T.Y. Hilton

T.Y. Hilton and …

The Indianapolis Colts’ options for 2020 at wide receiver beyond their top threat are wide open.

Parris Campbell will be back for his second season, but questions about his durability have already started after he played in only seven games because of four different injuries during his rookie season. Zach Pascal stepped up in Hilton’s absence last season, but he’s more suited to be a strong No. 3 receiver than a No. 1 or 2 receiver.

All that general manager Chris Ballard knows is that the Colts must get more production out of that group to help Jacoby Brissett — or whoever the next starting quarterback is.

“Do we need to add more explosive elements to our offense? Yeah, we do,” Ballard said.

Injuries were the theme for the Colts’ receivers in 2019. Hilton, Campbell, Devin Funchess and Chester Rogers combined to miss 34 out of a possible 64 games last season. That’s a tough situation for any quarterback to overcome.

“The injuries at wideout … I’ve got to do a better job of making sure we have enough depth for when those guys have to play,” Ballard said.

Hilton, like Campbell, will be back, but he’ll be 31 years old in November. Funchess and Rogers are both free agents. Ballard hasn’t shut the door on Funchess returning — he played in less than one game before a collarbone injury.

Problems at receiver went beyond injuries. The team lacked playmakers outside of Hilton, who battled through a calf injury most of the season. He was more of a decoy at times when teams locked in on him, leaving the rest of the receivers trying — and failing — to take advantage of their opportunities.

Pascal led the Colts in receiving yards with just 607. Of the 64 NFL players who had more receiving yards than Pascal, 51 of them were receivers. And there were 38 players who had more 20-plus-yard plays than Pascal’s team high of 11. No other Colts wide receiver caught more than the 18 that Campbell caught in seven games.

“I look at the struggles we’ve had in the passing game as they were team struggles — obviously primarily offense,” Reich said. “That starts with coaching and certainly playing, personnel and all of that. It all gets evaluated. We’ve got to hold ourselves accountable. I mean, we know our fans want championship football. We are used to around here in this area of the country of knowing how to throw the football. So we are going to throw the football, OK? We will figure it out. We didn’t do a good enough job this year. We will do better next year.”

Ideally, the Colts would acquire a receiver who combines size, strength and speed to go with Hilton’s speed and toughness. They thought Funchess would be that guy until his season ended before the conclusion of their Week 1 game at the Los Angeles Chargers last season.

The draft, according to ESPN’s Louis Riddick, is deep enough for teams to find playmakers for next season.

“If you need a WR, there is zero doubt this is one of the best years to get one that I can remember in the past 20 seasons,” Riddick tweeted during the Senior Bowl last month. “They are getting bigger, faster, stronger, harder to defend.”

Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Colorado’s Laviska Shenault Jr., TCU’s Jalen Reagor, Clemson’s Tee Higgins and LSU’s Justin Jefferson are projected to be some of the top receivers selected in the April draft.

It’s good that there’s some depth at receiver in the draft because it’s not an earth-shattering free-agent market at that position outside of Amari Cooper (79 receptions, 1,189 yards). The Colts have struggled to find a second receiver to go with Hilton for quite some time.

“Just guys that have the ball. I don’t know if you ever get one out of college ranks who is completely polished,” Ballard said. “They have traits to be ready. It’s one of the harder positions coming in this league. Can it be done? Yes. It can absolutely can be done. You see it in the league right now. With all the press coverage, with all the different looks they get. Then with the physicality and all the things they have to deal with in our league. It’s not an easy transition. Just want somebody who can catch the ball and go score.”

Vontae Davis

The Redskins are reportedly releasing cornerback Josh Norman. He’s an intriguing option on the open market.

Cornerback is not a pressing need for the Bills by any means. Tre’Davious White is amongst the best in the league. Behind him, there’s Levi Wallace and Kevin Johnson. Wallace is an ERFA so he’ll likely be back. Johnson is also an unrestricted free agent, and could possibly leave.

That No. 2 corner spot job could be up for grabs and with Norman in mind, could he fit the bill?

There’s plenty to consider with him. On a veteran minimal deal? Something very low? Sure, why not sign him? Releasing him from such a contract won’t hurt the Bills much at all if he’s still bad.

There’s reason he could be worth it. Prior to signing a massive $75 million deal with the Redskins, the 32-year-old was with… you guessed it, the Panthers. He’ll be very familiar with Buffalo head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane.

While in McDermott’s defense, the now 32-year-old had an All-Pro season in 2015. The following year he skipped town to the Redskins as the two sides couldn’t find a contract agreement. The Panthers franchised tagged him then rescinded it and Norman found his way to the Redskins.

There, it’s been ugly.

