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With Khari Willis Retired, Who Starts at SS for the Colts?

Strong safety looks to be one of the biggest position battles for the Colts heading into 2022.

Although the summer break has started for the Indianapolis Colts, the team still finds itself in the news.

It took less than one week for the Colts to be back in the news. But with how things have gone in recent offseasons, this should be a surprise to no one.

On Wednesday, Colts safety Khari Willis announced that he was retiring from the NFL to devote his life to ministry. The defensive back, who was set to enter his fourth season, made the announcement on his Instagram page.

Below is the message Willis posted, thanking the Colts organization and fans for their support.

“I'd first like to thank the Indianapolis Colts organization for granting me the opportunity to compete in the National Football League the past three years. I've built lifelong relationships with numerous teammates, coaches and support staff that have impacted me greatly. The lessons that I've learned in this phase of my life will be valuable for me in my next chapter. With much prayer and deliberation, I have elected to officially retire from the NFL as I endeavor to devote the remainder of my life to the further advancement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I thank all of my family, friends and those who have supported me on this journey thus far and I look forward to your continued support through the next phase of my life. I am both humbled and excited to pursue the holy call that God has for my life which brings me much joy and purpose. Thank you all for your support over the years. God Bless.”

Willis was taken in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Willis found a way into the starting lineup for the Colts during his rookie season and became the starter at strong safety for the next three seasons. In 39 games in his career, Willis tallied 219 tackles, seven tackles for loss, four interceptions (including one returned for a touchdown), 11 pass deflections, 3.5 sacks, and a forced fumble.

“We’re thankful and appreciative of Khari’s contributions to the Colts both on and off the field over the last three seasons,” head coach Frank Reich said in a statement released by the team. “Khari’s character, leadership, and professionalism will be missed in our locker room as will his play on Sundays. I admire and respect his decision to transition into the next stage of his life and ministry and my prayers will always be with him.”

Willis was a respected member of the Colts’ locker room. While only being in the league for three seasons, Willis was seen as a leader in the secondary, and someone younger players could go to for advice. He was also a valuable part of the secondary and had a knack for making big plays when the Colts needed it.

The Colts certainly have experience with players retiring early, as this August will mark three years since Andrew Luck retired during the preseason. However, it does not seem like this retirement was as shocking as Luck’s was.

According to a source, Willis was said to be considering retirement even before last season. Joining the ministry has been on Willis’s mind for some time now, and contemplating his decision could have contributed to his absence at mandatory minicamp last week. Willis was upfront with the Colts throughout and made sure to keep the team updated on his plans.

With Willis now retired, it makes sense why the Colts were so aggressive in adding safeties during the offseason. The Colts entered the spring in need of adding depth to the position group, particularly due to the drop in performance when Willis and fellow safety Julian Blackmon went down with injuries. However, the Colts were also preparing if this exact scenario took place, with Willis retiring before the season.

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So, with Willis moving on, who will the Colts turn to as their starting strong safety? The two players who will most likely battle it out for the starting job are Rodney McLeod and Nick Cross.

Jun 7, 2022; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Indianapolis Colts safety Nick Cross (20) runs during a drill during minicamp at the Colts practice facility. Mandatory Credit: Robert Goddin-USA TODAY Sports

McLeod is the veteran who already has quite a bit of starting experience under his belt. The ten-year pro signed with the Colts this offseason from the Philadelphia Eagles and has 123 career starts. He had 58 tackles, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles in 13 starts in 2021.

Cross was a third-round pick of the Colts in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Colts traded up for the rookie out of the University of Maryland, afraid he would not reach the Colts in the fourth round. Cross had 66 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, three interceptions, and two forced fumbles in 12 games last season for the Terrapins.

While McLeod has the starting experience and the NFL pedigree, Cross should be the favorite to win the starting job. The Colts are very high on Cross’s playmaking ability and potential, one of the main reasons they traded up for him in April. Cross also fits the mold of a strong safety while McLeod is better suited as a free safety.

At 6’0” and 212 pounds, Cross has the size needed to play the position, with strong safeties having more responsibilities in the box. Cross is a lightning bolt on the field with the ability to fly sideline to sideline and make plays. He has a nose for the ball and forces turnovers at a high rate, as evident by his three interceptions and two forced fumbles.

In defensive coordinator Gus Bradley’s defense, the Colts have plans to use Cross in a similar way to how the Seattle Seahawks use Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams. Adams plays all over the field for the Seahawks, seeing time in the box, as a deep safety, and even covering guys in the slot. The Colts feel like Cross can do all of these things as well and will use him all over the defense.

Losing Willis to retirement is definitely a blow to the Colts, both on and off the field. However, the future is still bright at the safety position for this team, and Willis’s retirement may just open the door for Cross to develop into the star the Colts think he can be.

Have thoughts on Khari Willis retiring and who may replace him? Let us know in the comments section below!


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