Yet Bullitt -- a soft-spoken, well-spoken 25-year old who might still pass for a teenager -- has done excellent and efficient work replacing the injured Sanders, the 2007 NFL defensive player of the year, at strong safety.
In doing so, he’s symbolic of many Colts’ philosophies that helped lead them to the best regular season in the NFL and put them in position to host Baltimore in a divisional round playoff game Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium.
He’s at the head of the list of players who have excelled at being the next man up.
He’s a low-priced replacement part.
He’s reliable and doesn’t know what an excuse is.
He was a rookie free agent who didn’t cost the team a draft pick.
“They are very physically different,” Colts president Bill Polian said. “Melvin is tall and willowy and Bob is short and compact. ... Melvin is not nearly as explosive as Bob, nor is he as fast as Bob, though he’s far from slow. He’s exceedingly smart. He’s got a great work ethic. He can cover ground. He’s got exceptional instincts.”
“Bob and I are two different people with two different styles of play,” Bullitt said. “He’s more the kill shot guy; I am more the sure tackler. We both can make plays on the ball, and in this system we can both do similar things.”
Nobody’s perfect in football, but Bullitt strikes me as super reliable and accountable. He’s going to be at the right place at the right time, and in the rare instances when he fails, he will raise his hand and take the blame.
In a season when the Colts got only two games from Sanders, who's on IR, and relied on rookie cornerbacks Jerraud Powers and Jacob Lacey for two-thirds of their starts at the position, Bullitt combined with free safety Antoine Bethea to keep the secondary settled.
The Colts allowed a league-low seven pass plays of 30 yards or more.
The third-year man has gradually moved into a strata of NFL players who are mostly known for being relatively unknown.
“I guess when I got out and get eight or nine or 10 tackles a game I can’t be too much under the radar,” he said. “I don’t really look at that too much. You just go out and play your game and eventually people will notice.”
Melvin Smith coached the defensive backs at Texas A&M in Bullitt’s sophomore and junior years. Seeing Bullitt’s length, he came to compare him to another player he’d coached: Fred Smoot. Smith said Bullitt always carried himself with a “professional demeanor.”
“A pro is a pro before he becomes a pro,” said Smith, who’s now the secondary coach at Mississippi State.
Tackling was Bullitt’s one issue.
“I told Melvin to be a pro football player, all he had to do was learn to tackle upper-echelon backs,” Smith recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, coach, what’s an upper-echelon back?’ We played Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl and Tennessee had two real good backs (Gerald Riggs and Cedric Houston), good football players. I told Melvin if you can tackle backs like that, you can play in the NFL.
“That wasn’t his best tackling game. But I think he got better once he realized what it took to tackle guys like that.”
Tackling was still something that needed work when he arrived in Indianapolis.
“He was not a terrific tackler when we first got him, but he’s improved that pretty dramatically,” Polian said. “And he makes absolutely the most out of the talent he had. The thing he does best is defend the pass; he’s got range. But he’s also made himself into a heck of a run defender. He’s fearless and very tough. In that sense, he and Bob are a lot alike.”
Bullitt finished fourth on the team in tackles this season with 82 and had another five on special teams, where he’s a captain and did well in the fan voting for a special-teams spot in the Pro Bowl.
The Colts take great pride in unearthing undrafted free agents once the draft is over. They are happy to sacrifice size for speed and smarts, and they even pursue some prospects differently.
When Bullitt didn’t get drafted out of Texas A&M in 2007, he said at least eight teams were interested, and ticked off much of the list: Dolphins, Titans, Cardinals, Panthers, Cowboys, Texans, Bears.
The Dallas call came from a high-ranking personnel executive. Miami had its secondary coach, who’d coached Bullitt in the East-West Shrine game call. The rest were people he didn’t know well or couldn’t recall.
Indianapolis’ call came from the architect of the Colts’ defense. Tony Dungy was fresh of a Super Bowl championship season.
“He told me they were known for free agents making the team and making a difference,” Bullitt said. “Smart move by them. Smart move by me, too.”