clock menu more-arrow no yes
NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Filed under:

Free Agent Spotlight: Safety, Malik Hooker

Our free agent spotlight series continues today with a look at a four-year veteran out of Ohio State.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

This offseason, in many ways, is going to be very different for the Buccaneers. The free agency period will be especially unique, as the team doesn’t have many—if any—holes to fill on its roster. The main priority will be bringing back some key members of the 2020 Super Bowl champion squad, which will be enough of a challenge.

But after Tampa Bay does what it can to keep its own, any extra signings would likely be more for depth. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, as championship teams need depth. That was evident this year as guys like Leonard Fournette, Aaron Stinnie, Mike Edwards, Kevin Minter, and Steve McLendon had to step up at different points during the playoffs.

So, what can the Bucs do in free agency? There won’t be a ton of cap space to work with, so cheaper, shorter-term deals will likely be the only course of action. And with that in mind, let’s take a look at someone who could come in on a prove-it deal and play a role in Todd Bowles’ defense: Former Indianapolis Colts safety Malik Hooker.

Malik Hooker’s Career Thus Far

Cleveland Browns v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

After playing his high school football in Pennsylvania and becoming a highly coveted recruit, Hooker headed to Ohio State to play for the Buckeyes. He redshirted during the team’s 2014 championship season and played mostly special teams during the 2015 season before breaking out as a redshirt sophomore in 2016. That year, he totaled 74 tackles (43 solo), 5.5 tackles for loss, 0.5 sacks, seven interceptions and three defensive touchdowns on his way to earning a First-Team All-Big Ten selection and consensus All-American honors. With that successful of a year under his belt, Hooker decided to leave the Buckeyes program and enter the 2017 NFL Draft.

Despite being unable to participate in drills at the NFL Scouting Combine due to sports hernia and hip labrum surgeries, Hooker was still highly rated heading into the draft. He was picked by many as the top free safety in the class and the second safety overall, falling behind only Jamal Adams out of LSU. With the No. 15 pick in the first round, he was selected by the Indianapolis Colts.

Hooker struggled with injuries during his time with the Colts, playing in seven games (six starts) as a rookie in 2017 before missing the rest of the season with a torn ACL and MCL. He played well up until that point, though, picking up four passes defended and three interceptions. The next year, he played 14 games and collected two interceptions, four passes defended, a fumble recovery and 44 tackles (30 solo). He saw a bit of playoff action that year as well, playing in Indianapolis’ Wild Card Round victory before being sidelined for its Divisional Round loss to the Chiefs due to injury.

In 2019, the former Buckeye played in 13 games, finishing with two interceptions, three passes defended, a fumble recovery and 51 tackles (30 solo). Heading into the 2020 season, the Colts declined the safety’s fifth-year option, meaning he was set to be a free agent after the season. And unfortunately for both him and the Colts, he only played three games this past season before suffering a torn Achilles.

In four seasons, the soon-to-be 25-year-old has 124 tackles (81 solo), seven interceptions, 11 passes defended and two fumble recoveries while playing 37 out of a possible 66 games. It was hardly what the Colts hoped they were getting back when they selected him in 2017, and now it looks like he will be moving on to a new team in 2021.

Why It Works

The Buccaneers’ starting safeties are presumably set for 2021, as Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. both had great seasons in 2020. The next safety up behind those two is Mike Edwards, whose role also seems set heading into next season. After that, though, that’s where there could be an opening for a guy like Hooker, whose injury history may impact his ability to get a lengthy, starting safety contract. Based on Tampa Bay’s depth chart as laid out by OurLads, Whitehead and Edwards are the top two guys at strong safety, while Winfield and Andrew Adams are the top two at free safety. But Adams, who will turn 29 during the middle of next season, is a free agent this offseason.

With Adams being a free agent, there’s a chance for Hooker to step into a backup role behind Winfield. Given that he has missed so many games with such significant injuries over the last four years and is most recently coming off of a torn Achilles, Hooker may need a prove-it deal that gives him a chance to stay healthy for a full season and allows everyone to figure out whether or not he still has a chance to live up to the promise he once had.