Just this past season alone, he ranked as Pro Football Focus’ 111th best cornerback in the NFL. Wallace was at 44 while Johnson was at 23. It hasn’t been just this season, either. Per PFF, in his first six seasons, Norman allowed 13 touchdowns. This past season, he’s allowed seven and over the past two, 16 total.

Plus, again, he’s 32, and on top of that, he was released by the Redskins. Who is their head coach? Ron Rivera, who was in Carolina in 2015 as well. Rivera didn’t think he could turn around Norman, even.

Past a minimal deal, the Bills should walk away from Norman. But if he’s willing to earn a spot on the Bills, giving him a shot wouldn’t hurt.

With the likes of Johnson and EJ Gaines, McDermott has signed veteran players to man spots in his secondary in recent years. Norman could be the latest version of that if the price is low. What’s the worst that could happen? We already had Vontae Davis.

Jack Mewhort

There are plenty of talented Buckeyes to choose from in the past decade, including Ezekiel Elliott

When the calendar flipped from 2009 to ’10, no Ohio State fan could possibly anticipate the dramatic changes that the Buckeyes would encounter over the next decade. Jim Tressel had just completed a season that saw Ohio State defeat Oregon in the 2010 Rose Bowl, with a stellar performance by then-sophomore quarterback Terrelle Pryor. Who could have foreseen how dramatically everything would change over the next two years?

At the conclusion of the 2011 season, Ohio State hired Urban Meyer as its football coach. The transformation of the program would include Ohio State moving from “Tressel Ball” to a wide-open spread attack, an attacking defensive philosophy, and an expanded recruiting philosophy that saw players from all across the country come to Columbus to play and thrive under Meyer’s tutelage.

Spanning 10 years that included four head coaches from Jim Tressel’s last season in 2010, Luke Fickell as an interim head coach in ’11, Urban Meyer’s tenure from 2012-18, and the elevation of Ryan Day as Ohio State’s head coach in ’19, there is no shortage of talented players to select an all-decade team. Below are my selections, with some explanation below:

QB: Dwayne Haskins (2016-18)

RB: Ezekiel Elliott (2013-15)

RB: J.K. Dobbins (2017-19)

AP: Curtis Samuel (2014-16)

WR: Michael Thomas (2012-15)

WR: Devin Smith (2011-14)

WR: K.J. Hill (2015-19)

TE: Jeff Heuerman (2011-14)

OL: Jack Mewhort (2010-13)

OL: Billy Price (2014-17)

OL: Pat Elflein (2013-16)

OL: Wyatt Davis (2017-present)

OL: Taylor Decker (2012-15)

DL: Joey Bosa (2013-15)

DL: Michael Bennett (2011-14)

DL: Nick Bosa (2016-18)

DL: Chase Young (2017-19)

LB: Ryan Shazier (2011-13)

LB: Raekwon McMillan (2014-16)

LB: Darron Lee (2013-15)

CB: Marshon Lattimore (2014-16)

CB: Jeffrey Okudah (2017-19)

S: Malik Hooker (2014-16)

S: Vonn Bell (2013-15)

K: Blake Haubeil (2018-present)

P: Cameron Johnston (2013-16)

RS: Jordan Hall (2009-13)

Toughest Choice: Cornerback

This was the closest call, without question: Among other considered players were Chimdi Chekwa, Bradley Roby, and Denzel Ward. All three were All-Americans during the decade.

Deepest Position: Defensive Line

Among the omissions were Johnathan Hankins and Adolphus Washington, both of whom were named All-Americans. John Simon ranked as one of the best players during both Tressel’s and Meyer’s tenures. Cameron Heyward played for Tressel and was a first-round draft choice by the Steelers in 2011.

Weakest Position: Return Specialist

Jordan Hall is the last Ohio State player to return a kickoff for a touchdown in 2010, and, with the new kickoff rules, may possibly be the last for the foreseeable future. There’s not another Ted Ginn Jr. walking through these doors.

Where’s J.T. Barrett?

It was a tough call to go with Dwayne Haskins at quarterback over Barrett’s record-setting career at Ohio State. Haskins’ spectacular season in 2018, combined with Haskins two wins over “That Team Up North” in 2017 and ’18, gave him the nod over Barrett.

Key Stat: 15

During the 2010s, Ohio State had 15 players selected in the first round of the NFL draft.

Donte Moncrief

The Steelers have limited funds to work within this closing Super Bowl window. Here’s why they can’t afford to repeat the mistakes of the past in free agency.

The Steelers aren’t known for making big splashes in free agency, and the 2019 offseason was no exception. Though they were able to strike gold on Steven Nelson this past offseason, Pittsburgh also made a couple of bad investments.

