Long-time fan favorite Antoine Bethea has been a mainstay in the Indianapolis Colts defensive backfield since 2006, when the sixth-round draft pick out of Howard University came to Indianapolis and won a starting spot as a rookie. His stout play that season in 14 regular-season games and throughout the playoffs was a big reason why the Colts won their first Super Bowl since Johnny Unitas played in Baltimore.
But after eight years of service, Bethea's time with the Colts came to an end earlier this month, as he was signed by the San Francisco 49ers on a four-year deal worth up to $26 million.
Now the Colts must go about replacing the ironman. Bethea hasn't missed a game since 2007, and his departure will leave a gaping hole in the Colts secondary. While the Colts have made several moves in free agency, safety has not yet been addressed, outside of special teams ace Sergio Brown.
So how does a team replace a versatile, reliable two-time Pro Bowler?
Check the Past to Predict the Future
Before we look at options going forward, it's important to explain what roles the safeties played last season in order to understand the kind of production that must be replaced.
The thing that made Bethea so valuable to the Colts was his versatility. Under Chuck Pagano and Greg Manusky, the Colts defensive backfield has predicated much of its philosophy on showing different coverage looks on nearly every snap.
This wasn't quite as true in 2013 as it was in 2012, as the Colts acquired more natural pieces for their hybrid defense and relied less on cloak-and-dagger methods, but the team still rotated between a plethora of looks.
For an example, let's take a look at the Colts' Week 2 matchup with Miami. The following looks all came from the first half. I've highlighted Bethea (blue), LaRon Landry (red) and their assignments to illustrate:
First, there is the traditional Cover 2 look, with the two safeties splitting the field in zone coverage:
Then, you see Bethea back in a single-high look. The Colts left Landry in this coverage more than Bethea in 2013, and Bethea doesn't have quite the necessary speed to run it well, but his instincts make him an adequate deep safety every once in awhile:
Then there's the in-the-box look, where Bethea was often asked to either shadow a tight end in man coverage or spy the backfield for a quarterback scramble or running back leaking out as a safety valve. In this case Bethea was matched up with Miami TE Charles Clay, but he would be in quarterback-spy mode the next week against San Francisco and Colin Kaepernick.
Combine his versatility in coverage looks with his stout tackling and willingness to mix it up in run defense—Bethea has been in the top 10 in Pro Football Focus' (subscription required) tackling efficiency metric for safeties in three of the past four years—and you have a defensive weapon for just about anything an offense puts on the field.
The Road Ahead: Continuity or Evolution?
It seems that the Colts have two potential paths.
First, they could bring in another versatile strong safety-type to play a similar role. This would allow the Colts to continue to play their varying coverage looks, although Landry would likely be the free safety more often than not. Giving Landry another year in the same role would likely help his performance, which was woefully disappointing in 2013.
Or the Colts could bring in a traditional free safety with strong coverage skills and move Landry to strong safety.
If Indianapolis really does want to build a defense similar to Seattle's, then this kind of move would make the most sense. While getting a solid single-high safety is difficult, moving Landry to a Kam Chancellor-type role would fit his skill set better. Of course, the key is to get an Earl Thomas-type behind him, and that is much easier said than done.
An alternate comparison would be Pagano's defense in Baltimore, which relied on Bernard Pollard in an enforcer role at strong safety and Ed Reed as a roaming free safety.
If the Colts want a versatile safety to make their coverages a bit more ambiguous, the best option on the free-agent market is likely Denver's Mike Adams. Adams has played both strong and free safety for the Broncos for the last two years and recently was ranked 17th by Bleacher Report's NFL 1000 team. The veteran would be a stop-gap solution for Indianapolis.
For free safeties, Miami's Chris Clemons is still available. Clemons is reliable as a single-high safety in coverage, finishing ninth in PFF's coverage grades this year.
In the draft, there are any number of options. The Colts defensive back coaches were at strong safety Deone Bucannon's pro day last week, according to NFL.com's Gil Brandt. Florida State's Terrence Brooks is a free safety that realistically could be around for the Colts' second or third-round pick.
The most intriguing prospect may be Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward. Ward played strong safety for much of 2013, but has the speed and instincts necessary to play free safety as well. He would be an interesting piece for the Colts to work with. Ideally, he'd grow into a high-end free safety, but if that didn't work out he should still be able to play a versatile role similar to Bethea's.
Ward's 5'11", 193-pound size may have some concerned, but the Colts are still interested, as they showed by sending personnel to his pro day and speaking to him individually, according to Dan Wiederer of the Chicago Tribune.
What About Delano Howell?
The wild card in all of this is Delano Howell, who stepped in for Landry last season when he was injured early on. Howell was surprisingly competent and showed a versatility that both Landry and Bethea possessed that allowed the Colts to continue to use their interchangeable safeties scheme.
Howell dropped back and played the deep safety role often, but also showed aggressive attacking skills against the run.
He did a good job against San Francisco of attacking short and intermediate routes, following the quarterback's eyes and breaking on routes. On two occasions, Howell broke up a pass by jarring the ball free as the receiver attempted to catch it:
But when asked to sit deep against San Diego, a team with a legitimate downfield passing attack, Howell got lost in space and completely misplayed this skinny post, leading to a touchdown:
The other negative Howell has is his missed tackles, brought on by overaggression at times. Howell missed five tackles in just four games in 2013.
If Howell is healthy, he represents solid depth and a potential starting option, but "potential" is the key word. Howell flashed positives last season, but was also unreliable much of the time. He fits the profile of a safety Pagano and Manusky could use next to Landry, but he has to put all the tools together in order for it to work.
Going into the season with Howell as the only starting option next to Landry would be a big risk. The Colts need somebody dependable in the back with Landry's struggles and inconsistent linebackers in the middle. Howell can't be counted on as reliable based on last season. At the very least, the Colts should bring in somebody to compete with Howell to give themselves multiple options.
Antoine Bethea has left some very big shoes to fill. It may not be a one-man job.