net loss to me. He doesn’t really replace Geathers and his position change puts a lot of pressure on the rookie cornerbacks to step up in what is one of the toughest positions to learn in football.
T.J. Green - #32
At 6’3” and 210lbs T.J. Green is a great size for a safety in today’s NFL. Last year’s second round pick was intended to be the answer to the coverage safety problem and ideally, would have paired with Geathers to form a punishing due that could both lay a hit and still have blazing closing speeds. Green still might have that ability, he certainly has the physical traits. His ability to close distances using his incredible speed is definitely still there.
The question about him from the beginning has been this: is speed all he has going for him? The book on him at the combine was that he was talented and had potential, but that he was raw. His instincts needed honing. As a one-year starter, he needed time to develop. He tended toward shoulder tackling rather than wrapping guys up.
We have seen all that play out in the course of Green’s first season with the Colts. While he is definitely fast, his instincts are not great, and he often takes a bad first step and has to rely on his speed to get himself back in a play. He struggles to keep eyes in the backfield and read the quarterback to help get him in a position to make plays. Like many speedsters tend to do, he bit too often on play-action and found himself out of position. Worst might be his tackling. On a roster that perennially suffers from poor tackling he was one of the worst offenders.
To some degree, I don’t believe this is Green’s fault. It was obvious from the start that he was a guy who needed time to sit and learn. The expectation that he was ready to go from day one was just not realistic given his lack of experience. That said, if he wants to give himself an opportunity to make it in this league, this year will be a big one for him.
Given his size and the way he has struggled in coverage, this year he could do a lot for his value on the team if he greatly improved his ability to stop the run. Great run stopping safeties are fueled on instinct and his will need to improve. When watching film on someone like Eric Weddle from last year, you see a guy who is patient but also decisive when defending the run and plugging gaps. Green could run circles around a guy like Eric Weddle, but if he cannot make decisions quickly and close on the ball after reading a play, it doesn’t matter. If Green can begin to improve his vision and break free from his tendency to hesitate before attacking he could find a role and be very valuable. If not, he will likely end up on the island of misfit Grigson drafts.
Malik Hooker #29
Give me the guy with average speed and stellar instincts as my free safety any day of the week. That is exactly what Malik Hooker offers over someone like T.J. Green. At 6’1” 206lbs he has nearly prototypical safety size and there is a lot to like about him. When you watch defenders, it is amazing how some just instinctively are able to create turnovers, and Hooker has that kind of way about him.
Hooker flows to the ball naturally and is not tentative. He keeps his eyes in the backfield and acts decisively on his reads. Great hands and tracking skills make him a major asset in coverage. When your coach compares you to Ed Reed and has actually coached Ed Reed, it is clear he sees potential. Of course, if your coach is Chuck Pagano, he has a tendency toward hyperbole and cliché, so his comments must be taken with a grain of salt. An extra gritty one.
To be clear, I think it would be a good idea to pump the brakes on those comparisons. This is a rookie safety coming into a defense which has had a negligible pass rush and very likely will be starting a rookie as their number 2 cornerback. He is going to have a tough year.
I think the thing to watch will be how he handles some of the pressure of having so much thrown at him right out of the gate as well as how he approaches the trouble areas of his game. If he comes out right away and establishes himself as every bit what Pagano hopes he can be, the Colts secondary will be vastly better for it. More likely, he will have struggles, throughout the season, but hopefully, we will see the flashes that indicate what he might be.
The list of safeties currently on the roster is rounded out with Matthias Farley, Lee Hightower, Tyvis Powell, and Andrew Williamson. Farley has seen time on special teams and played well when called upon to fill in at safety last year. The rest of the group is unproven and are relative unknowns. This is a young group of guys hoping to make an impression at training camp and get an opportunity to play. Given the lack of depth and that Geathers placement on the PUP list opens up a roster spot, there is a major incentive for these guys to bring their best to training camp and the preseason contests for a chance at a roster spot.
In the first 6 games of the season, the Colts face only one offense that really has a high-powered passing game. That will come in week two against the Cardinals. That means that assuming Geathers recovers well during that time, a big assumption, he would return before some of the better quarterbacks make their appearance on the Colts’ schedule.
Based on the film from last year and the needs at cornerback I would be tempted to put Hooker and Green at the free safety and strong safety spots respectively and leave Butler in the slot corner position. If they are able to use Green in the box and mitigate the need to use him in coverage as much, he will be less of a liability on a defense that has a much more athletic front seven and hopefully will play the run much tougher than last season. Hooker will have the opportunity to test himself against a relatively vanilla group of quarterbacks over that time and hopefully will find that he is up to the challenge. All of that hinges, of course, on Hooker’s availability to start the regular season. The Colts placed him on active/PUP to start training camp, due to a hamstring injury sustained during a conditioning test. Hamstring injuries seem to happen to guys who have been sitting with other injuries and then return to action and it is hard to know how serious it is. They can run the gamut from soreness and a week of rest to season-ruining, and they can linger. It will definitely be worth keeping an eye on.
In all likelihood, there will be shuffling that takes place from time to time, and some of how things work out will certainly depend on how both the safeties and corners perform at training camp. For example, if Quincy Wilson sets the world on fire as a shutdown corner opposite Vontae Davis, they might be more comfortable rolling Butler to a safety spot. Or they may utilize Green in that hybrid linebacker role they used with Geathers. Better still, perhaps one of the unknowns will swoop in and snatch a job from someone by dominating training camp and preseason. One thing is certain, it is very good to have real football just around the corner!