Mark Barron turned out to be a liability in coverage, and the 30-year old linebacker is due $8.1 million this season. Because of this, he is a likely candidate to be cut after just one season. Even worse was the deal for wide receiver, Donte Moncrief. The veteran wideout was cut after just 8 weeks on the Steelers roster and turned out to be one of the worst free-agent signings in Pittsburgh’s storied history.

Recently, Steelers President Art Rooney II made a statement that his team could use some offensive playmakers. Here’s what he had to say, according to Steelers.com:

“We are in the process now of preparing for free agency. The new league year starts on March 18. There is nothing we can do between now and then other than prepare for it. We’ll be looking for opportunities if we can to add a player we think can help us, whether it’s a wide receiver or running back. I am not sure about quarterback, whether we’ll have an opportunity to sign anybody. I think we are pretty comfortable with the people we have on the roster right now in terms of Ben and Mason [Rudolph] and I think we will have Duck [Devlin Hodges] and Paxton Lynch participating and competing in camp and things like that this year.”

Rooney claims to be comfortable with Pittsburgh’s quarterback situation moving forward (although I’m not sure if that is the right call considering what we saw from the backups last year). However, he hinted that the Steelers may be interested in adding a running back or receiver this offseason.

If Pittsburgh does elect to go this route, they can ill-afford to repeat the mistakes they have made in the past. Instead of going out and getting high-profile free agents, the Steelers have been trying to get by with players who they aren’t exactly about to get into bidding wars for. But is this the best strategy?

Pittsburgh grabs two players last year who they thought could come in and start for them in Moncrief and Barron. However, despite their unreasonably high salaries, Barron served best in a backup role, and Moncrief didn’t even prove good enough to remain on the roster. Moncrief signed a 2-year, $9 million deal with the Steelers last offseason. With the price tag Pittsburgh paid for these two combined, they could have landed a player like Tyrann Mathieu.

Signing Steven Nelson was a rare free-agent success story for the Steelers under Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert. But most of the other signings in between have proven to be a waste of money. There are a number of respectable running backs and receivers who could hit the market this offseason. If the Steelers can find a way to create cap space, it would be much better to go after one good player than to split up the money and try to land both a running back and receiver.

Paying good money to players like Mark Barron or Donte Moncrief isn’t the way to go in free agency. The Steelers need to change their philosophy before backup-quality players get them into financial trouble yet again.

Malik Hooker

“We started grading college football players for the first time in 2014 and have seen countless All-Pros enter the league in that span. These are the players that at the time we thought would be All-Pros based on their college performance. These are the best prospects we’ve graded at each position over the past six years.”
– Michael Renner, PFF.com

We discussed last week the impressive run Ohio State has had as an absolute juggernaut of developing NFL talent in recent years. The coaching staff the Buckeyes have had in place, even with a head coaching change, has its players not only playing at a high level at the collegiate level, but also has prepared its guys for success at the next level. As a result, Ohio State has been consistently pumping out early first-rounders better than almost every other program in the nation throughout the past half decade.

PFF has been one of the leaders in grading college football players’ performances over the course of the past six seasons, with almost all of its top-graded athletes moving on to have tremendous success at the next level. Heading the 2020 NFL Draft, the site just recently released its All-Time Prospect team, taking a look at the highest graded players at each position since the system’s inception. Unsurprisingly, the list is filled with former Buckeyes.

Ohio State has absolutely crushed it along the defensive line in recent years, with an ostensibly never-ending assembly line of incredible NFL-ready talent. The most recent product is Chase Young. Almost certainly a top-two selection in the upcoming draft, Young’s 96.5 pass-rushing grade makes him one of the most dominant edge prospects PFF has ever seen. While Myles Garrett earned the other first-team nod opposite Young, both Nick Bosa and Joey Bosa were named honorable mentions — two guys who went on to win NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in their respective inaugural seasons in the pros.

Of course, the Buckeyes love to tout their talents at defensive back, choosing to go by BIA (Best in America) rather than DBU. Whichever one they’d prefer to call themselves, the team can back it up with some elite production in the secondary.

Despite playing only one full season in college, Marshon Lattimore earned a first-team spot at cornerback opposite Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey. Lattimore’s 2016 campaign was certainly enough to earn him that recognition, allowing just 18 catches on 40 targets with four picks, amounting to an opposing passer rating of just 31.9. Another likely top-five pick in this upcoming draft, Jeff Okudah earned an honorable mention.

At the free safety spot, Malik Hooker made the list for his ridiculous 2016 season. Showcasing absurd range and innate ball-hawking abilities, Hooker picked off seven passes (three of which he returned for TDs) to earn a 91.5 coverage grade. The safety has not quite been able to show out at the next level thus far and has battled a few injuries, but did start in all 27 games he played in the past two years with the Indianapolis Colts.

