Malik Hooker, Kenny Moore II Listed Among NFL’s Elite Defensive Backs

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INDIANAPOLIS — When measuring the effectiveness of a defensive back, there are a couple of items that can be deciding factors.

For starters, how many plays do they make? Do they take away the potential pass catcher and make their own play on the ball?

Then, you’ve got another factor on the opposite end of the spectrum. Do you notice the defensive back much, and more importantly, do you notice the man he’s covering?

The Indianapolis Colts have at least a couple of these players who fit into both categories in safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Kenny Moore II, and for that they have been listed among the league’s elite defensive backs.

Recently, Doug Farrar of Touchdown Wire has been ranking his top players in the league based on position. Hooker came in as his fifth-ranked safety, and Moore II as his No. 2 slot defender.

KENNY MOORE II INTRODUCES HIMSELF TO THE NFL

Who is Kenny Moore II, and why is he second on this list? If you’re not a Colts fan, you may well wonder. But in his second NFL season, the undrafted Valdosta State alum became a star slot defender in many ways. Moore was targeted 68 times in the slot in 2018, allowing 54 receptions for 429 yards and 265 yards after the catch. He gave up one touchdown to four interceptions, and allowed an opponent passer rating of 73.3."

"Moore is nimble when asked to mirror routes, he’s efficiently aggressive at the line of scrimmage, and he’s got a knack for peeling off and jumping routes that makes him an asset in zone coverage. He’s also a highly effective blitzer, with five sacks and 13 pressures in the 2018 season—including two sacks of Patrick Mahomes in the divisional playoffs. If this is the first you’ve heard about Kenny Moore II, he’s officially a name to know.

Moore II only trailed the Denver Broncos’ Chris Harris Jr. in this category, which is saying something considering many people believe Harris is actually the best cornerback overall in the league, not just as a slot defender.

As Farrar mentioned, Moore II is not yet a household name outside of Indianapolis, but that shouldn’t last much longer if he continues to develop as he did from his rookie year in 2017 to his second year in 2018.

After coming into the league out of the FCS, Moore II signed on with the New England Patriots as an undrafted free agent. Despite impressing initially, there just wasn't enough room for him on the roster when it came time for preseason cuts. The Colts swooped in and picked him up. Moore II was impressive as a special teams player and then started to catch attention when he entered the defensive lineup later in the season. From there, the arrow hasn't stopped pointing up.

In 2018, Moore II finished third among all NFL cornerbacks in tackles with 77 — fellow Colt Pierre Desir finished second with 79 — and he led the Colts with three interceptions.

Moore II was on fire over the last three games of the Colts’ season between Week 17 and the team’s two playoff games, totaling 23 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions and and five pass breakups.

Despite playing in one fewer postseason game than many of the other 2018-19 NFL playoff teams, Moore II tied for the league lead in sacks with 3.0 and led all corners with 19 tackles. The sack mark set the Colts’ new postseason franchise record. While that honor would typically be earned by a defensive end or outside linebacker, Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus knew he had a stud corner who could blitz off the edge in Moore II.

Moore II’s football intelligence and ability to feel beyond comfortable in Eberflus' scheme allows him to somewhat freelance and bait quarterbacks into bad decisions, but it also earned him the opportunity to blitz as frequently as he did late in the season, resulting in some quarterback takedowns.

MALIK HOOKER PUTS ON AN ENCORE

As a rookie in 2017, Hooker became known for his interceptions, picking off passes in three straight games. However, midway through the season he suffered an unfortunate, season-ending ACL tear, putting him on the sideline until we would see him again in 2018 training camp.

Here is what Farrar has to say about that ensuing second season.

In just his second NFL season, Hooker became the recipient of the ultimate gesture of respect given a defensive back—an extreme lack of targets in relation to his snap totals. He was on the field for 977 snaps, and saw just nine targets all season. He gave up four catches for 51 yards, 25 yards after the catch, one touchdown, two interceptions, two pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 60.2.

Part of this has to do with Hooker’s role in the Colts’ defense—he’s the last line in the deep third either as a single-high or split safety, so he’s seeing a lot of completions underneath his position. Then, it’s his job to go get the receiver, which he does with outstanding diagnostic skill and speed. But when you do throw deep in Hooker’s area, your chances of success are not good. He’ll either take over the route up the boundary or jump your receiver’s route over the middle. Championship defenses need deep-third safeties who can shut things down play after play, and the Colts are in very good shape with Hooker in that role.

Hooker ranks as Farrar’s third free safety on the list behind Kevin Byard of the Tennessee Titans (No. 1 overall safety) and the Chicago Bears’ Eddie Jackson (No. 2 safety).

While we saw Hooker succeed with some eye-grabbing stats in 2017, he succeeded as more of a silent assassin as an NFL sophomore in 2018, as Farrar pointed out that quarterbacks simply did not want to test him.

Hooker allowed just 57.1 percent of the passes thrown his way, and many of the rest he either broke up or snatched away for an interception. As a defense, the Colts allowed the second-fewest pass plays of 40-plus yards and the fifth-fewest of 20-plus yards, and Hooker’s presence was a huge part of that.

What Hooker has been able to accomplish in his first two seasons is outstanding considering what he has had to deal with.

Coming into the league as a rookie in 2017, he spent the offseason rehabbing from hip and hernia surgeries. He was brought along slowly and then entered the starting lineup in Week 2 of the regular season. In Week 7, disaster struck with the ACL injury.

Rehabbing throughout the 2018 offseason and into training camp, Hooker was able to make it back in time for the regular season, but the mental hurdle of overcoming a serious injury as well as how long it takes physically to be yourself again took some time.

Hooker said that he wasn’t really confident in his knee until about Week 6. After also dealing with a couple other minor injuries during the rest of the season, he felt there was still more there to be done.

Through two years in the NFL, Hooker has never really been healthy — until now.

This offseason is the first time he’s been able to physically participate in the offseason program, OTAs and minicamp, and he’s loving it.

“Right now I feel just as good as I did in college going into an offseason,” Hooker told reporters last week. “So there is nothing that I can complain about. I’m moving great, feeling great. Weight wise and everything, I am the best I have been since I have been here.

“I feel like coming in my rookie year I did a great job of showing the type of player I can be before the injury happened. Last year was a little bit more quiet,” Hooker said while acknowledging he’s had success in a couple of different ways. “This year, I feel like this is the year where I’m going to be the player the Colts brought me here to be.”

The player that the Colts brought him there to be is someone who many said could be one of the league’s truly elite, ballhawking defenders. Hooker brings a brand of playmaking that is difficult to find and can’t be taught. Safeties like him are invaluable to a team down the stretch.

With a healthy offseason under his belt, there’s no telling what Hooker might accomplish in 2019.

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