Between now and the start of free agency, Stampede Blue will profile free agents the Indianapolis Colts could and should target when the new collective bargaining agreement is signed and the lockout lifted.
Free Agent Target: Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit Lions
Dwight Freeney is 31-years-old. Robert Mathis is 30. Jerry Hughes was a colossal disappointment last year as a rookie, and already people are starting to make excuses for why he could suck even more in 2011. I won't go so far as to say we fans need to be freaking out about the current state of the Indianapolis Colts' pass rush, but we should definitely be concerned.
The Colts define a successful season by winning a Super Bowl. Anything less is failure. After Freeney and Mathis, the Colts simply have no pass rush. Without a pass rush in the NFL, your team will be lucky to make the playoffs. Thus, it is imperative that the Colts do everything possible not just to ensure that the pass rush remain consistent, but to also enhance the rush with as many potent players as possible.
In April 2008, I was convinced that the Colts were going to draft Cliff Avril out of Purdue in the third round of the draft that year. The Detroit Lions seemed convinced as well, which was likely why they swung a trade with the Dallas Cowboys moments before the selection was to be turned in. Detroit took Avril with the 93rd pick. It's one of the few smart moves then-Lions G.M. Matt Millen ever made.
The Colts picked 94th, and used it to take Philip Wheeler. Excuse me. I vomited in my mouth a little bit thinking about how we could have drafted Avril over Wheeler.
Since being drafted, Avril has 19 sacks in 28 career starts. He's the best pass rusher from his draft class, which included Phillip Merling, Quentin Groves, and Derrick Harvey (who were all first day picks). When evaluating edge rushers from 2010, Pro Football Focus Avril was ranked 14th overall. Prior to the lockout, the Lions placed a 1st and 3rd round tender on Avril, the highest tender possible for a player not franchise tagged. If reports about the new proposed CBA are accurate, that tender will be meaningless when free agency starts.
This means Avril will be free to sign with any team, and the Lions will not be owed any compensation.
Now, the logical question here is how can the Colts afford to sign someone like Avril and keep Freeney, Mathis, and Hughes long-term? The simple answer is Mathis is a goner when his contract is up at the end of the 2011 season. He knows this, which is why he held out from OTAs and mandatory mini-camp last year wanting a new deal.
Also, the Colts drafted Jerry Hughes, in part, to replace the nine-year veteran from Alabama A&M.
Since it isn't all that clear that Hughes will even be a passable defensive player, let alone an elite one like Mathis, the Colts should not bank on him developing. Instead, target the 25-year-old Avril, who had 8.5 sacks and 33 tackles last season playing on the opposite side of Detroit's d-line with an ancient Kyle Vanden Bosch. Avril's numbers with Freeney on the other side would rival Mathis.
Should Mathis have an issue with the Colts bringing in Avril, or if the numbers don't add up financially, the simple answer to the problem is to cut Robert. He's in the final year of his deal, and the Colts pass rush would be just as effective with Freeney and Avril; maybe even better. Avril is also five years younger than Mathis, and has the same build (6'3, 260 pounds).
Ideally, if the team could trot out Freeney, Mathis, Avril, and a semi-passable Hughes, the Colts would be a potent pass-rushing force in the AFC. That type of rush would rival the New York Giants circa 2007, and rush was what propelled them to a Super Bowl win that year. Had the Colts been able to generate any kind of rush in Super Bowl XLIV, we wouldn't have been subjected to all those annoying 'Go Saints!' commercials for the NFL Shop last year.
Last season, the Colts defense was in the bottom half of the league with just 30 sacks. If they were to increase that number to 40, that would mean fewer third down conversions for the opponent... meaning more snaps for Peyton Manning and the Colts offense... meaning probably two or three more 'W's in the win column.