This weekend saw the first ever action of the new XFL, and whether you liked what you saw or not, Ohio State fans definitely had a reason to tune in on Saturday. The DC Defenders took the field in the inaugural game of the season, lining up with quarterback Cardale Jones at the helm. The man affectionately known by Buckeye fans as 12-Gauge famously led them to a National Championship in 2014 following an injury to starter J.T. Barrett, and while his NFL career didn’t exactly pan out, the XFL is providing an opportunity for him to resurrect his football career.

Jones could not have asked for things to go much better in his first start for the Defenders, leading his team to a 31-19 win over the Seattle Dragons to start the season 1-0. The strong-armed QB lit it up on Saturday afternoon, passing for 235 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Jones also showcased the ability to effectively use his legs, escaping the pocket multiple times to extend plays while also rushing for 28 yards in the game.

After going a perfect 11-0 as a starter at Ohio State, Jones has still not lost a game as a starting QB since high school. Jones was also the highest-graded offensive player from the weekend’s slate of XFL games, according to PFF. With quarterback play looking pretty lackluster overall in the league’s first contests, the former Buckeye was one of the lone bright spots at the position as one of the biggest names in the eight-team circuit.

Jones is joined on the Defenders by two more former Ohio State players, including defensive lineman Tracy Sprinkle and cornerback Doran Grant.

Jones and the rest of his DC teammates will next take the field this Saturday at 2 p.m. EST when they face-off against the NY Guardians. The game will be broadcast on ABC.

Rumors were floating around late Sunday night that former Ohio State coach and current Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell would be leaving the Bearcats to take the now-vacant Michigan State job. He did interview with the Spartans on Sunday, however after talking it over with his family and weighing his options, the now fourth-year Cinci head coach has decided to stay put in southwest Ohio.

Fickell has done a tremendous job in his first three seasons with the Bearcats. After a 4-8 season in his first campaign with the team, the former OSU interim HC and co-defensive coordinator has led Cincinnati to 22-5 overall the past two years while winning a pair of bowl games over ACC opponents. While he is passing up the opportunity to take over a Power Five job, he is clearly happy with the success he is having with the Bearcats, especially given that eight of the 20 recruits he signed in this year’s recruiting class chose to go to Cincinnati despite also having offers to MSU.

The decision to stay put is good news for Ohio State for multiple reasons. Obviously not having to face-off against Fickell both on the field and in the recruiting game at MSU — especially given his Ohio ties — is a plus. However, had Fickell decided to leave Cincinnati, the Bearcats head coaching vacancy could have been an intriguing draw for newly-appointed OSU defensive coordinator Kerry Coombs. The Buckeye assistant likely would have been Cinci’s top candidate for the job, and with Coombs’ ties to the city would have made for a very interesting decision to make for the career assistant coach.

In other coaching news of interest to Ohio State, it is being revealed by senior NFL reporter Albert Breer that the Philadelphia Eagles were interested in hiring Buckeye assistant Brian Hartline as their wide receivers coach, but Hartline instead elected to remain at OSU. Just recently named the national recruiter of the year by 247Sports, Hartline is a massive asset for Ohio State both with his on-field coaching ability within his position group and as a phenomenal player in the recruiting game.

Quincy Wilson

All’s quiet, or so it seems. Players have scattered and practice fields at the Farm Bureau Football Center are vacant.

But don’t kid yourself. There’s no such thing as an offseason with the Indianapolis Colts or the NFL.

“We are building a foundation of players that can have sustainable success,’’ Frank Reich said. “We just need to continue to fight to get better. Everything will be evaluated and everything is held accountable.’’

Chris Ballard described the 7-9 record “a stain that does not easily wash away.’’

He quickly added, “We’ve got to get better.’’

No one’s asked for our input, but we’ll offer it anyway. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts, including what went right, what went wrong and what might occur.

Today: Defensive backs

Starters: CB Pierre Desir, CB Kenny Moore II, S Malik Hooker, S Khari Willis.
Backups: CB Rock Ya-Sin, CB Qunicy Wilson, CB Marvell Tell III, CB Briean Boddy-Calhoun, S Clayton Geathers, S George Odom.

The bad

Collectively, the back end of Matt Eberflus’ defense didn’t hold up. It allowed a 70.1 completion rate – the second straight year 70 percent was breached – but that’s a like-it-or-not byproduct of the scheme. The approach is to allow underneath throws, then swarm to the ball and limit yards after the catch. It’s to force opponents to mount long drives and keep gashing plays to a minimum.

The problem last season? Not only did QBs pick apart the secondary – during an ineffective three-game stretch in December, Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston and Drew Brees went 79-for-97 (81.4 pct), led by Brees’ ridiculous 29-for-30 – they exploited it with “chunk plays,’’ defined as 20-plus yard gains. There were 50 chunk plays that generated 1,462 yards and 11 touchdowns. That was a marked increase over the previous year: 41 chunk plays, 1,238 yards, 7 TDs.

