Indianapolis Colts’ Tight End Woes

The Indianapolis Colts certainly have their franchise quarterback in place, but they entered the 2016 NFL Draft hoping to solidify a defense that lets that quarterback down far too often. However, the team made additions among the front seven and defensive backs to solve a major problem area: tight ends. Matt Danely looks at the additions are enough to put an end to the Indianapolis Colts’ tight end woes.

Despite using 16 of their 38 of their draft picks on the defensive side of the ball since 2012, the Indianapolis Colts’ defense has major issues such as stopping the run with consistency and giving up the big play. A significant reason for their struggles is that of all those picks, only the five defenders from their 2015 draft class remain on the roster – with just three having an impact on the field.

To boost their struggling run defense, Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano added some solid front-seven talent in Henry Anderson and David Parry from the 2015 pull, and some high-potential run stoppers in Hassan Ridgeway and Antonio Morrison in the 2016 draft. Pairing these additions with Kendall Langford and Arthur Jones – if he’s ever healthy – should improve their run defense which has been no better than 18th (113.4 RYA/G) in the league since 2012. The run defense has been ranked 25th or worse in three of the four years of the new era in Indianapolis, but the lack of run defense isn’t this group’s only major issue.

Stopping tight ends has also proven to be another major problem area for this defensive group. Attempting to mitigate their inability to cover the position, the Colts drafted strong safety Clayton Geathers in 2015 with the intention that he would re-route and disrupt the likes of quality pass catchers at the position such as Rob Gronkowski, Delanie Walker, Julius Thomas, and Tyler Eifert while also assisting in run support. This hasn’t, at this point, come to fruition as the Colts’ struggles to handcuff the position were just as apparent last season.

The Colts were very middle-of-the-road in third down percentage, 30th in fourth down situations, and were 20th in DVOA against opposing tight ends. All this while ranking in the bottom-third of the league defending TEs by allowing 84 catches (24th), 976 yards (28th) and 11.62 yards per catch (27th). It’s safe to say this is a major wart in the Colts’ defensive scheme that needs fixing sooner rather than later.

In the second-round of the 2016 draft, the Colts selected T.J. Green (Clemson), a 6-foot-2, 209 pound hybrid-type safety with 4.3 speed who has also played both cornerback and wide receiver in his collegiate career. On the surface, this appears to be an intelligent pick. Pagano has already stated that the former Tiger would play safety. Green has a very interesting build that makes one assume that his coverage skills could become necessary if he were to spell Geathers on passing downs.

In 2015 six of the Colts’ eight losses, tight ends either scored a touchdown or had at least 85 receiving yards. Additionally, there was a touchdown given up, or 85 receiving yards gained from the position in only three of their victories. This shows us a couple things: The Colts won more when they didn’t give up a big game to a tight end, and also shows just how close the Colts were to losing those games when they did allow a tight end to go off. In those three victories where they allowed TEs to have big games, the Colts won by an average of 2.7 points per game, while winning by an average of 4.4 points in their five other wins.

Not impressive either way, but it is a slight trend.

Looking ahead, it is hard to see what exactly the Colts see in Green that raises their confidence in his ability to help the defense shut down tight ends. Green’s film shows a willing tackler, a possible situational pass rusher, a good coverage DB on routes in front of him, and a run defender who takes good angles to the ball carrier.

It also shows, however, that Green’s speed in a 40-yard dash doesn’t necessarily translate to his field speed. His legs look very heavy in coverage and, he’s slow to turn his hips and run and diagnose / react to his responsibilities, whether it be a man or zone coverage. He also gets targeted when in a single-high look. This selection doesn’t appear to make logical sense for what the Colts need right now. Green is a strong special teamer, but he has identifiable issues as a coverage safety and this seems like a questionable use of resources.

The Colts may end up keeping more safeties on the roster than they have in the past as they’ve made a concerted effort to use them in this manner with limited results. The Colts linebackers’ limitations in coverage, and their slot cornerbacks lacking the necessary physicality, places the burden on the safeties. This is the solution Pagano has come up with, but the team has yet to find that piece to make it a success.

Geathers and Green join Stefan McClure, Dezmen Southward, and Andrew Williamson, who are all built relatively similarly and will be looking to make a name for themselves in camp. Either way, pending a couple linebackers suddenly becoming significantly more adept in coverage, the tight end woes appear likely to continue into 2016.

Follow Matt on Twitter @MDanely_NFL.

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