Indianapolis Colts second-year safety Nick Cross has remained a core special teams player six weeks into his sophomore campaign. Cross was relegated to this role after poor play in his first month as a starting NFL defensive back, and saw only special teams snaps for the rest of his rookie season.
After a promising camp as a rookie, the quick fall-off of Cross was chalked up as being young and inexperienced. Entering this season, however, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley was singing a different tune about Cross and the versatility he brings to the defense.
So what's changed between then and now? Has Cross entered another stage of struggling to acclimate? Is Gus Bradley playing others over him due to previous play or full-blown bias á la Brandon Facyson? The answer is unclear, though, the proof is in the pudding that Bradley and the rest of his defensive staff are much higher on, and confident in, Cross this year as opposed to last. With that being said, I think its important to make a change, even if it's a slight one, as it may prove to be a fruitful endeavor for Indy to give Cross a fair go.
Nick Cross needs to see the field for the Colts
The biggest aspect of Cross' development as a defensive back is that of his versatility amongst positions. Nick Cross has the athletic capabalities to play just about anywhere across the defensive backfield, with such progressions that have proved him to be a viable candidate in the slot.
Athletically-speaking, Cross registered a 9.87 on the Relative Athletic Score scale. This is among the most athletic testings a safety has had up to that point. He exemplifies true athleticism, as he is ranked in the elite areas of both speed and explosion. Athleticism is certainly not all that is needed to be a servicable NFL player, though it surely is among the best ways to set yourself up for even mere sucess. Not implying it's sustainable, but what Cross may theoretically lack in technique or football IQ, he makes up for with his athletic prowess.
Yes, Nick Cross is good enough to thrive on special teams, but is that all he should relegated to? As previously mentioned, Gus Bradley and company have since envisioned Cross as a true defensive back as opposed to the strong safety he was traded up for and drafted as. On what Cross has turned into for the Colts defense, Bradley said this:
"“[He's] done very well. I’ll tell you what Nick (Cross) has done, he has proven to us that he has consistently played well at the strong safety spot,” Bradley told reporters Sunday. “But what his value to us is he can play free, he can play strong and in a pinch, he can play nickel.”"- Gus Bradley
No defensive coach on the Colts staff has recently sung Cross' praises like Gus Bradley. So the question remains, why haven't we seen Cross get legit snaps defensively?
Why isn’t Nick Cross playing?
The argument for Nick Cross is twofold: one being reps breed confidence and normalcy and the other a question asking, what has been shown that keeps Cross off the field? When tackling the first part of the argument, there aren’t a lot of people that would push back on this. How does one know if a player belongs if said player isn't on the field to detest it? Maybe the backup is still struggling with scheme in practice, but if the starter is struggling in-game, try to spruce it up with a change.
The Colts' defensive backfield is by far the weakness part of the defense. It was already a young and inexperienced group, but the DB room has slowly but surely dwindled through just six weeks of play. Julian Blackmon has seemingly returned to his normal on-the-field self this season, though the other half of his starting safety tandem, Rodney Thomas II, has appeared to have taken a step back from his impressive rookie campaign.
Since the injury of CB Dallis Flowers and the benching of CB Darrell Baker Jr., the Colts have rolled with rookies JuJu Brents and Jaylon Jones as the team's starting boundary corners. They have played pretty well in their 2.5 weeks together, though, Jones is only on the field for about half of the time.
In this short time, Brents has remained the true CB1 in Gus Bradley's scheme; no matter the formation in play, he is on the field at boundary corner. Conversely, the only time when Jaylon Jones is on the field is when the team is in nickel. When in nickel, Kenny Moore II slides back into his natural position at slot corner and Jones takes the field as the second boundary corner.
When in base, three linebackers are on the field and the two cornerbacks are JuJu Brents and Kenny Moore II. This has certainly helped Jones get acclimated to the NFL and maybe it's just due to having more confidence in Moore at this stage, but more than anything, this proves that there is even more opportunity for Cross to get on the field than there once was.
In Week 6 against the Jaguars, the Colts starting safety tandem of Julian Blackmon and Rodney Thomas II played all 100% of the defensive snaps played. There are ways to get Cross onto the field without taking snaps away from the starting safeties, but do both need to play every single snap without Cross ever getting a chance?
Rodney Thomas II's regression to the mean after an exciting rookie season is hitting hard. According to Pro Football Focus, out of 142 qualifying players, Thomas II ranks 125th out of all safeties in 2023. Thomas has certainly stepped back from being the ballhawk that he was in 2022, but the biggest downfall to his game thus far in 2023 is his regression as a tackler.
In 2022, Thomas II missed just five tackles all year as a rookie, putting up a respectable 10.4% missed tackle rate as a seventh-round rookie who was thrusted into the starting role. Through six games in 2023, Thomas II has missed six tackles and currently has a 28.6% missed tackle rate.
Nick Cross may be more of an athletically-imposing freelancer at the safety position, but his aggressiveness coupled with his willingess as a tackler should be enough to give him some real run. This isn't to call for Rodney Thomas II's job or demand playing time. However, Nick Cross has done enough, and in this case others haven't done enough, to show he deserves a shot to rewrite his wrongs as a mere rook.