According to Pro Football Focus (subscription), Indianapolis Colts cornerback Marvell Tell is one of its ten players who needs a strong training camp for an expanded role in 2020:
The Colts allowed Pierre Desir to walk this offseason, opening up a starting spot. Marvell Tell is the most likely to do claim it, but he needs a strong training camp and preseason to seal the deal. Tell was a safety in college at USC, and a fifth-round draft pick, so his transition to the NFL was always going to be a work in progress.
As a rookie, he played 254 snaps and graded well (67.6 overall). He didn’t have an interception, but he did have five pass breakups in that time and flashed the kind of talent that suggests he could take a big step in Year 2. Tell’s most likely competition for that starting spot comes from veterans T.J. Carrie and Xavier Rhodes.
Rhodes is a former Pro-Bowl caliber player, but his PFF grade has declined in each of the last three seasons. In 2019, he surrendered a 131.1 passer rating when targeted and gave up a scarcely believable 83.5% completion rate. Rhodes has been dealing with injuries for a long time, but he has a very steep hill to climb to get back to his best.
Selected by the Colts in the 5th round of the 2019 NFL Draft, the 6’2”, 198 pound defensive back with long arms (33 1/8”) showed initial promise—as he’s still learning the ropes at the professional level as an NFL outside cornerback (as a former collegiate safety):
“I was surprised by his maturation as the year got going,” Colts cornerback coach Jonathan Gannon said regarding Tell’s rookie season in 2019. “Just getting better every day, and he wasn’t even playing, wasn’t even up the first couple of weeks. And that can be hard on a rookie that’s drafted, when everyone doesn’t play, that’s a smack in the face and as rookies they have to understand, there’s only 46 (players) up. He took that in stride and a lot of guys go into the tank (when) Week 1, you don’t have a jersey.”
“But you gotta be able to play next week, so it’s one of those things where I thought he made a good jump. Again with him, the talent level is through the roof. I think he’s only going to improve. Everything just like Rock (Ya-Sin) was new for him—and more so for him, because in college, he was playing safety. Playing through that lens is completely different than playing outside so he had to learn all of the new techniques that we’re teaching just like Rock did—coupled with the fact that he’s never really played outside.”
“So I’m excited about him. He did a good job. He played like 250 snaps or something and is smart enough to be a combo guy, bounce inside, outside, but we just had a meeting, and we’re excited about him. I know I am.”
Tell recorded 26 tackles, 5 passes defensed, and a forced fumble during 13 games (1 start) this past season.
Per PFF, Tell was their 44th best cornerback (tied) with a +67.6 grade overall in 2019—which is pretty encouraging for a rookie Day 3 pick.
Now, I disagree with PFF that Tell is the most likely cornerback to claim the job—as despite veteran cornerback Xavier Rhodes’ two-year slump, he is still the frontrunner to win the starting job on the other side of Rock Ya-Sin (with Kenny Moore covering the slot).
If nothing else, given his veteran experience and former All-Pro caliber form with the Minnesota Vikings, Rhodes should get the first crack at the other starting job.
With a much needed change of scenery, scheme shift (to more zone coverage with the Colts), and a reunion with his former defensive backs coaches with Minnesota in Indy, there’s a decent chance that Rhodes can turn into a productive starting cornerback again—maybe even a shutdown one.
That being said, PFF is right that with a strong training camp, Tell could push Rhodes for the starting job—given the strides he made during his debut season. If nothing else, Tell figures to be ‘the next man up’ for the starting job—should Rhodes continue to struggle—as veteran T.J. Carrie was signed more as slot insurance for Moore (as the entire defense struggled in his absence last season—missing 5 starts because of injury).
Only 23 years old with impressive physical measurables (having a 42 inch vertical and a Relative Athletic Score [RAS] of 9.28 out of 10.0)—as well as initial production, Tell figures to be a key young cornerback with a bright future for the Colts—whether he starts or not during 2020.