There was plenty of blame to go around as Eberflus mixed more man coverage with his zone principles.

“A lot of times it’d be a line-of-scrimmage technique, where they’d get beat off the line and not stay on the top, not be high for 5, and they got out-run,’’ Ballard said. “It came down to technique, focus, being in the right spots.

“Those things get you beat.’’

The Colts matched last year’s 15 interceptions, but the touchdown total bounced from 21 to 29. They came up with three interceptions against Winston, but that was dwarfed by the overall dominance of Winston, Brees and Tannehill during that three-game stretch: 79-of-97, 945 yards, 10 TDs, three interceptions, a combined 133.0 rating.
Trial by fire

It became clear the coaching staff was balancing winning in the moment with building for the future. Top draft pick Rock Ya-Sin – 34th overall and the first of three 2nd-rounders – started 13 games at corner and was on the field for a team-high 82 percent of the defensive snaps. Fourth-round safety Khari Willis appeared in 14 games, nine as a starter, and handled 59.9 percent of the snaps. They literally dealt with on-the-job training.

Willis was third on the team with 71 tackles. Ya-Sin was fourth with 61 tackles, and added one interception and five defended passes. But his aggressive nature in man coverage also resulted in eight penalties, most by a Colt and tied for third-most among NFL DBs. He was flagged four times for holding, three times for interference. It must be noted those numbers were bloated by a forgettable outing against Denver’s Courtland Sutton, when Ya-Sin was penalized four times – a fifth was declined – for 56 yards.

“He had some really good moments, and he had some ugly moments,’’ Ballard said. “Let me tell you what I love about this kid: he’s exactly what we thought he was going to be in terms of grit, toughness.

“Holy crap, you line up 16 games and you’re asked to play some great players. All he does is work. Good day, I’m going to keep working. Bad day, I’m going to keep working. That’s why he’s going to get better.’’

Fifth-round pick Marvell Tell III also should benefit from early exposure. He made the transition from safety at USC to NFL corner and appeared in 13 games with one start. At times, he worked in the slot when injuries ravaged the depth chart.
The wounded

Ballard rewarded Pierre Desir (three years, $25 million, $12 million guaranteed) with a new contract in March, and gave Kenny Moore II an extension in June that made him the highest-paid nickel corner in the NFL ($30 million over the next four years, with $18 guaranteed). Neither was able to offer the expected immediate return.

Desir, clearly Indy’s top corner, suffered a bruised right knee in the week 2 win at Tennessee, then appeared on the injury report with a hamstring issue heading into the week 4 meeting with Oakland. He played through the knee injury and dealt with the hamstring – the latter greatly cut into his practice time – until it forced him to miss four games. Desir started the final six games, but never seemed to approach the level that earned him his new contract. He led the DBs with three interceptions and 11 defended passes, but two of the interceptions and five defended passes came in the week 16 blowout of Carolina.

“He (had) some struggles,’’ Ballard admitted.

Moore, meanwhile, started 11 games and was his versatile, disruptive self with 2 interceptions, 2.5 sacks, four quarterback hits and three defended passes. However, he dealt with a broken thumb during the preseason and an injury to his left ankle that kept him out of the last four games.

There were several factors to the defense experiencing a late-season fade, and Moore’s absence was chief among them.

“I don’t want to underestimate the loss of Kenny Moore,’’ Ballard said. “I think he’s a real special player. We had a major drop-off when we lost Kenny.’’
The offseason

It’s worth wondering whether we’ve seen the last of Clayton Geathers and Quincy Wilson. Geathers will be an unrestricted free agent in March and while he remains a Ballard favorite, his playing time and impact decreased last season. Wilson is under contract, but barely moved the needle in ’19. He appeared in just nine games and was on the field for just 65 total snaps and seven tackles over the final 13 games. He was inactive seven times, and the last two were partially a result of a shoulder issue.

Ballard had a serious discussion with Wilson as the 2017 second-round draft pick headed into the offseason.

“I said, ‘Look, this is it for you. This is a big year for you,’’’ he said. “So it’ll be interesting to see how he comes back and his mindset. I think it’ll be good.’’

Khari Willis

A lot of NFL teams preach about wanting “the right guys” in their locker room. Good teammates, good citizens and good role models for those watching from all around the organization.

If you ask Indianapolis Colts Midwest area scout Chad Henry, that’s exactly what they got in Khari Willis when they selected him in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.

“Yeah. I mean, he is a unique human being,” Henry told reporters after the draft. “The city of Indianapolis is going to love him every bit as much as Indianapolis Colts are, and that transfers into his football character. He’s really smart. He’s the guy the coaches really trust up there.”

