INDIANAPOLIS — When Chris Ballard was hired as the Indianapolis Colts general manager in 2017, he saw one defensive player he could build around: Clayton Geathers.
But not even the 27-year-old safety is immune to Ballard’s constant search for depth and competition.
The Colts traded up 20 spots in the fourth round of this spring’s NFL Draft to select Michigan State safety Khari Willis. And that move came after the team claimed Derrick Kindred off waivers from the Cleveland Browns.
Ballard also is extremely high on second-year safety George Odum, a former undrafted free agent out of Central Arkansas, and 26-year-old Matthias Farley is a proven playmaker returning from injury.
It’s created a crowded room at a position that was thinned quite a bit by injuries in 2018. But Ballard is quick to chastise any reporter who tries to make a link between the roster’s newfound depth and Geathers’ recent injury history.
“Don’t make this about Geathers,” Ballard said. “Don’t go spinning that story on my son.”
The GM was partially joking on that last syllable, but his affection for Geathers is plenty real. And plenty evident.
Ballard allowed the safety to test the open market this spring and see if there was an offer out there that provided a better fit for his family.
After taking a visit with the Dallas Cowboys, Geathers returned to the only NFL home he’s ever known on a one-year contract.
Then he watched the roster fill up with competition.
And he never had a second thought.
“You just gotta keep growing,” Geathers said. “It’s another year, another opportunity to be around the guys, another chance to lead, another chance to make plays. So I’m just grateful for the opportunity. I’ll just come out and keep my same mindset.”
That’s what Ballard is counting on.
Talk to nearly any member of the Indianapolis defensive secondary, and it won’t be long before Geathers is mentioned. There’s a respect that comes naturally from being the roster’s most experienced defensive back.
But Geathers also is a natural leader. He’s taken the younger defenders under his wing and offered whatever advice he can on and off the field.
The biggest hurdle for Geathers has been staying on the field himself.
He’s played in just 26 games over the past three seasons, and the 12 he managed to suit up for last year came at a hefty cost.
The frightening neck injury that cut short his 2016 season finally is behind him. But a host of other maladies have taken its place.
The main culprit a year ago was a balky knee.
“It was a battle to get to Sunday. It was,” Geathers admittied. “But once I got there, hey, it’s game time.”
There were some early struggles as he adjusted to new coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defensive scheme, but Geathers appeared to begin settling in around midseason. He finished with 89 tackles and three passes defensed.
But the really good news for him came in the spring.
He’s feeling the best he has in years. And his absence from team workouts had much more to do with maintenance than recovery.
That’s a big step, and he’s hoping for another when training camp starts next month at Westfield’s Grand Park.
The coaching staff rested Geathers for at least one practice each week in 2018, and he often missed two or more. That takes an obvious toll on preparation, and it’s something the safety hopes to reverse this year.
“The goal is to practice more,” Geathers said. “So that’s my mindset. (Sitting out this spring was) just kind of protecting me from myself, but it’s good. I think the plan we have in place is a good plan, and I’m just trying to stick to it and follow it.”
There is plenty of optimism surrounding the Colts defense this summer.
The roster is younger, faster and more athletic. And there is a consistent feeling everything will be ramped up by a year of experience in Eberflus’ scheme.
The focus is on playing fast and taking the ball away, and Geathers has proven those are traits he possesses when he's healthy.
He also brings an imposing physicality to the secondary that remains rare on the roster.
There’s a persistent belief he’s still scratching the surface of what he can do at this level.
If he’s truly healthy this year, that theory finally can be tested.
“I’m not gonna put a limit on my play,” Geather said. “So the more I get out there, the better I’ll be.”