Every year at this time, fans and analysts pore over scouting reports and tape in order to find each team's ideal player, especially in the first round. Last season, that was fairly easy to do for the Colts, as Andrew Luck was the clear choice at No. 1.
In 2011, I had a pretty clear idea of who I thought the Colts should draft at No. 22. Everything worked out as planned, and Anthony Castonzo was drafted by the Colts.
This year? This year I have no idea.
With the Colts putting Band-Aids (although not necessarily long-term answers) on so many positions via free agency, they've given themselves an incredible amount of flexibility. With several holes at starting positions to start the offseason, the Colts are left with just several positions that have very weak starters: right guard, center and strong-side outside linebacker.
While these areas are weak, it doesn't mean the Colts are looking to fill that role in the first round. There are two players that I would be comfortable taking in the first round to play interior line: Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack. I don't see either lasting until No. 24. At SOLB, the Colts seem content with starting Erik Walden in 2013. I don't believe he's a long-term solution at the position, but the Colts are paying him to start.
With those caveats, it seems that the Colts don't need to desperately fill in a starter with their first pick, but instead can find the best value possible.
So, if the Colts don't trade down in the first round, they're looking to add top-end talent at one of several positions that will need it for the franchise's long-term health. Those positions are: wide receiver, offensive line, defensive line, outside linebacker, cornerback and safety.
There are several targets for all of these positions, which makes choosing one "dream" prospect very difficult (and makes the loss of the Colts' second round draft pick sting all the more).
But, if there's one guy who will realistically could be there at No. 24 that excites me like none other, it's Jonathan Cyprien, the hard-hitting safety from Florida International University (if the university seems familiar, it's because the Colts drafted T.Y. Hilton from the college in 2012).
Cyprien has shot up the boards as scouts and analysts noticed him wreaking havoc at the Senior Bowl. After seeing him there, intrigue rose dramatically, and scouts began to see that Cyprien's film matches his play at the Senior Bowl.
With Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry locked into starting spots for 2013, it may seem disingenuous to draft a safety this high, but there are a few things to consider.
First, Bethea's contract will expire next season. The new front office has no loyalty to Bethea, who turns 30 next July, and likely will feel no regret about letting him test the free agency market (especially if his play doesn't improve from a down 2012).
Second, Landry, recently signed to a four-year, $24 million deal, is not an elite game-changing safety, despite his recent trip to the Pro Bowl. Pro Football Focus gave him a negative overall grade in 2012, and while Landry certainly can hit, his coverage skills are so limited that it makes him a pretty one-dimensional player.
With Bethea likely leaving in a year, the Colts need to begin to look for his replacement. We've seen elite safety talents bring defenses to another level, and the Colts need to find that kind of player to transform Pagano's defense from a potentially good unity to a great one.
Cyprien, like Landry, can hit, but Cyprien has much better coverage skills than Landry does. He doesn't have elite straight line speed, but he has very good instincts in coverage and excels at tracking the ball through the air.
Cyprien is more natural in zone coverage, allowing him to read and react, but FIU wasn't shy about putting him one-on-one with a tight end, or even a slot receiver, at times. Cyprien also is an effective blitzer, with a sneaky ability to quickly avoid blocks and get in the backfield.
While Cyprien is known for his big hits behind the line of scrimmage, FIU used him in all sorts of different ways, depending on the opponent. Against the running attack of Western Kentucky, Cyprien spent a lot of time in the box, where he was extremely successful in slipping through blocks and getting to the ball-carrier. Against Louisville and QB Teddy Bridgewater, Cyprien spent much of his time back in a deep coverage role, sometimes as the single-high safety.
It was one of those single-high safety plays that was one of his most impressive of my tape review. Louisville runs a play action, which fools the cornerback, leading to his tripping and allowing the wide receiver to become wide open on a go route down the sideline.
As you can see, the ball has just been thrown here, and Cyprien has a lot of ground to make up in order to contain the receiver.
Despite a solid throw from Bridgewater, and Cyprien being the solo centerfielder on the play, Cyprien used his superior athleticism and instincts to breakup the pass. But it was ball-tracking that finished the play, as he tracked the ball and made a leaping, momentum stealing interception.
Under Chuck Pagano's defense Cyprien would use his variety of skills to become an unknown, making teams account for him on every snap. One of the biggest reasons why safeties like Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu have been so successful is due to their lining up in different spots on every snap. Cyprien has experience to do that, and the patience and abilities to make big plays happen.
From Russ Lande of the National Football Post in Michael Schottey's recent breakdown of Cyprien:
Cyprien is an explosive athlete that can play the run and pass from sideline to sideline. He takes excellent angles of pursuit and demonstrates the ability to break down in space. When in zone coverage he instinctually reads the QB and flashes the burst to cut off routes and the ball skills to high point the ball for INTs and PBUs.
Who should the Colts draft at #24?
Cyprien is a bit raw, with a few technique issues that will slow him down at first in the NFL. Specifically Cyprien can often bite on play action and eye fakes by the quarterback, leaving him out of position, and will sometimes tackle too high and allowing a runner to bounce off.
But a year playing behind Antoine Bethea and being coached by Chuck Pagano should be a huge boost for Cyprien. Bethea is a savvy veteran with years of experience at free safety, while Pagano's expertise is defensive backs (not to mention his experience coaching Ed Reed, arguably the greatest safety to ever play the game). With that year in place, Cyprien would be more than capable to step in as a starter and make significant impact.
On top of the physical talents, Cyprien is a vocal leader and a passionate athlete, someone who is going to put in the extra time and who has no questions about their character and work ethic. With intangibles like that, Cyprien would be a perfect fit in the Colts' young secondary, solidifying the group for the future.