When Bob Sanders got hurt in the first game of the season, Colts fans were not surprised, but were also not worried. Melvin Bullitt had proven himself to be a capable back-up in 2008 and 2009 and would be able to step in as the next man up until Sanders was able to return.
With Bullitt now on injured reserve and Sanders likely shelved until the last few games of the season, Indianapolis needs to find out who the best candidate is at the starting safety position until Sanders returns. To add injury to injury, special teams ace and versatile reserve Jamie Silva is also out for the season.
The man who has filled the Sanders/Bullitt role of late is Aaron Francisco. Francisco was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Arizona Cardinals in 2005. He spent four seasons with the team, appearing in Super Bowl XLIII before being released in the final cutdown prior to the 2009 season.
He spent the 2009 season with the Colts and therefore has appeared in the last two Super Bowls. He signed with the Carolina Panthers in the offseason, but the team cut ties with him before the 2010 season kicked off. Indianapolis re-signed him on October 5 after Bullitt went on injured reserve. For his career, he has 13 starts, with two of those coming the last two weeks for the Colts.
He's the odds-on favorite to remain the starter for the balance of the season, if for no other reason than the fact that he's the incumbent and he knows the defense better than Chip Vaughn. Francisco is a bit big to play safety for Indianapolis at 6-foot-2 inches and 207 pounds and is a much better run defender than he is a pass defender.
He often gets caught out of position in the passing game, takes bad angles on receivers in the open field, and certainly isn't a classic Cover 2 strong safety. There is no real replacement for what Sanders brings to the defense, but Bullitt was awfully close and had proven himself to be more than sufficient the past two seasons. The issue is that Francisco is not a good replacement for Bullitt, which is why the team signed Vaughn.
The Colts actually took a look at Vaughn prior to the 2009 draft and were interested in him, but the Saints drafted him in the fourth round last year instead. Vaughn got hurt last offseason and was placed on injured reserve. New Orleans released him in the final cutdown before the 2010 season started, he spent two weeks on the Eagles practice squad, and was waiting for the phone to ring when Indianapolis signed him on October 25.
Vaughn is another big guy at 6-foot-2 and 217 pounds that is a better in-the-box safety than a coverage guy. One of the knocks on Vaughn coming out of Wake Forest was that he would not be able to keep up with receivers at the NFL level, since the players are more talented and teams tend to throw the ball more frequently out of three and four receiver sets. That is still the book on Vaughn. At least Francisco has some starts on his resume and made a fine play to close out the Redskins in Week 6.
Vaughn is also a good special teams player, so the Colts could have signed him simply to give Francisco a breather in the kicking game and to keep him from getting hurt as well. Since the two players are so similar and Francisco has an advantage over Vaughn in every area but age — though Francisco is only two years older than Vaughn despite having spent six seasons in the league — it looks as though Indianapolis signed Vaughn for his special teams play only.
He will be there in case anything happens to Francisco, but it is not very likely that he will win the starting job unless Francisco has a horrid game and needs to be benched -- which could certainly still happen. Francisco is still the player the Cardinals decided not to re-sign after their NFC championship, the player Colts chose not to re-sign this past offseason, and the player that couldn't make the roster of the 1-5 Panthers. Vaughn is still an unknown. A year on the injured reserve plus the fact that the Saints chose not to retain him, the Eagles didn't feel compelled to keep him around on the taxi squad, and that he was available a month later when Indianapolis called does not help his case.
Diamonds in the rough have been found before, but that doesn't appear to be the case here. Hopefully, the Colts will be able to insulate Francisco and lean on Antoine Bethea until Sanders comes back. They will avoid putting three safeties in the lineup in nickel and dime packages and will have to depend on their already strained depth at cornerback.
The best way to make the secondary look good, though, would be for Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, and the rest of the front seven to apply pressure to the quarterback so that he doesn't have the time or opportunity to test and exploit Francisco or Vaughn.
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