Remember when the prospect of the Indianapolis Colts’ secondary without Vontae Davis was a terrifying notion?
You don’t have to look very far to recall what that was like. Just reflect on the first two games of 2016, when Davis missed the start of the regular season with an ankle injury and the Colts scrambled to replace him by signing the likes of Antonio Cromartie, fresh off the street.
Davis missed the start of this season, too, the result of a lingering wholesale jerseys groin injury. But when the team’s two-time Pro Bowl selection makes his season debut Sunday night against the Seattle Seahawks, he’ll find the secondary in much better shape than he did upon his return to the lineup in 2016.
First-round pick Malik Hooker is now roaming the middle of the field at free safety, showing all the potential you figured he’d display coming out of Ohio State. Tough-as-nails slot cornerback Nate Hairston, a fifth-round pick from Temple, is excelling. And Rashaan Melvin, the starting left cornerback opposite right corner Davis, is playing the best football of his career. He’s coming off a two-interception performance against the Cleveland Browns a week ago, when the Colts notched their first win of the season.
And second-round pick Quincy Wilson will eventually return from a knee injury that will sideline him at least another week.
What a difference a year makes. A secondary that was on life support at times last year now has the arrow pointing up.
“They’re competing,” Davis said of his teammates in the defensive backfield. “That’s as much as you can ask for. They’re taking what they learn into the game. That’s what you ask for: Competing and finishing. Since training camp, those guys are getting better and better. And they’re going to continue to get better the more snaps they get.”
The youngsters who now dominate the back end of the Colts defense have little in common with Davis. The trio of rookies don’t know what they don’t know. They’ve played only a handful of NFL games and haven’t even scratched the surface. Even starting strong safety Matthias Farley is but a second-year player who arrived as an undrafted prospect in 2016.
Contrast that with Davis, a former first-round pick who has earned many millions of dollars and received wide acclaim.
Yet this has become a mutually-beneficial relationship. The young players get to learn from a player of Davis’ caliber, and Davis gets the reward of seeing them flourish.
“I told Malik, man, I’m excited to get back and play with him,” Davis said. “He’s a young talent.”
It’s almost like the baby-faced defensive backs are helping Davis feel young once again. After retelling the story of how he instructed Hooker to retrieve from the game officials the football with which he recorded his first interception, Davis launched into a tale about his own first career pick.
He leaned back in his chair, smiled, then recounted the events in vivid detail.
The ball, he said, is “at home in my archives. It was in Buffalo. It was a pick-6. I remember it like yesterday. It’s your first one, so no matter how long (ago) it is, you’re always going to remember your first pick. The quarterback was (Trent) Edwards. I remember everything. I remember it was an out route and I just jumped underneath it and just ran to the end zone.”
Surely, Davis must’ve high-stepped to the end zone, right?
“Nah,” he said, “I didn’t showboat.”
Fast forward to the present day and Davis has his work cut out for him on Sunday. He makes his debut against pesky quarterback Russell Wilson, for whom a play is never over. His ability to throw on the run means the Colts’ cornerbacks will have to cover for an extended period, even after plays begin to break down.
“It’s hard to simulate the speed of the game” in practice, coach Chuck Pagano said. “You’re playing against some really good players and a really good offense, a team that plays really fast. It’ll take a little bit (of time). … But he’s on point. He’s locked in.”
So, the secondary that’s been holding its own without its best player now gets Davis back.
The secondary playing without Davis is no longer a terrifying proposition. And the secondary with Davis?
Well, that shouldn’t be half bad, either.