When it comes down to it, you could see why the Bucs might be interested in having a guy with Hooker’s upside replace Adams in a depth role. That’s not to say that Adams isn’t serviceable, but if you’re looking at maximizing potential for your roster, it’s not hard to see the team feeling better about having Hooker come in and play a role. Per Pro Football Focus, Hooker put up the 25th-highest WAR (Wins Above Replacement) among safeties over the 2018 and 2019 seasons combined. So, when healthy, he has been a solid player in the back half of the defense.

But...

The injury history is the big “but” here, of course. Hooker has yet to play a full season and it’s not as if the injuries that have cost him games have been small ones. He had surgery on a torn hip labrum prior to the draft, he tore his ACL and MCL as a rookie and just last year he tore his Achilles. That’s a lot for a body—even an NFL player’s—to go through in such a short time. So, while Hooker was a top-15 pick in 2017 and looked like a star-in-the-making, it’s definitely a possibility that that potential he had after his Ohio State career has fully faded.

At the same time, there could be a team out there desperate enough to bring Hooker in as a starting free safety. He’s still only going to be 25 years old by the start of next season and if he’s fully recovered from his Achilles injury, he’s more than capable of providing solid coverage over the middle of the field for a team out there that needs a single-high safety. And if that’s the case, the fit wouldn’t be there with the Bucs. He would surely take a starting spot elsewhere, especially when you consider that the money would be better in that scenario as well.

What’s the Cost?

Hooker’s value is tough to truly tell at this point. He’s still young, but the fact that he’s had major issues with staying healthy isn’t going to help his case. And the fact that he’s coming off of a season in which he played just two games because of that Achilles injury? That won’t help either. That’s why a prove-it kind of deal is likely what’s in the cards. Pro Football Focus projected a one-year, $2 million contract for Hooker, with no guaranteed money. That kind of deal sounds about right for where he is right now. With Tampa Bay’s cap situation and the possibility of bringing Adams back for another year at half of that $2 million price tag, you have to wonder if this isn’t necessarily a likely move for the Bucs.

What We Don’t Know

There’s really a lot we don’t know about Hooker at this stage of his NFL career. Can he finally prove capable of playing all 16 games in a season? If he does, will he be still be the same guy that was once an impressive prospect or will he just be average—or worse? Not to mention, what will he be looking for in his next opportunity? Would he be willing to take a year to get his career going again, serving in a depth role to then parlay that into a starting job somewhere else in 2022? He’s very possibly looking to be a starter this year and will jump at any opportunity that a team gives him. If it’s not clear by now, there are a lot of reasons to be hesitant about the former Ohio State standout, even if there’s still some untapped mileage there.

Make The Decision

Indianapolis Colts v Jacksonville Jaguars Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

That’s enough considering and questioning, Bucs Nation. You could certainly see Tampa Bay checking in with Hooker about potentially playing the role Adams has played over the last two years. But is there a fit there? Do you think it’s an intriguing idea or are you staying as far away from the former Colt as possible? Let us know what you think by voting in the poll and discussing your thoughts in the comments down below.

Poll

When It Comes To Malik Hooker, What Would You Have The Buccaneers Do?

This poll is closed

  • 3%
    Sign Him, No Matter What
    (9 votes)
  • 27%
    Make An Offer, But Keep It Reasonable
    (75 votes)
  • 25%
    Invite Him For A Cup Of Coffee And See Where It Goes From There
    (68 votes)
  • 22%
    Call Him Up If They Have A Need After The Draft
    (60 votes)
  • 21%
    Don’t Need Him
    (57 votes)
269 votes total Vote Now
DraftKings

NFL Week 13 Opening Odds: Buccaneers favored big over Falcons

Yarcho’s Pick Six: Four for Fournette

Buccaneers Week 12 Top Performers: Lucas Oil Lenny stampedes over the Colts