The Colts traded up 20 spots last Saturday to acquire Willis, sending fourth-round picks Nos. 129 and 135 to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for 109 so they could make sure they didn’t miss out on acquiring Willis.

The cousin of Colts Ring of Honor member Bill Brooks, Willis has just about everything the Colts are looking for and was someone that was essentially a unanimous favorite in the draft room.

“The more tape we watched on Willis, the more we fell in love with him. We thought about taking him in the third round. It was definitely in consideration,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “We think he’s athletic. We think he’s smart. I thought he was probably one of the better tackling safeties in this draft. We think he’s going to be a really good fit into that safety room. Not only from a talent perspective, but also from an intelligence and character perspective.”

Although most of the players the Colts selected in the 2019 NFL Draft are premium athletes, Willis had a modest showing at the Combine. He’s the type of player who you can’t get a good gauge of without turning on his film.

For reference, Willis’ measurables and athletic testing scores are a 94.3-percent match to New England Patriots safety Patrick Chung, who has been a trusted, full-time starter for Bill Belichick’s defense for eight years. Not only physically, but in terms of leadership, character and being a positive locker room presence, Willis and Chung are pretty similar.

Willis was a team captain at Michigan State who was held in high regard by both his coaches and teammates. At the team’s awards banquets over the last couple years, he was awarded the Biggie Munn Award (most inspirational on defense), Football Players Association Community Service Award, the Captains Award and the Jim Adams Award (unsung hero on defense).

 

Willis also earned a fair amount of attention for his keynote address speech at the 2018 Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon.

“I think that’s very important. That’s something I pride my hat on being a leader in the secondary,” Willis told the media after being selected about his role as a leader. “Trying to make everybody around me better is something that my dad instilled in me since I was playing point guard playing basketball at a young age. I think those kind of translated over as I developed into a defensive player, especially trying to be one of the top defenses in the country and now the top defense in the league. I am very excited to go and try to be a leader here in Indianapolis.”

Obviously, the Colts aren’t just looking for guys who have high character; they have to be good players also. The Colts wouldn’t have traded up 20 spots without being confident in Willis’ game.

He came to Michigan State as the state of Michigan’s reigning High School Player of the Year in 2014 (according to the Ann Arbor News) as a running back before converting to safety. He plays the safety position with the wisdom of being a former high-volume offensive player. It helps him anticipate what the ball carrier is going to do before they’ve done it.

 

Like the Colts will tell you, Willis is a smart player, and his ability to read the offense and then react is very good. He also has nice range to get to the ball when it’s in his cross-heirs.

His frame was also perfect for the running back position, but at 5-11 and 213 pounds it also helps him dole out and absorb punishment as a safety. Although he started as an offensive player, he’s got the aggressive mentality of a defender, as he does not shy away from contact. This goes as a tackler and when engaged with blockers, and he’ll almost always work or rip himself out of the grasp of weaker players.

Many people have pigeon-holed Willis as a box safety because of his frame and sure tackling, but the Colts see more there.
“I think, actually, guys calling him box safety are doing him a disservice, because if you look what he did for their team, they played him all over the place,” Henry said. “I think he’s probably most natural in the box, but the kid is so smart. I’m going to sound like a broken record here: his character — he’s probably one of three or four best guys I did this year.

“So, you see him, not only playing in the box, but I mean, he’s played free safety. He plays nickel. He’s played outside and he did a pretty good job with that,” Henry continued. “I think he’s faster than a lot of people and a lot of people give him credit for it and he tested pretty well that way. I think he ran a 4.4s and he’s a very well- rounded player, in terms of … I was always taught a long time ago slow safeties usually get your beat, dumb safeties always get your beat. He’s the polar opposite of both. So, we’re really excited about him.”

Liked Henry mentioned, Willis isn’t just a strict box safety who has to be set up to play the run. He has shown the ability to effectively cover running backs and tight ends out of the slot; even receivers on occasion.
One pre-draft concern for Willis was a perceived lack of elite speed, but his closing speed and ability to track his man downfield is adequate. He also shows the quickness and athleticism to be aggressive when it comes to knocking down passes.

One thing that Willis likely will be coached-up on is being patient and disciplined when engaging ball carriers. He takes good angles, but he can be overzealous and overshoot his target when trying to bring the ball carrier down.

As a player, Willis wants the responsibility of being a leader to his teammates and a capable defender at all levels of the field.

“I think I am a sure-tackling safety that likes to play around the line of scrimmage, but can step out on the deep parts of the field and make plays,” Willis said. “I feel like you are going to get somebody that’s going to lead, be able to go down and guard people, press up on guys, as well as get guys, meet the backs one-on-one in the hole. I think I am versatile. I think I am well-rounded at the safety position. It’s just a matter of when I am going to take off when I learn the system. I think you are getting a leader as well.”

