Rhodes' return keeps needed experience in Colts' CB room

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George Bremer, The Herald Bulletin, Anderson, Ind.
·4 min read
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Apr. 2—To hear Xavier Rhodes tell it, there's no grand secret to his career resurrection last season with the Indianapolis Colts.

He simply found the right fit and made the most of his opportunities.

"They just allow me to play my ball," Rhodes said this week in a video conference call. "Like I've said and like I've known before, I've been in the league eight years. I've played almost everything. It was just that they allowed me to be confident with myself, play (as) myself, play football, be free and be myself — allowing me to just be confident and strong."

It paid dividends for both parties. Rhodes recorded his most interceptions (two) since 2017 and his most pass break ups (12) since 2014. Quarterbacks' completion rate when targeting him dropped from 81.5% in 2019 to 51.9%, and their collective rating fell from 123.8 to 84.5.

He wasn't perfect. Pro Football Reference charged him with five touchdown passes allowed — one more than in 2019 — and the average completion against him rose from 12 yards to 13.4. But he allowed nearly 3 yards fewer per target (7.0, down from 9.8) in 2020.

There were, of course, other factors at work — including the addition of all-pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner — but Indianapolis' defense rose from 18th to 10th in points allowed and from 16th to eighth in yards surrendered. The Colts finished 11-5 and advanced to the playoffs for the second time in three years.

So, as Rhodes hit the free-agent market this offseason, a reunion always made sense. But there was significant question as to whether a deal could be worked out.

Despite ample salary cap space, Indianapolis has been quiet this offseason outside of the high-profile trade for quarterback Carson Wentz. Rather than spend big as the New England Patriots chose to do in a market depressed by the financial realities of the coronavirus pandemic, the Colts have chosen to focus on adding depth at a few key positions and re-signing some of their own free agents.

As a result, for the second straight season, Rhodes stands as one of the team's biggest additions. The 30-year-old agreed to a one-year contract reportedly worth $4.77 million and will again be a prominent voice in an otherwise young cornerback group.

That could be particularly comforting this year, with James Rowe in his first season as defensive backs coach.

"Obviously, we've got our starting corners back, so that helps a lot," Rowe said. "For me, being the new guy, I'm playing catch up right now. This is the first time I've ever been on a staff where I'm the only new guy on that side of the ball, so I've been playing a lot of catch up. Obviously, it's going to help having guys that are experienced with the system.

"There are going to be times when I have to lean on them and ask them maybe how they did something last year or what's comfortable for them."

It's a role Rhodes naturally gravitated toward last season.

He worked out with some of his new teammates in south Florida during the spring and early summer, and he made an immediate difference for rising star Kenny Moore II and former second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin.

The opportunity to build on that foundation is one of the reasons Rhodes wanted to return to Indianapolis.

"Being around guys like Terrance Newman (in Minnesota) and guys that actually helped me be the player that I am now, I was able to bring that knowledge to the guys at the Colts," Rhodes said. "So it was fun helping these guys become — reach their full potential or trying to reach their full potential and come back another year and get them to be one of the best in the league. It feels good to be that leader."

The challenge for Rhodes now is to replicate — or improve upon — his comeback season.

Indianapolis will add Marvell Tell III back into the mix after he opted out of his second season because of pandemic concerns, but the pass rush took a hit this spring. Denico Autry signed with the rival Tennessee Titans, and Justin Houston remains a free agent. That means, outside of Buckner, no other player on the current roster had more than five sacks last season.

If the Colts are going to improve from the 20th-ranked pass defense in 2020, the cornerbacks likely will need to play a major role.

But Rhodes likes what he's seen so far and believes the team will remain on the rise.

"How I was able to see the potential of the team and how I was able to change the camaraderie, change everything from previous — see how, like I said, how much potential this team has, to come back to it and try and strive to go to the Super Bowl again," Rhodes said of his reasons for re-signing. "I know we have the potential to do so. I was more than glad and happy to come back."