INDIANAPOLIS — A lot of NFL teams preach about wanting “the right guys” in their locker room. Good teammates, good citizens and good role models for those watching from all around the organization.
If you ask Indianapolis Colts Midwest area scout Chad Henry, that’s exactly what they got in Khari Willis when they selected him in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
"Yeah. I mean, he is a unique human being,” Henry told reporters after the draft. “The city of Indianapolis is going to love him every bit as much as Indianapolis Colts are, and that transfers into his football character. He's really smart. He's the guy the coaches really trust up there."
The Colts traded up 20 spots last Saturday to acquire Willis, sending fourth-round picks Nos. 129 and 135 to the Oakland Raiders in exchange for 109 so they could make sure they didn’t miss out on acquiring Willis.
The cousin of Colts Ring of Honor member Bill Brooks, Willis has just about everything the Colts are looking for and was someone that was essentially a unanimous favorite in the draft room.
“The more tape we watched on Willis, the more we fell in love with him. We thought about taking him in the third round. It was definitely in consideration,” Colts general manager Chris Ballard said. “We think he’s athletic. We think he’s smart. I thought he was probably one of the better tackling safeties in this draft. We think he’s going to be a really good fit into that safety room. Not only from a talent perspective, but also from an intelligence and character perspective.”
Although most of the players the Colts selected in the 2019 NFL Draft are premium athletes, Willis had a modest showing at the Combine. He’s the type of player who you can’t get a good gauge of without turning on his film.
For reference, Willis’ measurables and athletic testing scores are a 94.3-percent match to New England Patriots safety Patrick Chung, who has been a trusted, full-time starter for Bill Belichick’s defense for eight years. Not only physically, but in terms of leadership, character and being a positive locker room presence, Willis and Chung are pretty similar.
Willis was a team captain at Michigan State who was held in high regard by both his coaches and teammates. At the team’s awards banquets over the last couple years, he was awarded the Biggie Munn Award (most inspirational on defense), Football Players Association Community Service Award, the Captains Award and the Jim Adams Award (unsung hero on defense).
Willis also earned a fair amount of attention for his keynote address speech at the 2018 Big Ten Kickoff Luncheon.
“I think that’s very important. That’s something I pride my hat on being a leader in the secondary,” Willis told the media after being selected about his role as a leader. “Trying to make everybody around me better is something that my dad instilled in me since I was playing point guard playing basketball at a young age. I think those kind of translated over as I developed into a defensive player, especially trying to be one of the top defenses in the country and now the top defense in the league. I am very excited to go and try to be a leader here in Indianapolis.”
Obviously, the Colts aren’t just looking for guys who have high character; they have to be good players also. The Colts wouldn’t have traded up 20 spots without being confident in Willis’ game.
He came to Michigan State as the state of Michigan’s reigning High School Player of the Year in 2014 (according to the Ann Arbor News) as a running back before converting to safety. He plays the safety position with the wisdom of being a former high-volume offensive player. It helps him anticipate what the ball carrier is going to do before they’ve done it.
Like the Colts will tell you, Willis is a smart player, and his ability to read the offense and then react is very good. He also has nice range to get to the ball when it’s in his cross-heirs.
His frame was also perfect for the running back position, but at 5-11 and 213 pounds it also helps him dole out and absorb punishment as a safety. Although he started as an offensive player, he’s got the aggressive mentality of a defender, as he does not shy away from contact. This goes as a tackler and when engaged with blockers, and he’ll almost always work or rip himself out of the grasp of weaker players.
Many people have pigeon-holed Willis as a box safety because of his frame and sure tackling, but the Colts see more there.
"I think, actually, guys calling him box safety are doing him a disservice, because if you look what he did for their team, they played him all over the place,” Henry said. “I think he's probably most natural in the box, but the kid is so smart. I’m going to sound like a broken record here: his character — he's probably one of three or four best guys I did this year.
"So, you see him, not only playing in the box, but I mean, he's played free safety. He plays nickel. He's played outside and he did a pretty good job with that,” Henry continued. “I think he's faster than a lot of people and a lot of people give him credit for it and he tested pretty well that way. I think he ran a 4.4s and he's a very well- rounded player, in terms of ... I was always taught a long time ago slow safeties usually get your beat, dumb safeties always get your beat. He's the polar opposite of both. So, we're really excited about him."
Liked Henry mentioned, Willis isn’t just a strict box safety who has to be set up to play the run. He has shown the ability to effectively cover running backs and tight ends out of the slot; even receivers on occasion.
One pre-draft concern for Willis was a perceived lack of elite speed, but his closing speed and ability to track his man downfield is adequate. He also shows the quickness and athleticism to be aggressive when it comes to knocking down passes.
One thing that Willis likely will be coached-up on is being patient and disciplined when engaging ball carriers. He takes good angles, but he can be overzealous and overshoot his target when trying to bring the ball carrier down.
As a player, Willis wants the responsibility of being a leader to his teammates and a capable defender at all levels of the field.
“I think I am a sure-tackling safety that likes to play around the line of scrimmage, but can step out on the deep parts of the field and make plays,” Willis said. “I feel like you are going to get somebody that’s going to lead, be able to go down and guard people, press up on guys, as well as get guys, meet the backs one-on-one in the hole. I think I am versatile. I think I am well-rounded at the safety position. It’s just a matter of when I am going to take off when I learn the system. I think you are getting a leader as well.”
The Colts do already have a handful of quality safeties on the roster, but Willis still sees opportunity to get on the field considering the Colts’ knack for occasionally using more than two safeties in certain packages.
“Yeah, I think it fits me and suits me well. Just based on what they like to do,” Willis said. “Based on what they like to do playing in the dime packages and stuff like that. I think that will help me because at Michigan State I played nickel, I played in the box, I blitzed a lot off the edge, up the middle and did a lot of things like that. I think they saw that as well, saw my versatility and thought they could play me at one of those three spots.”
No matter how quickly his time comes, it looks like the Colts got someone who will work tirelessly and be a positive influence in the locker room while he works toward hitting the field.