The Colts do already have a handful of quality safeties on the roster, but Willis still sees opportunity to get on the field considering the Colts’ knack for occasionally using more than two safeties in certain packages.

“Yeah, I think it fits me and suits me well. Just based on what they like to do,” Willis said. “Based on what they like to do playing in the dime packages and stuff like that. I think that will help me because at Michigan State I played nickel, I played in the box, I blitzed a lot off the edge, up the middle and did a lot of things like that. I think they saw that as well, saw my versatility and thought they could play me at one of those three spots.”
No matter how quickly his time comes, it looks like the Colts got someone who will work tirelessly and be a positive influence in the locker room while he works toward hitting the field.

Bobby Okereke

What’s the only thing better for the Indianapolis Colts than one Darius Leonard?

While he may not have the type of instant impact that Leonard did as a rookie — after all, it’d be tough for any NFL player to duplicate that season, let alone a rookie — new Indianapolis Colts linebacker Bobby Okereke compares quite favorably to the reigning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.

With the 89th-overall pick in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Okereke became the seventh linebacker off the board (and was introduced in spectacular fashion). Both the Colts’ newest player and their war room could not have been happier as a result.

 

 

“I just felt really comfortable with them,” Okereke told the local media on a conference call following his selection. “They kept telling me, ‘We want you to be a Colt. We love you. We love your play style. We think we would fit well with you.’ I’m excited that they pulled the trigger.”

Before we get to Okereke the player, we’ve got to give a quick look into Okereke the person. You have to know his background before understanding what he is capable of.

The Stanford team captain and Eagle Scout is quite accomplished off of the football field. He won the “prestigious Watkins Award in 2014 as the nation’s top African-American high school player in terms of academic and athletic excellence,” according to NFL.com Draft Analyst Lance Zierlein.

Most notably, Okereke once interned for former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and even organized an important project for her.

Okereke is someone who’s been able to juggle all of these things while being a collegiate student athlete and three-year starter at a prestigious school like Stanford. Now he’s got more time to focus on football as his full-time job, which should be a potentially scary thought for opponents.

 

 

In terms of on-field potential and athleticism, Okereke is well above average. At 6-1, 239, he is “undersized” by old school linebacker measurements, but he fits the Colts perfectly. His 34” arms and 82” wingspan are both way more than normal, ranking in the 97th percentile. Okereke’s 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the Combine was in the 85th percentile for NFL linebackers, and his 122” broad jump was in the 82nd percentile.

The NFL linebacker who Okereke most closely resembles in terms of measurables and athletic testing is none other than current Colts linebacker and reigning First-Team All-Pro and NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Darius Leonard.

Okereke’s 40 time verified what you see from him on tape, which shows a linebacker that can fly sideline to sideline. His range and tracking speed is excellent, as is his read-and-react ability. If he has you in his sights, it’s over.

He’s not just an athlete, though. He plays the linebacker position with the necessary aggression. He attacks the ball rather than waiting for it to come to him, which is more than you can say for some top linebacker prospects.

Okereke’s range and closing burst even shows up while blitzing the quarterback.
Okereke’s long arms help him gets off blocks, and they give him more space when he stacks-and-sheds from blockers when the ball is approaching him. His arm length also helps him reach ball carriers when out of position easier than a typical player would be able to.

Similar to Leonard, one concern for Okereke coming into the draft was that he does sometimes get stuck on blocks. He can be taught better hand-fighting techniques and how to use his leverage to get out of those situations.

He will also sometimes come in too hot in the run game, missing the ballcarrier. It’s easier said than done because it’s often based on instinct, but if Okereke can develop some better patience and discipline when approaching the ball, it could help clear up this area.

 

Linebacker is a crowded position group for the Colts, so you better be talented if you’re going to make the team and crack the lineup, and that should be the expectation for Okereke. One thing young players often have to learn to be accepting of is special teams play, and that’s already at the forefront of Okereke’s mind.

“Yeah, I mean I’ll obviously come in as a guy who can play on all four special teams and then just be a fast, athletic guy that can compete and just play wherever I’m needed,” he said.

Okereke has a lot of experience at WILL and MIKE already, but according to him, he is expected to play more MIKE for the Colts, although that situation could be fluid according to general manager Chris Ballard.

 

“Any ‘backer we take we think can play all three spots. So Darius can play all three. Anthony Walker can play all three. Bobby can play all three,” Ballard said. “He’ll get in and he’ll compete and the best three will play.”

One bittersweet part of the Colts’ linebacker group is that they’ve done such a fine job of acquiring talent at the position over the last two years that there won’t be room for everybody come the start of the regular season.

This is truly an example of “iron sharpening iron” and “letting the best man win.” When the Colts hit the practice fields at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Ind., for training camp in late July, linebacker will be one of the liveliest position battles we see.

