INDIANAPOLIS —Perhaps Jim Irsay said it best on Saturday, when he sent out a tweet to thank Johnathan Hankins for his contributions to the team.
"Scheme changes are hard."
With a brand new coaching staff in place, the Indianapolis Colts will have a brand new look and feel in 2018 and beyond. Accordingly, the coaching and player personnel staffs have come to the determination that some players who made key contributions in 2017 simply aren't ideal fits for those new schemes moving forward.
The key examples of these changes both come on the defensive side of the ball: defensive lineman Johnathan Hankins and cornerback Rashaan Melvin.
Last season, under former head coach Chuck Pagano, the Colts utilized a 3-4 base defense with more of a man-to-man, press-corner approach in the secondary.
But now, under first-year head coach Frank Reich and new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, Indianapolis is making the transition to the 4-3 base defense with a Tampa 2 look in the secondary, a system that has much more of a zone, off-the-ball feel.
So when free agency started on March 14, the Colts elected to let Melvin test the open market; he eventually signed a deal with the Oakland Raiders. Then, on Saturday, Indianapolis announced it had released Hankins, giving him the opportunity to utilize free agency to find his next stop.
Second-year Colts general manager Chris Ballard joined 1070 The Fan's "The Grady & Big Joe Show" on Wednesday and addressed both moves:
Hankins was the Colts' primary outside free agency signing last offseason, as the team hoped he could come in and immediately make a strong impact up front for a defense that was undergoing lots of changes.
And he did just that; in 15 games — all starts — for the Colts in the 2017 season, Hankins finished tied for fifth on the team with 44 tackles (four for a loss), while also adding two sacks, five quarterback hits and three passes defensed.
Perhaps most impressively, Hankins was among the league's top defensive linemen against the run.
But when Reich finalized his new coaching staff Feb. 27, the meetings that followed with the Colts' personnel staff made it clear what the team was looking for in its new 4-3 base defense, and Hankins — despite the fact he's turning just 26 on March 29 and has prior experience within a 4-3 — just wasn't an ideal fit for the team moving forward.
Ballard said he spent a couple weeks trying to find a willing trade partner for Hankins, but ultimately decided to release him on Saturday.
"Really, that was a very difficult decision," Ballard said. "Johnathan Hankins is a good football player, and he's really good versus the run, and he's a great kid. But at the end of the day, he didn't fit schematically (with) what we're going to do.
"This defense is predicated on athleticism and speed, and we're going to have a little more work to do defensively to get that done," Ballard continued. " And the one thing — in Chicago, and then if you look in Dallas, where they're really playing this scheme, and then you look back to when Tony Dungy was here — primarily, most of those players were drafted and developed within the system, and it's predicated on speed and athleticism, and going forward that's what we're going to be coveting."
Now a free agent, Hankins has reportedly drawn considerable interest from the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions.
Ballard said the decision not to fully pursue Melvin in free agency this year was "similar" in theme to the decision to move on from Hankins.
Melvin was also coming off a solid year for the Colts in 2017 — a career-best year, in fact.
He worked his way to the top of the depth chart at cornerback by the offseason and, three-fourths of the way into the season, he was playing as well as any corner in the league. Despite suffering a season-ending hand injury Week 12 against the Tennessee Titans, Melvin had set himself up well for an impending offseason in which he was set to once again become an unrestricted free agent, finishing with 36 tackles, a career-best three interceptions and 13 passes defensed.
But Ballard said a few weeks back at the NFL Scouting Combine that while the Colts wanted to explore the possibility of bringing Melvin back in 2018, the team would let him test the open market versus trying to work out an extension prior to the March 14 new league year and the start of free agency.
This week, Ballard said the switch to more of a zone defense in the secondary for the Colts this season made it tough to match or exceed any deal Melvin was getting in free agency.
"Rashaan Melvin's a good player. Press corner — big press corner," Ballard said. "We're still going to be a press team in some ways, but we're also going to play a lot more zone coverage where off-coverage, ball skills, making plays on the ball, being able to catch and finish on the ball, those are going to be important traits for us going forward.
"And we just, at the end of the day — and I love Rashaan Melvin; I love what he stands for, I love how he's gritted his way through his career — at the end of the day, we thought Rashaan's best fit was going to be in a system that played a lot of press-man coverage."
While Melvin now gets a chance to do just that with the Raiders, the Colts on Wednesday ended up making a different move at cornerback, re-signing Pierre Desir to be the veteran presence in an otherwise very young position group.