The Indianapolis Colts decided to roll the dice this past offseason when they signed veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes to be their starter alongside youngster Rock Ya-Sin. Rhodes, a former All-Pro, was coming off the worst season of his career where he allowed five touchdowns in coverage and a passer rating of 131.1 as the primary defender.
While this signing had every reason to fail, it surprisingly paid off for the Colts’ in a big way. Rhodes solidified himself as the number one corner on the team early in the year and played at a high level throughout the season.
So today we are going to look at some key talking points from his 2020 season and look at why the Colts should prioritize him this offseason in free agency.
While 2019 was just a terrible season for Rhodes, he turned it all around this year with the Colts. He only allowed 50.7% of his targets to be completed this year which was second to Jalen Ramsey among all cornerbacks in the NFL. He also had a passer rating of just 79.2 allowed in coverage which was good for the eighth-best in the NFL.
His nine recorded pass breakups ranked 10th in the NFL among all cornerbacks and his 508 yards allowed in coverage ranked eighth among all corners who played 80% of their teams’ snaps this year. So in almost every single statistical metric, Rhodes was a top ten cornerback in the NFL in 2020 after ranking as one of the worst in the league in 2019. It was a huge and rather unprecedented turnaround for a veteran cornerback.
Excellence in the short/intermediate game
When teams face a third down against the Colts’ zone heavy defense, they typically like to attack the inside zones in the short and intermediate areas of the field. Rhodes was outstanding at not just locking down this area of the field but also at breaking up many huge passes into these zones.
He seemed to be more comfortable in the Colts’ scheme over the Vikings’ press heavy scheme in 2019. Rhodes was able to sit in off man or zone coverage for much of this year and play from a position of strength as he effortlessly drove downhill to break up passes. Here are some of his best pass breakups on in-breaking routes from this season:
Xavier Rhodes was outstanding this year for Indy. Thought he was at his best in the short-intermediate area of the field. Here are a few of his best pass breakups on in-breaking passes in that short to intermediate zone pic.twitter.com/CQiIZMJxB0— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) January 18, 2021
An asset in run defense
While it may not be the first thing you think of when you think of cornerback play, the Colts’ coaching staff puts a heavy emphasis on corners being able to play physical in the run game and tackle in the open field. This was never really a concern with Rhodes as he is built like a safety at the corner position.
Regardless of expectations though, it was a good sign to see how he played the run and attacked in the open field this year as a tackler. He had a few bad misses at times but he was rarely a liability in that aspect of the field. It truly was like having a safety on the outside, especially when looking at the clip in the video below where he stuffed Juju Smith-Schuster in open space. These are some of his best plays in run defense/in the open field from this past year:
To be a cornerback in the Colts' system, you have to be able to tackle. While Rhodes was perfect in this area, I thought he did a great job of scraping in the run game and being physical in the open field. Was certainly an asset as an open field tackler this year pic.twitter.com/rOtKlD8Evc— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) January 18, 2021
Limiting the Big Plays
My biggest concern coming into the year with Rhodes in line to be the starter was how many big plays he gave up in Minnesota the year before. It may have been because he was hurt but he looked sluggish in his movement and was toasted quite a few times on double moves. This was a major concern considering it is a huge emphasis for the Colts to limit big plays and keep the play in front of them.
Rhodes open on this double move by Sutton (Sutton may be the best receiver in football this dude is legit an alien). pic.twitter.com/qbgIDO2qiG— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) March 26, 2020
However, I was happily surprised that the struggles in 2019 in this area didn’t seem to carry over to the Colts. He looked like his old self in terms of athleticism and never looked out of place on the field. The Colts’ scheme did help with double moves as he was oftentimes lined up in off coverage but for the most part, this was a major improvement. He looked confident all year and helped the Colts limit these big plays for most of the season:
My biggest worry when the Colts signed Xavier Rhodes was if he could still run with NFL receivers. He got toasted quite a few times deep in 2019 with the Vikings. Indy used him in more off looks but Rhodes also looked like his old self physically in 2020 pic.twitter.com/4xbwNyjupX— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) January 18, 2021
That beautiful Jets game
I know that it is “just the Jets” but this was a big coming-out game for Rhodes early in the year. After a rough week one and a solid bounce-back game against his old team, Rhodes needed this game to build his confidence for the rest of the season. The result has an excellent pick-six to start the game and a gorgeous interception in the end zone late in the first half.
Xavier Rhodes vs the Jets will always be a fun game to look back on. Two incredible interceptions pic.twitter.com/ovijKNf4Qq— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) January 18, 2021
On paper, it seems like a no brainer to bring Rhodes back into the fold for another year. Looking at the cap though, it could be a bit tricky. The Colts have several key free agents to sign, including their quarterback in Philip Rivers, and potential big extensions coming up for Braden Smith and Darius Leonard this offseason.
The good news is the Colts do have the cap space to do a one or two year deal for the veteran cornerback. Spotrac currently projects Rhodes to get around 8 million a year on the open market and if that ends up being his pricetag then the Colts should do that in a heartbeat. If he starts getting up around 12-14 million a year then it could be a little tricky.
Ultimately I think Rhodes will test the market and if it doesn’t materialize the way he wants, he will be back in Indy on another one-year deal. For me though, he should be the top free agent priority behind signing Rivers or another starting quarterback.