With around $35 million in cap space in 2014, the Indianapolis Colts are primed for another active free agency. While fans will be quick to prognosticate about which big-name free agents the Colts will pursue, some of the team's biggest decisions, arguably the biggest, will be about their own players.
From deciding whether or not to cut players on the 2014 roster or whether or not to re-sign players whose contracts expire, there is more than enough to talk about just when examining current Colts.
Among those decisions is one that will have ramifications on the Colts defense for years to come: whether or not to re-sign cornerback Vontae Davis.
Davis was the target of a Ryan Grigson trade in 2012, when the general manager traded a second-round pick to the Miami Dolphins for the third-year cornerback. While the Colts did only get two years out of Davis before his rookie-contract was up, they were two productive years, especially 2013, when Davis blossomed as a No. 1 corner.
While every Colts fan knows that Davis was instrumental for the Colts defense in 2013, opinions differ on what he is worth going forward. While there are valid arguments on both sides of the coin, Davis' value in the Colts' system and experience in Indianapolis make him my must-sign for 2014.
The Press-Man Fit
The biggest reason why Davis is so valuable in Indianapolis is his fit in the Colts' press-man coverage schemes. While the Colts like to mix things up in the back to confuse opposing quarterbacks, Davis played the majority of his snaps in man-to-man coverage (often pressed up on the line of scrimmage).
In that role, Davis was very effective, locking up the other team's No. 1 receiver and allowing the Colts to shift their safeties into other roles.
While Davis occasionally had safety help, the Colts often went with a single-high safety look, as they brought one of the two safeties down towards the line of scrimmage to blitz, cover a tight end or running back or spy the quarterback.
The above picture was what the Colts' base defensive scheme looked like this season, as Davis (blue) pressed up on his man, often the No. 1 receiver, and Antoine Bethea (orange) crept toward the line to support the run. Meanwhile, Delano Howell (red) dropped back toward the middle of the field.
CB Greg Toler would alternate his coverage on the opposite side, sometimes in press, sometimes in off-man, but Davis was nearly always in press.
Now, Howell would later be replaced by Landry, and the two safeties would often switch roles, depending on which side the tight end lined up on. But, for the most part, this was the kind of set you would see.
Without Davis, the Colts would have had to run a much more traditional two-deep scheme, which would have been difficult with Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry's strengths lying closer to the line of scrimmage.
As it was, Davis was definitely successful. Davis finished the season with a plus 15.5 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required), third-best among all cornerbacks in 2013 behind Darrelle Revis and Brent Grimes. Davis finished 14th out of 81 corners in cover snaps per reception allowed (subscription required) and when he did allow a reception, he rarely missed tackles, missing just two for the entire year in coverage, for 11th in the league in tackling efficiency (subscription required).
So if Davis actually was pretty successful for most of the year, why do so many fans (and analysts I respect) view Davis as a mediocre cornerback?
The answer likely lies in the nature of the plays that Davis gave up.
When Davis was targeted, the outcome always seemed to either be a big play for the offense or nothing, there was nothing in between. Davis would either force an incompletion or minimal gain (again, he was very good at tackling those five-yard completions for few yards) or the offense would pick up a big play over the top.
Part of this deserves some excuse-making on Davis' behalf. For one, Davis' role in the defense set him up for failure in some regard. If Davis was often on an island, with little safety help, that meant that if a receiver got behind him, he likely was going to get a big play.
Take, for example, the third play from scrimmage against the Houston Texans in Week 9.
There are three things to notice from the pre-snap alignment. First, you can see Antoine Bethea is in the box, and Landry is dropped back. This gives Davis, on the bottom of the picture, no safety help over the top.
Second, Davis is on the left side of the defense, rather than his customary right side. This may not seem significant, but it is.
Davis played the vast majority of the season on the right side, and he's more comfortable there. This particular game was odd because the Colts were trying to figure out how to defend without CB Greg Toler, who was hurt in Week 7. They clearly didn't trust Cassius Vaughn with Andre Johnson, so they moved Davis around more.
Third, Davis is in off-man, which he's not nearly as adept at as press-man. He's forced to read and attack vertically more, which isn't necessarily his strong suit (similarly, he isn't as comfortable in zone). Not, so coincidentally, the next offensive play was a 16-yard gain to Johnson given up by Davis in which Davis was once again in off-man.
Now when you see what happened, it makes a bit more sense. The linebackers were completely fooled by the run-fake, and it's forced Landry to come up to the middle of the field, leaving nobody over the top in case Johnson fakes the out route and goes deep, which he does.
Davis is wrong for biting on the fake, but he also has no help, and so the play goes for six points. It's not an excuse for Davis, just a big reason why his receptions often resulted in such notable plays.
Davis allowed three receptions for 78 yards in the first four plays from scrimmage of this game, and that's largely what people remember, but it wasn't the end. Davis didn't allow a single reception for the rest of the contest (targeted five times), and allowed just two receptions for nine yards (six targets) in the next meeting with the Texans.
His work on Johnson in that meeting (four receptions for 18 yards) was a big reason why the Colts blew the Texans out.
Another excuse for Davis is that when he did have safety help, it wasn't very good. Neither Landry or Bethea are particularly good in coverage at this point in their careers, and they were more of a hindrance than a help in that department for most of 2013. When Landry was hurt, Davis was helped by a versatile, but inexperienced Howell.
For example, Davis gave up a touchdown to Keenan Allen against the Chargers, but it was largely due to the safety help (or lack thereof) than Davis' poor coverage.
You can see Davis (who was in press-man) is running stride-for-stride with Allen here. The Monday Night Football crew has highlighted Howell at safety, and John Gruden was correctly noting that Allen got out of position. Howell lunges toward the underneath route before realizing Rivers was looking deep, and he allows Allen to sneak behind him.
Howell's premature lunging and attempt to scramble back into place not only allows Allen to get behind him, but it also gets Howell in the way of Davis, who has no chance to recover. Davis was guarding against a sideline pass and allows Allen to break inside because he was expecting Howell to be there. When Howell was five yards shallower than he should have been, Davis didn't even have room to try to get back into position.
Now, I'm not excusing Davis for everything. He doesn't have great ball skills, and he sometimes is slow to get his head around to judge the ball in the air, which is part of why he can be vulnerable over the top.
I like to say he is consistent in coverage, but inconsistent when the ball is in the air. But when it comes down to it, there are few cornerbacks in the league that have the consistent press-man coverage skills that he does.
Colts fans can rave about Alterraun Verner all they want, but Verner doesn't have much, if anything, on Davis in press coverage.
Verner has better ball skills, but not by nearly as much as one might think and not enough to offset the fact that he will likely be more expensive than Davis, isn't as consistent in coverage as Davis and doesn't have the experience Davis has in Chuck Pagano's defense.
Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't complain about Verner, who is a fantastic corner in his own right, but with Davis' fit with the Colts, it's a no-brainer. As long as he doesn't cost more than $8 million per year, the Colts must re-sign Davis this offseason.
Salary cap information courtesy of Spotrac.