One of the biggest topics of discussion in this offseason has been the Colts’ decision to not pick up the option on safety Malik Hooker. Hooker was a former first round pick in 2017 and the first selection of the Chris Ballard era. He was wildly considered a steal at the time as he was projected to go as early as a top five pick in the class.
It has been rather up-and-down for the highly talented safety as he has struggled with consistency and injuries since entering the league. This past year was no different as he missed time with a torn meniscus and was very inconsistent upon returning to action.
In today’s film room, I will be looking at some clips from Hooker from last year and analyze the good with the bad from his play.
Hooker started off well last year in the first three games of the season before he tore his meniscus. Through those first three (more like two and a half) games, he had nine tackles, an interception, and a pass breakup. The interception was an absolute thing of beauty. He reads the seam route perfectly and breaks on the pass for the one handed interception. Great highlight play that we will be replaying for years.
The Tennessee Titans game in week two was easily Hooker’s best game of the season as he looked confident in his deep drops and was surprisingly physical throughout the game. This play is a perfect example of that physicality as Hooker is guarding the sticks on this 3rd and long. He sits on this route by Delanie Walker and attacks as soon as the tight end catches the ball. He is able to drive Walker back at the catch and prevent him from getting the first with a good, physical play.
Hooker came so close to having two interceptions through the first two games last year. He sits on the seam route out of trips to the right and is able to break on the late pass over the middle. The ball is overthrown and this allows Hooker to make a play on the ball. Unfortunately, he goes for the one handed interception and this leads to him being unable to bring the ball in. Great play but he needs to capitalize on these mistakes by quarterbacks going forward.
This may have been my favorite play from Hooker all season as we have rarely seen this much downhill physicality from the young safety. Here he sits on the in breaking route and truly trusts his read on the play. He flies downhill and delivers a jarring hit on A.J. Brown as he attempts to come down with the ball. This is what I, as a self proclaimed safety enthusiast, have been wanting to see more of from Hooker. Good, confident angles that lead to positive plays for the defense.
Coming back from injury, Hooker had a strong game against the Steelers. I would actually say it was his strongest game of his career in terms of run defense and playing strong in the box. Here is one example from that game as Hooker lines up over the tight end in the box. He comes downhill hard, sheds the block from the tight end, and makes the tackle in the backfield for a loss on the play.
Hooker’s second interception of the year was just a product of being at the right place at the right time. He gets good depth on the play and is in the right position but he gets helped out by an overthrow into traffic by quarterback Jameis Winston. You know what they say though in this sport, “it’s better to be lucky than good.”
The last positive play we are going to look at is another good play from deep coverage by Hooker. Here the Colts are bringing a heavy blitz and Hooker essentially has to cover multiple receivers on the play. He does a good job of staying locked in on the quarterback’s eyes and drifts where the QB wants to throw the ball. He sits on top of the crossing route and breaks on the play. He is just a tad early and just misses being able to make a play on the ball.
The.... Not So Good
So the main issues I have with Hooker are mostly his angles in pursuit and run defense, his tackling consistency, and his mistakes that happen too often in deep coverage. That... is a lot I know. They aren’t all flaws but those are the areas that he tends to struggle in or be very inconsistent in.
This first clip is a great example of pursuit angles being an issue. rookie cornerback Marvell Tell III gets beat cleanly over the middle as the Colts are in single high man coverage. While this isn’t a good way to start, Hooker should be there over the top to make a tackle before this play reaches the end zone. Instead he takes a very poor angle on the play which leads to the speedy D.J. Chark scoring.
This next clip is one of the major low-lights of the season for Hooker. With under two minutes left in the half and the Texans driving, the Colts appear to be in quarters coverage here (each defensive back takes a deep quarter of the field). Hooker however gets overly aggressive and jumps an underneath route. This leaves his deep zone vacated and leads to the easy score for DeAndre Hopkins.
This next one is tough for Hooker. Coming downhill at one of the best running backs in the league in Derrick Henry is no easy task. While that is a given, there needs to be at least a little more effort here. The safety is the last line of defense and the last line can’t break this easily. At least make an attempt for his legs or wrap up or something. This is a very weak tackle attempt that Henry is able to easily toss aside en route to a score.
Again, another very poor tackle attempt by Hooker in the red zone. This time he is coming downhill from his safety spot to try and disrupt the tight end screen near the goal line. He attacks well but once he gets to the ball carrier, he fails to line up and properly target the runner. This leads to a bad whiff that nearly results in yet another touchdown.
There are some plays in deep coverage that I have no clue what Hooker is reading or diagnosing. Maybe he thought his linebackers would drift back a bit more on this drop? I’m not sure entirely. All I know is his drop on this play is way too deep for the type of play and situation. The outside receivers are breaking out and the quarterback is going through his progressions. Hooker needs to be attacking the route in front of him rather than gaining more and more depth when there is no threat back there. This leads to a play that is unnecessarily too big for the offense.
Final play for this article and I honestly could have added quite a few more from this Saints game. Hooker really struggled with the high tempo passing game of the Saints and they targeted him a good bit in this one. Here they isolate him by crossing two routes in front of him in the red zone. This forces Hooker to choose between the one crossing in front of him (which is running directly to his help to his right) or the route in the seam where he should stay to keep zone integrity. He unfortunately gets overeager and jumps the underneath crosser which allows the Saints to sneak a wide open receiver into his zone for a score.
I think Malik Hooker is a solid safety in this league. It is a shame that we see that as a disappointment because he was supposed to be the Colts new superstar defender upon being drafted. Fact of the matter is he just hasn’t been that player for this team and he may never become that. Does that make him a bad player or a bad selection in the 2017 Draft? Absolutely not. It does however make the decision to keep him going forward a lot harder for this team.
Does the team re-sign Hooker after this season? I think they would have to see a lot of improvement in some areas to make that commitment. I don’t think it is much of a stretch to say that Hooker was less consistent than the two younger safeties on the roster in Khari Willis and George Odum last season. The Colts also brought in rookie Julian Blackmon and the team has high hopes in his abilities as a deep safety.
So how can Hooker turn it around? Well stay healthy for one, which isn’t entirely on him. If he is able to stay healthy, he has to be more active in getting involved in plays. A lot of his poor angles and poor reads, in my opinion, are from him trying to put himself in position for tipped interceptions to make those highlight plays. He needs to remove that mentality to play on this defense. Interceptions are great! Nothing wrong with going for those plays but this defense is reliant on making the sure, safe play.
This defense can’t have a safety who has eight missed tackles compared to just 33 made on the year (according to PFF). It can’t have a safety who misses angles trying to set up for interceptions. It is a make or break year for Hooker and he needs to become a more reliable player on the back end rather than a flashy playmaker. If he can’t become more consistent, there are two younger, more consistent players right there to take his spot.
While this was a bit of a tough rant, I do truly believe in the talent of Malik Hooker. He has made so many unreal plays in his short career and I have seen improvement in his career (he is a much more willing run defender now than what he was in 2017). This is make or break though and it’s no longer the time to bank on talent. I think Hooker can turn it around and have a big year for this team. It all comes down to his willingness to play more physical and well rounded in his game.