INDIANAPOLIS – Just hours before the Colts officially made the decision to decline Malik Hooker’s affordable 5th year option for the 2021 season, Frank Reich shared this on the 24-year-old safety:
“In (2018), Malik was coming off that (ACL) injury and got better as the year went on. Last year, I really felt like Malik had a really good year. You could really feel his presence…”
So, despite Hooker having a ‘really good year’ in 2019, the Colts decided a pay increase up to $6.7 million for the 2021 season (which would have had Hooker as the NFL’s 17th highest paid safety this year) was too risky.
It was a surprise to see the team not pick up the team option, even though it’s more than fair to say Hooker has not lived up to the hype that comes with being taken No. 15 overall.
Hooker was not at his best late last season, with the Colts struggling pass defense getting even more exposed without Kenny Moore. Individually, Hooker is not the soundest tackler and his durability has been questioned.
Still, this is a recently turned 24-year-old safety who has had notable ball production in his NFL career, and the non-guaranteed commitment to him would have been for only one more year, and nothing past that.
We are talking about another year of team control, not the Colts giving Hooker 5 years and ‘X’ amount of money on a long-term extension.
Why should the Colts have picked up Hooker’s team option for the 2021 season?
Value Of Contract
As stated above, Hooker has not lived up to the 15th overall pick expectations.
But with this decision, we are not grading Hooker by that lofty standard.
We are seeing if he’s worthy of making $6.7 million as a 5th year pro.
Chris Ballard always talks about the value for a player contract wise and that’s what we are going off of here. That value ($6.7 million) is middle of the pack starting free safety money.
It’s hard to watch Hooker and not think he’s worth that, especially when you look at the rest of the safety depth chart in Indianapolis.
For one, Hooker’s INT rate since entering the NFL ranks in the top-five of any safety in the league.
Also, for those that inaccurately throw out the ‘he’s never on the field’ label for Hooker, they are wrong. Hooker has played 1,700 defensive snaps since Matt Eberflus arrived in 2018. That’s the second most on the team (84 behind Darius Leonard). In the last two seasons, Hooker has played 114 more snaps than Pierre Desir, 159 more than Kenny Moore and 195 more than Anthony Walker.
Hooker has missed 5 games over the last two years and yet didn’t have his option picked up. This comes a year after the Colts bet (wisely) on Ryan Kelly by picking up his option despite him missing 8 more games than Hooker in the two previous seasons leading into that decision deadline.
Again, for a team with gobs and gobs of cap space next spring, picking up this reasonable option for a player who just came off a ‘really good’ season, according to his head coach, makes a whole lot of sense.
If the Colts can afford a $21 million cap hit (20th biggest in the NFL) for Jacoby Brissett to hold a clipboard on the sideline in 2020, they can afford $6.7 for a starting safety who just turned 24 years old.
Still Evaluating Hooker
The beauty of 5th year team options for first-round picks allows teams to have a longer evaluation on their own, precious, homegrown guys.
By many accounts, Hooker is still young in his NFL (and football) career. More of a basketball player in high school, Hooker started just one season in a talented Ohio State secondary before the Colts took him 15th overall in 2017.
Hooker then tore his ACL 7 games into his rookie season (October 2017), which halted his early progression.
Even Chris Ballard has stated the patience that comes with guys coming off ACLs.
“They tell you nine months (recovery) on an ACL, and I’ve always said it’s a year and a half, sometimes two, to really get them back to full speed,” Ballard says.
Well, if that’s the case, then the 2019 season would have been the first complete season that Hooker was fully healed, and back to 100 percent.
So, another season of evaluating Hooker, under a still team friendly contract, while bringing along your younger safeties, would give the team more time on making a long-term decision at that position.
Lose Control Of Talent
Monday’s decision by the Colts relinquishes team control on Hooker past this season.
Many have said that if Hooker proves himself this coming season, the Colts could then bring him back next spring, and sign him to a long-term deal.
Along with that likely costing the Colts more money, it takes two to tango though for that to happen and you have to wonder (especially after seeing social media yesterday) how Hooker will react to this move.
Would Hooker want to return to Indy, a place where the scheme fit has been questioned for him, if he were to have a great 2021 season?
Even if the Colts would have picked up the 5th year option for Hooker, he still would have had plenty of self-motivation for 2020 (and 2021) wanting to get big money on that upcoming second contract.
Remember this is a guy Ballard called ‘the best athlete’ in the entire 2017 Draft, who some thought would be a top-10 pick.
Now, a team with the most cap space in the NFL, has given up a year of control on Hooker, declining a team option that wouldn’t have been fully guaranteed until next March.
Instead of the Colts having their starting safety duo (Hooker and Khari Willis) under contract for the next two seasons, safety now goes on the long list of decisions that will come for the team next year.
Darius Leonard extension? Another year for Philip Rivers? What about veteran free agents T.Y. Hilton, Justin Houston?
It should be noted, under the new CBA, Hooker walking in free agency next spring would bring the Colts back a compensatory pick. Granted, letting him walk after 2021 (had the option picked up) would have led to the same return.
That is what the Colts are banking on in this decision, getting that possible comp pick back a year earlier.
Pressure On Julian Blackmon
When we heard Chris Ballard call Julian Blackmon a ‘legitimate starting free safety’ in the NFL last week, it raised some flags on Hooker’s future.
This move by the Colts puts immense pressure on Blackmon to be a starter very early in his NFL career, instead of bringing him along, in a sub package role, lining up at different spots across the defense.
Ballard has said that Blackmon, who tore his ACL back in December, might not be on the field until October this season.
Let’s recall Ballard’s comment above about guys getting back from ACLs.
Monday’s decision has put even more pressure on third-round pick Julian Blackmon to get up to starting caliber by 2021.
In a league that teams want more and more DBs with varying skillsets, wouldn’t it be wise to try and hold onto Hooker for another year, while also ramping up Blackmon’s versatile role all over the defense, and then see the route you want to go in 2021 as the future at safety?