The Indianapolis Colts surprisingly declined starting safety Malik Hooker’s 5th-year option (although the longer it dragged out towards Monday’s deadline, the more likely it seemed they’d decline it).
As a 2017 first round pick of the Colts, Hooker had a team option for $6.7 million that could be exercised for the 2021 season—essentially adding an extra year on his current rookie contract, which otherwise was set to expire at the end of the 2020 season.
Of course, the Colts declined that option, meaning Hooker is now a free agent at season’s end.
This past season, Hooker had 51 tackles, 3 passes defensed, and 2 interceptions in 13 starts. By all accounts, he had a good, but not necessarily a great season in 2019.
Perhaps Colts general manager Chris Ballard summed it up best when he said, “Malik was solid. Wouldn’t say he was great,”—his play exacerbated by some late season lapses in coverage.
The issue with Hooker isn’t predominantly injuries.
Outside of a torn ACL his rookie season—which cost him 9 games (and was simply the result of a low, blindsided shot by Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Keelan Cole), Hooker has only missed 5 games over the past two seasons. Not great, but also not horrible playing one of the league’s most physically demanding positions.
He has some lingering durability issues, but nothing that should make a team reluctant about giving him an additional 1-year at $6.7 million—which seems pretty low risk bigger picture.
Piggybacking off that, it’s also clearly not cost.
On 2020 salaries, that $6.7 million would put him around the NFL’s 14th highest paid safety. Not insignificant, but also nothing that the Colts would have second thoughts with an estimated $122 million of cap space for the 2021 offseason.
The issue also isn’t talent.
The Colts clearly thought enough of Hooker to take him with the 15th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft. He’s still only 24 years and has a lot of natural ability—especially as it relates to his overall range, tracking, and ball skills.
Colts fans have seen firsthand at times why Hooker drew “Ed Reed” comparisons coming out of Ohio State—with ballhawking plays like this:
Malik Hooker with the ONE-HANDED interception! pic.twitter.com/n3dmOxuLo1— NFLonCBS (@NFLonCBS) September 8, 2019
Carson Palmer is picked off by the rookie, Malik Hooker. First of many interceptions for the former Buckeye. pic.twitter.com/l3goqYeGPS— NFL Update (@MySportsUpdate) September 17, 2017
But on the other hand, they’ve also seen the blown coverage assignments, the losing track of receivers in space, and the poor pursuit angles to the football.
These could be a few examples (*although finger pointing on blown coverage lapses without knowing the exact assignments can be unfair for a defensive back*):
I hate assigning blame on coverage busts bc it's not fair without talking to the parties involved. I wasn't able to speak w Malik Hooker or Pierre Desir after this DeAndre Hopkins play. But for life of me, I cannot figure out what Hooker is looking at. pic.twitter.com/g8jcg87EuQ— Stephen Holder (@HolderStephen) November 23, 2019
And that’s the underlying issue with Hooker, his consistency and improvement.
For as great as Hooker has been at times, he’s also had the head scratching moments.
The Colts want consistency, and they want to see improvement from a young safety that hasn’t gotten dramatically better since he was a rookie.
By declining Hooker’s option, it doesn’t mean that he’s a lock to not return after 2020 (even though it probably makes it more unlikely). However, if the former first round pick performs up to the Colts’ expectations, they’ll gladly pay him. Ballard has already emphasized that he’ll reward players who have earned it in the eyes of his locker room.
If he doesn’t though, the Colts will let him walk next offseason and test his value in free agency as an unrestricted free agent.
Yes, there’s the fair argument that Hooker was a better natural fit in former head coach Chuck Pagano’s 3-4 defensive scheme as a single-high safety, but he also should still be better than what he’s shown with the Colts—or at least far more consistent.
It’s not as though Bob Sanders/Antoine Bethea couldn’t make plays in the Colts’ Cover 2 system or Earl Thomas in the Seattle Seahawks’ Cover 3 scheme previously—whatever defensive derivative one wants to claim the Colts currently deploy.
The pressure is also on because the Colts have another young safety, Julian Blackmon, who they just took in the 3rd round and Ballard is already very high on. Now, it doesn’t mean that the Colts have already pegged Blackmon as the heir apparent to Hooker—after all, he’s still recovering from an ACL, is still a rookie, and is out until at least October.
However, like Hooker, Blackmon is a natural free safety and could be a potential in-house down the road replacement—if he impresses in his debut season.
The Colts clearly valued the possibility of motivating Hooker to ‘be his best safety’ in 2020 over the additional cost effective year of team control—should he ‘wow’ them next season. The franchise has no immediate salary cap concerns after all to possibly re-sign him long-term—even if it potentially comes now at a greater cost.
In a contract year, Hooker is now in a “make or break” year in Indianapolis and let’s think of declining that team option as the Colts’ “motivational carrot” for him to fully play to his immense potential.
The ball is firmly now in his court.