We highlighted yesterday that the Colts have signed nine new players from the unrestricted free agent market this offseason.
The last time Indianapolis was this active at the beginning of the NFL league year was 1999, when then-team president Bill Polian used a ton of Jim Irsay's money to pluck free agents from the team Polian ran from 1995-1997: The Carolina Panthers. Essentially, Polian signed players to the Colts roster that he'd scouted and drafted for the Panthers in previous years, such as DE Shawn King and CB Tyrone Poole. Other players acquired in free agency that year were people Polian had drafted or traded for when he ran the Buffalo Bills front office, such as OLB Cornelius Bennett and CB Jeff Burris.
This year, things are different, but the notion of rebuilding the team's defense via free agency seems remarkably similar. Colts general manager Ryan Grigson has used Indianapolis's estimated $41 million in cap space to refurbish the entire roster, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Consider who Grigson has signed since taking over the front office in 2012, after Bill Polian was fired:
- Cory Redding, Jerrell Freeman, Josh Gordy, Darius Butler, Sergio Brown, Tom Zbikowski, and Brandon McKinney were all signed as UFAs by Grigson in 2012
- Drew Stanton, Winston Justice, Moise Fokou, Cassius Vaughn, and Vontae Davis were all traded for in 2012, which means that - from a purely talent development perspective - you have to view them as free agent acquisitions.
- Ricky Jean Francois,
Of the people listed above, only Zbikowski, Stanton, Fokou, and Justice are not longer on the team with Justice maintaining a small chance of re-signing with Indianapolis. This means 17 players of a projected 53-man roster were NOT drafted by the Colts organization, and I'm not even including players like Joe Reitz, Jeff Linkenbach, or Griff Whalen - players signed as rookie free agents immediately following the draft.
What this all means is the 2013 Indianapolis Colts are a team built through free agency, not the NFL Draft.
Want more examples of what I mean? Here you go:
- Of the 11 projected starters on defense - and, mind you, this can change because of injuries, future signings, the draft, etc. - only 3 are players drafted by the Colts franchise. Those 3 are Robert Mathis, Pat Angerer, and Antoine Bethea. Everyone else was acquired either via free agency or a trade.
- The entire projected starting defensive line (Redding, McKinney, Jean Francois) is made up of free agent acquisitions.
- The entire secondary, with the exception of Bethea, was not drafted by the franchise. Vaughn and Davis were acquired via trades while Toler, Butler, Gordy, Landry, Lefeged, and Brown were all signed as free agents. Of that group, only Lefeged was signed as a rookie free agent.
- Three of the five projected starting offensive linemen in 2013 were signed as UFAs (Samson Satele, and the before-mentioned Cherilus and Thomas).
To summarize all this, and to drive the point home further, of the 22 projected starters on offense and defense, half of those players were acquired via the unrestricted free agent market or trades. That does not include rookie free agents signed immediately following the draft.
It's important to note that the logic behind these moves is not being questioned here. The 2011 Colts were a disaster, winning only 2 games and starting the season 0-13. From 2007-2011, the Indianapolis front office was virtually inept at drafting quality players. Busts like Tony Ugoh, Fili Moala, Donald Brown, Kevin Thomas, and Jerry Hughes litter the landscape of those years. Also, with the firing of Polian Family from the front office, Grigson and his crew had to re-infuse the roster with talent, especially on defense. Chuck Pagano's hybrid 3-4 scheme is much more complex, and requires a higher skill set from the players, than the old Tampa-2, 4-3 scheme run under Jim Caldwell.
It will be very interesting to see if this strategy of improvement via free agency will work. History says it will not, and the most recent example of that are the Philadelphia Eagles teams from 2011-2012. In 2011, the Eagles spent a boatload of their cap space on free agents, assembling the now-infamous "Dream Team" that included Cullen Jenkins, Vince Young, Jason Babin, and Nnamdi Asomugha. That "Dream Team" compiled a 2-year win-loss record of 12-20. They never made the playoffs, and the eventual results were the firing of longtime head coach Andy Reid along with the releasing of Jenkins, Young, Babin, and Asomugha.
FYI: The Eagles director of player personnel from 2010-2011 (aka, the period of time when Philly signed all these "Dream Team" free agents) was Ryan Grigson.
So, if you are one of these fans that used to rant and rave about how free agency was TEH SATAN, then you better root hard against the 2013 Indianapolis Colts. If they perform better than the 2012 team did, it will put a dent in the notion the teams "can only win via the draft."
If the Colts struggle, and if those struggles are linked to a lack of cohesion because of all these free agents, that will be traced back to Grigson and his 2013 offseason philosophy. It's a methodology that flamed out with the Eagles. Will it work with the Colts? We shall see.