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Offseason Preview: Safety an unpredictable position for 2024

Feb. 23—INDIANAPOLIS — The safety position might be the most unpredictable spot on the Indianapolis Colts' roster this offseason.

The starting strong safety, Julian Blackmon, is slated for free agency next month. And the free safety role was split between youngsters Rodney Thomas II and Nick Cross in 2023.

The latter spot is targeted for improvement by general manager Chris Ballard.

"I do think we've got to get more consistency out of the free safety position," Ballard said. "That's not quite a knock because they're both young players. Thomas had some good moments. Cross had some really good moments, but we need more consistent moments from that position."

Thomas made 15 starts and finished with two interceptions, four pass breakups and 34 tackles. Cross appeared in all 17 games but started just the final two and tallied one interception, two pass breakups and 39 tackles.

The Colts traded up to snag Cross in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, and the 22-year-old really began to blossom in the second half of the season.

But Indianapolis won't simply count on that improvement continuing.

Daniel Scott, a fifth-round pick out of California in 2023, did not play a down as a rookie after tearing his ACL and being placed on injured reserve June 14.

But he impressed the coaching staff with his professionalism and was able to display some of his top-shelf athleticism prior to the injury.

The 25-year-old could be an interesting addition to the safety mix in 2024.

"We were really excited about Scott," Ballard said. "He tears his ACL during OTAs. Let me tell you about him. He did not miss one day of practice (during the regular season). I don't know if I've ever been around a kid that just (spent) every day in the same spot, paying attention, dialing in mentally every single day from training camp to the end of the year.

"The kid didn't miss a day. So getting him back will be good for our back end. He's smart. He's athletic. We really liked what we saw the limited time that we had him."

This draft class is not widely considered to be strong at safety, so the Colts might be more likely to look for young improvement from within the roster.

Free agency remains an option for a significant addition.

Indianapolis could bring in a starter at free safety to mentor the kids, but the first priority likely will be re-signing Blackmon on the strong side.

After moving to the position full-time in the offseason, the 25-year-old put together the best season of his four-year career.

Blackmon set career highs with 88 tackles, four interceptions, eight pass breakups, five tackles for loss and two fumble recoveries.

His absence for the final two games of the season because of a shoulder injury played a role in the Colts falling short of their first postseason appearance since 2020.

But injuries have been a common theme throughout Blackmon's time in Indianapolis. He's missed 17 games because of injury over his four NFL seasons.

That could limit his offers on the open market, but there's no doubt Blackmon opened plenty of eyes with his play in 2023.

"I thought Julian Blackmon played really good football this year," Ballard said. "It sucked when he got hurt. That hurt — it did when we lost him. I thought he played excellent football."

There are plenty of numbers available on the roster.

Practice squad players Marcel Dabo, Kendell Brooks and Michael Tutsie are under contract for 2024, and Indianapolis can easily retain restricted free agent Henry Black and exclusive rights free agent Trevor Denbow if it chooses to do so.

One other interesting name potentially in the mix is Ronnie Harrison Jr.

The 26-year-old was promoted from the practice squad late in the season and made the switch from his new linebacker role back to safety for the final two games after Blackmon's injury.

Harrison already is on the open market, but Ballard made clear his contributions were appreciated.

"He was kind of almost like a dime linebacker for a while, and then we kicked him back to safety," Ballard said. "I thought ... (we were) fortunate to have him because I thought he played pretty good football when he went in there. But he just hadn't been playing a lot of safety up to that point, but I thought he played pretty good football."