Xavier Rhodes re-signs with Colts in free agency, fills void at cornerback
INDIANAPOLIS — Xavier Rhodes bet heavily last year that a reunion with his former cornerbacks coach Jonathan Gannon, and a chance to play in the Colts' cornerback-friendly scheme, would revitalize a career that had fallen on hard times in Minnesota.
Rhodes was right, and after a few days on the open market, the 30-year-old cornerback is coming back.
The Colts are bringing Rhodes back to the defense on a one-year deal worth $6.5 million, multiple sources with knowledge of negotiations confirmed to IndyStar on Saturday. The NFL Network first reported the news.
By bringing back Rhodes, the Colts have filled at least one of the critical needs they faced going into the offseason after a quiet opening to free agency that left most of the holes open.
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Freed from the difficulty of playing man to man against the opponent’s best wide receiver each week, Rhodes thrived last season in an Indianapolis system he considered to be much easier than the one he’d left in Minnesota. Forced to constantly match up against the opponent's best receiver with the Vikings, Rhodes had fallen from grace, leading the Vikings to release him.
Frustrated and motivated by the release, Rhodes signed a one-year deal worth $3.25 million, betting that he could prove himself by reuniting with Gannon and playing in a scheme that allowed him to play more zone coverage and keep his eyes on the quarterback.
Rhodes played at nearly a Pro Bowl level, making two interceptions, breaking up 12 passes and allowing opposing quarterbacks to post just a .519 completion percentage and a respectable 84.5 rating against him, which rivaled the game’s top corners, including Buffalo’s Tre’Davious White (79.9) and New England’s Stephon Gilmore (75.7).
While he will be 31 by the time the season begins, which likely kept him from landing a multi-year deal -- other cornerbacks at or around 30, like Patrick Peterson in Minnesota and Kyle Fuller in Denver have also signed one-year deals -- Rhodes proved he's still capable of being a top-flight starting cornerback in the league.
The question was whether or not his gamble would earn him enough on the open market that the Colts wouldn't be able to match.
“Xavier had a heck of a year,” GM Chris Ballard said in January. “Really bought into what we were doing. I give Jonathan Gannon a lot of credit for that. He had a relationship with Xavier coming in from Minnesota. Xavier worked and bought into everything we were doing. I think we’ll wait and see how it works out here in free agency, but we like Xavier.”
The veteran cornerback market developed slowly, and although the Colts checked in on a few cornerbacks, they were not heavily involved in the pursuit of Fuller, who was released by the Bears on Saturday and almost immediately signed in Denver.
Peterson and Fuller ended up getting $10 million and $9.5 million, respectively, from the Vikings and Broncos, and even though Rhodes wasn't able to cash in to that level, the $6.5 million deal gives him a chance to double what he was able to get on the open market last offseason.
The Colts are betting now that Rhodes can thrive again, serving as a key member of a cornerback group that played well last season but counted heavily on his ability on the outside. Rhodes broke up 12 passes, tying fellow starter Kenny Moore for the team lead, but Indianapolis got uneven play from second-year cornerback Rock Ya-Sin on the other side, and he rotated with T.J. Carrie, who is also a free agent.
Indianapolis still believes in Ya-Sin. The young cornerback learned a lot from Rhodes, and the veteran can now continue teaching a player the Colts believe is still growing.
"Rock knows he has to make some improvements, but I think he’s got the right mental attitude to do it," Ballard said. "He had some good moments this season, they weren’t all bad, but he also had some rough moments, which is natural for a second-year corner. We think he’ll work and he’ll get better.”
If Ya-Sin can live up to Ballard's belief in him, the Colts have the potential to have a solid trio at cornerback, and Indianapolis is also expecting to get back the services of Marvell Tell, the promising 2019 fifth-round pick who opted out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns.
Both cornerbacks will have to improve without the tutelage of Gannon, who left in the offseason to become the defensive coordinator in Philadelphia. Indianapolis has hired up-and-coming cornerbacks coach James Rowe to fill Gannon's spot.
But there is still plenty of familiarity for Rhodes. Colts safeties coach Alan Williams also coached Rhodes in Minnesota, and after a year in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus' system, Rhodes knows the scheme and knows what's expected of him.
Indianapolis could still add another veteran cornerback for depth reasons or draft a younger player to groom to eventually take over for Rhodes, but the signing of the veteran erases one hole in the starting lineup as the first week of free agency comes to a close.
With Rhodes in the fold, Indianapolis still has needs at defensive end, offensive tackle and wide receiver.
But the Colts are on the board now, and the signing of Rhodes fills at least one critical spot in the starting lineup as Ballard begins to go to work in the second wave of free agency, when the money figures start to drop and the values are more to his liking.
Contact IndyStar Deputy Sports Editor Nat Newell at (317) 444-6182 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NatJNewell.