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Indianapolis Colts

2022 Rookie Review: Nick Cross Goes From Starter On Defense To Core Special Teamer For Bubba Ventrone

Cross didn't play much on defense after the first two weeks of the season, but finished 2022 with the most special teams tackles on the Colts. 

Nick Cross

2022 Statistics

  • Games played: 16 (2 starts)
  • Defensive snaps played: 122 (11.4 percent)
  • Special teams snaps played: 215 (50.4 percent)
  • Special teams tackles: 10
  • Pro Football Focus special teams grade: 90.0

The Big Picture

The Colts traded back into the third round to pick Cross with the No. 96 overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, sending their 2022 fourth-round pick and a 2023 third-round pick to the Denver Broncos to bring in the athletic safety from Maryland. Cross started the Colts' season opener against the Houston Texans – which came one day after his 21st birthday – and then in Week 2, but only played six defensive snaps after that shutout loss to Jacksonville.

Veteran Rodney McLeod Jr. stepped in for Cross and played at a high level the rest of the season – he set career highs in tackles (96), tackles for a loss (8) and passes defensed (8) – which meant there wasn't much of an opportunity for Cross to win back his starting role at strong safety in defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's scheme.

"Nick has got a really good skillset, an elite athlete and it's just about gaining that confidence to play in and play out with the unit," Bradley said in September. "... It really wasn't anything he did, we just felt like in the situation we were going into, with the communication that needed to take place, that maybe Rodney's experience might help us a little bit more. It really wasn't based on Nick's performance or anything like that."

By mid-October, though, the Colts transitioned Cross into being a core player for special teams coordinator Bubba Ventrone. From Weeks 6-17, Cross played at least half of the Colts' special teams snaps while learning his assignments and techniques on the fly.

Because Cross went into the season as a starter on defense, he didn't get much run on special teams in training camp and preseason games. Ventrone said he figured Cross would be available to him on one or two special teams units, not all four (kick return, kick coverage, punt return, punt coverage).

But Cross wound up leading the Colts with 10 special teams tackles, and his 90.0 Pro Football Focus special teams grade was tops on the team, too.

"As his role lessoned defensively, he's kind of had to come along faster, put in more time in the film room and get even more from the installs and the technique work on the side," Ventrone said in December. "I think it's a tribute to him and his hard work. He's done a pretty good job. There's definitely been a handful of growing pains because he didn't get the techniques and those types of reps early in the process, but I would say over the last few weeks he's improved a lot. I think that early in the season on our punt unit, his footwork wasn't great – the technique, the strike, all those things were just lacking I would say to a degree. He's definitely improved in a lot of those areas as of late."

As for Cross' future on defense, he wouldn't be the first DeMatha Catholic safety to spend his rookie year as a core special teamer before becoming a full-time starter on defense. All he has to do is look to the example of McLeod, who at the age of 32 just turned in one of the finest seasons of a fantastic NFL career.

View some of the best photos of safety Nick Cross in his 2022 debut season with the Colts.

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