So, what’s it going to be like to come in and play with such a decorated teammate like Leonard? Okereke can’t wait.

“I mean, it’s amazing. I obviously get to come in and pick his brain,” Okereke said. “But to have someone in the position room like that to compete with every day and to feed that type of energy off of — I mean it’s only going to make both of us better.”

Parris Campbell

The Indianapolis Colts made several moves and selections en route to the conclusion of the 2019 NFL Draft that saw them exit with 10 players when it was all said and done.

One of those players the Colts selected on Day 2 of the draft was former Ohio State wide receiver Parris Campbell, a prospect most believe is a perfect fit for Indy’s offense being led by quarterback Andrew Luck and head coach Frank Reich.

The selection at No. 59 overall was listed as the team’s best pick in the entire draft by Ryan Wilson of CBS Sports.

WR Parris Campbell is a burner. He singlehandedly beat Michgan with his speed last season and he accomplished all this while rarely running deep routes. He excelled from the slot, where his bread and butter were crossing routes where he turned 7-yard gains into touchdowns. He’ll have little trouble acclimating to life with Andrew Luck, who has one more offensive weapon at his disposal.

Flashing 4.31 speed at the NFL Combine and constantly pulling away from defenders on tape, Campbell’s ability to take a short route for a long gain after the catch is an element the Colts were missing in 2018.

Campbell is expecting to work primarily from the slot as he did in college, though he does have the size to work on the boundary at times. However, his limited exposure to press coverage clouds his outlook on the outside.

It remains to be seen how quickly Campbell can carve out a role, but he has a chance to make his mark in the offense early on given that his skill set is a unique one.

Ben Banogu

The Indianapolis Colts’ defensive rebuild was ahead of schedule by the end of the 2018 season, and they are now taking steps to move it to the next level in the 2019 NFL Draft.

After selecting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin with their first pick at No. 34, the Colts then drafted TCU edge defender Ben Banogu with the 49th overall pick in the second round. However, he may not be considered an edge defender for long.

Banogu has been listed as a linebacker by the Colts, and both he and Colts general manager provided some context as to why that is on Friday night.

“Look Ben is an intriguing athlete. We will probably start him out at SAM, but saying that we also think he has got a lot of rush to him. I hate comparing names but when Jamie Collins came out of Southern Miss, I saw the same type of athletic talent and I think when you watch the Senior Bowl – I mean he did some impressive things, now,” Ballard told reporters.

“They line him up at outside backer and rushed him, they rushed him from the three-technique, they played him at SAM, they played him at MIKE some,” Ballard continued. “We think he has got a lot of versatility and his speed and athleticism and ability to run down quarterbacks is important in this league. We think he is going to be great on our turf.”

Banogu’s ability to line up in different spots and perform different tasks is potentially a huge weapon for coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense.

“Well as far as linebacker goes, the coaches – we had meetings and everything through the Senior Bowl process, the combine and pro day,” Banogu said. “They have been talking about playing everywhere in the front seven from linebacker to rushing on pass downs. Just trying to maximize my athleticism.”

Using the 6-3, 250-pound Banogu at linebacker makes perfect sense.

While he has great speed, athleticism and short-area quickness, he does have some areas to work on that become less of an issue at linebacker as opposed to defensive end.

Banogu occasionally had trouble freeing himself from blocks, but by standing him up off the ball and putting him in space, it helps give him time to engage the blocker rather than getting in immediate contact.

He also really likes to start on the edge and cut inside to find a path to the quarterback. While it works much of the time, sometimes it gets him right into the throws of a double-team. If he’s standing up off the ball, it again gives him more time to develop a plan of attack and will allow him to get through the lane quicker.

Standing up more often than being in a three-point stance shouldn’t be an issue if that is the plan, as Banogu has experience in several different spots in the Horned Frogs’ defense and stood up quite a bit.

Part of what allows Banogu to wear so many different hats is his supreme athleticism. He tested at an elite level at the Combine, his 40-yard dash (4.62), vertical (40”) and broad jumps (134”), three-cone (7.02) and short shuttle (4.27) all ranking in the 80th percentile or better among edge defenders. His 40, vertical and broad jumps averaged better than the 95th percentile.

Although Banogu knows he’s probably going to be used as a chess piece for Eberflus around the defense, one task will always hold a special place in his heart.

 

“For me, I love to get after the passer. I love getting sacks and setting the edge and rushing. That’s an awesome part of the game and that’s why I played. Doing some of the linebacker stuff at the Senior Bowl really opened my eyes to all the neat ways that you can kind of create plays and turnovers for your team,” Banogu said.

“I am just really excited to show them what I can do within the front seven,” he continued. “I am confident in myself and I am just glad that they are confident in me to give me the opportunity to go out and showcase that.”