Insider: Marvell Tell, Quincy Wilson go on divergent paths, but might be needed vs. Texans
- Colts at Texans, 8:20 p.m. Thursday, Fox
INDIANAPOLIS — One cornerback’s ability to adapt to a position switch has sent his career rocketing ahead of schedule, earning him a far bigger role than most thought he’d play this early. The other cornerback has taken two steps back, hamstrung, in part, by a series of position switches that kept him from focusing on any one position.
The Colts might need both of them to come up big Thursday night.
Flush with injuries at cornerback, Indianapolis is flying to Houston to take on Deshaun Watson and his fleet of talented receivers. The unit is led by the all-around brilliance of DeAndre Hopkins and fortified by the explosive speed of Kenny Stills and, potentially, Will Fuller, who might be able to come back from the hamstring injury he suffered the last time these two teams played.
If veteran starter Pierre Desir tests his hamstring Thursday and has to miss his fifth straight game, and if rookie Rock Ya-Sin is held out due to the ankle injury he suffered Sunday against Jacksonville, the Colts will need the different trajectories of Marvell Tell and Quincy Wilson to come together with the AFC South lead on the line.
“We have a bunch of things going on back there,” Colts coach Frank Reich acknowledged Monday. “(Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus) is just very matter of fact, straightforward and has a good plan.”
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Tell has been a part of the plan for four games now, since the Colts decided to end Desir’s cycle of playing through pain and try to get him back to 100 percent.
Ever since then, the rookie has essentially been a starter, taking 175 snaps over the past four games, lining up on the outside every time the Colts go to three cornerbacks.
Not bad for a fifth-round pick out of USC, a player thought to be a developmental prospect given that he played safety in college. Tell had known it was coming; almost every team he talked to before the draft saw his 6-2 frame and envisioned a player who’d be able to move to the outside.
“I knew I fit that mold,” Tell said.
Tell had his ups and downs in training camp, part of learning a new position.
But Reich remembers watching Tell move, seeing him in coverage in the early days and realizing the rookie had the skill set to make the transition quickly. Tell was born with the mentality of a cornerback.
“He doesn’t take any B.S. from anybody,” Colts safety George Odum said.
Tell sat for most of the first six weeks but he kept getting better, and when Desir went down again after the Texans game, the Colts turned to the rookie full-time, even though another rookie, Ya-Sin, was already a starter.
The results have been good. Although Tell has had his hiccups — he was in primary coverage on both of D.J. Chark’s touchdowns Sunday — he’s also made 15 tackles, forced a fumble with a beautiful tackle in Pittsburgh and leads the Colts with five pass breakups this season.
The more Tell plays on the outside, the more comfortable he feels.
“Honestly, I feel like covering from the inside is harder, you’ve got a lot more space to deal with,” Tell said. “When you’re at corner, you’ve got the sideline right there, you can kind of learn from the release what they’re doing.”
Tell’s emergence has come at the expense of Wilson, the 2017 second-rounder who has had an up-and-down career in three seasons in Indianapolis. After an ugly start as a rookie and another slow start last year, Wilson took over as a starter at midseason last season and played well down the stretch, earning rave reviews for his development as an outside cornerback.
But Wilson’s versatility, and drafting Ya-Sin, has ended up knocking him off that peak this season. All offseason, the Colts touted Wilson’s versatility, his ability to match up against tight ends, his ability to moonlight at nickel, dime and safety.
Ya-Sin’s emergence in training camp pushed the Colts to lean into that versatility this August. Wilson spent a good portion of his training camp lining up against tight ends or playing in the nickel, preparing to be a jack-of-all-trades this season.
While he was working at a bunch of different spots this season -- he briefly moved to safety for a couple of games due to injuries to Malik Hooker and Clayton Geathers -- a rookie passed him in every role. Khari Willis showed the ability to cover tight ends man-to-man; Shakial Taylor became Kenny Moore’s understudy at the nickel; and Tell eventually surpassed him on the outside.
Wilson hasn’t been active in four games, even with Desir out of action. When asked if all of the cross-training might have hurt him, the third-year player briefly acknowledged the possibility.
“You could say that,” Wilson said. “I’m not going to make any excuses. I feel like I’m the man for the job.”
Wilson worked hard this offseason. He showed up for offseason workouts at about 190 pounds, far leaner than he’d been as a rookie, a change that prompted rave reviews from Colts brass. He’s worked hard in practice; Eberflus, famously tough on players’ practice habits, has had no complaints.
But Wilson has been passed on the Colts’ depth chart.
“It has been tough, but you just keep working and waiting for your opportunity,” Wilson said.
The opportunity might have arrived, even if it’s not clear yet.
If Desir and Ya-Sin can both go despite their injuries, Indianapolis will have its preferred starting three cornerbacks for the first time since the last Texans game, and maybe both Tell and Wilson would take a backseat.
If not, the most important part of taking on the Houston offense — limiting the big play — will fall on their shoulders.
“We’ll see what happens on Thursday,” Wilson said.
An awful lot is riding on it.