Ever since Chuck Pagano took over as head coach of the Indianapolis Colts last offseason, I had wondered what Dwight Freeney's future with the Colts held in store. As the season went on, it became more and more obvious that the Colts could do much better at the rush linebacker position. Freeney played hard and gave great effort, but he wasn't a natural fit in the 3-4 defense and he was plagued with injuries all year. When his contract was up this offseason, I said that the decision not to re-sign him, while a hard decision, was the right one. The team could clearly upgrade the position.
Unfortunately, I failed to mention that they could also get worse. And that's just what happened.
In terms of the Colts' pass rush, it got worse. They lost the production of Freeney, who although he struggled last year still managed 5 sacks and a forced fumble. They gained the production of Walden, who has consistently gotten a few sacks a year (he has 3 in each of the past 3 seasons) but has never been a great pass rusher. In fact, the great statistical site Pro Football Focus consistently ranked Walden near the bottom of the league in terms of pass rush for two years straight. They graded the Colts' signing of Walden as the worst in the league, as Walden was the only signing that they put into their -1.5 grade, with the description of "Now why would you go and do that?" That's what many Colts fans are asking as well. Here is what PFF had to say about the Walden signing:
To finish last in our 3-4 outside linebacker rankings once is bad. To do it twice indicates a player who just isn’t ever going to get it. Walden, in comparison to his peers, isn’t a good player. He doesn’t do a great job setting the edge, he’s extremely unproductive rushing the passer, and he’s now getting paid $4m a year. We give the Colts a -1.5 for this deal but his agent deserves a +2.0 for pulling it off. The Colts have fallen into the trap of watching a player have a career game against them (his +4.1 was the highest he ever managed by far) and assuming that is close to the status quo. It’s not and they’re going to be very disappointed with what they get out of him.
While Dwight Freeney did not have a very good year last year, that was compared to Dwight Freeney's standards. Erik Walden has not had a good year the past two years compared to NFL standards, which are much lower than Freeney standards. I just don't see a way that this move is an upgrade, and it now makes Robert Mathis perhaps the most important and indispensable player on the team besides for Andrew Luck. Mathis is moving to Freeney's spot of rush linebacker, and he will have to produce the bulk of the Colts' pass rush in 2013 if the area is not addressed in the coming weeks (the Draft). Mathis has 91.5 career sacks, but the other four linebackers who figure to make major contributions (Walden, Pat Angerer, Jerrell Freeman, Kavell Conner) have a combined 14. For a bit of perspective, the five defensive backs who figure to make major contributions (Vontae Davis, Greg Toler, Darius Butler, Antoine Bethea, LaRon Landry) have a combined 11 career sacks. That's only three less than the linebackers. What does that mean? Not much, but it also shows that the Colts' current linebacking core has not had experience getting to the quarterback outside of Mathis. Last year, the Colts recorded 32 sacks, which isn't even an overwhelming number. They lost 8 of those to free agency (Freeney had 5, Moise Fokou, Tom Zbikowski, and Jamaal Westerman each had 1). They gained 5 sacks from a year ago, as Walden had 3 last year and Aubrayo Franklin had 2 in 2012.
Understand that most of the players the Colts signed have yet to reach their potential and the Colts are banking on the fact that they will indeed reach it. But the lack of pass rush success is alarming, and the Colts honestly have no one outside of Mathis that can consistently rush the passer. That's the big key - consistency. Every player in the NFL can get to the quarterback at times, if they are given enough snaps (see Walden, Erik). But unless they can consistently do so, they cannot be classified as a pass rusher, much less a good one. The Colts only have one pass rusher, and teams will just double team Robert Mathis and take their chances against the other 10 defenders getting pressure. Do you like those odds? Yeah, me neither. You see, the issue isn't just that Robert Mathis is the only pass rusher. The bigger issue is that with no other viable pass rush option, Mathis' production will decrease significantly as well - leading to an even bigger problem. The reason why the Colts in the past were able to get such dominant pressure was because, with both Freeney and Mathis, they were able to help each other out by taking blockers away from the other. Double team one, and the other would get the pressure. That's why, when Freeney was absent from the lineup, Mathis' production also went down. The same thing will happen in 2013 unless the Colts can find someone else that can consistently get pressure.
I'm being dead serious when I say that Jerry Hughes is by far the best option at pass rusher outside of Mathis. I mean, he at least notched 4 sacks last year and made great improvements. I wrote a month or two ago about how I thought the Colts may not sign a big name outside linebacker and that Hughes may get the first shot at taking Freeney's position. Well, they didn't sign a big name linebacker (a la Cliff Avril or Paul Kruger), but it seems that Walden will start over Hughes. Let me just say that Jerry Hughes may be a better option and should be looked at.
And since I know most fans won't like to hear that, that's why I say that pass rusher must be the first priority in April's NFL Draft. If the Colts fail to address the position, they will not only put unreasonable pressure on Robert Mathis, but Mathis' production would go down as well. It would all amount to a defense that gets torched whenever they play a decent quarterback (good luck stopping Peyton Manning with no pressure). The secondary is significantly improved, but they still need help from the pass rush - just like every other secondary. The best fix to a bad secondary is a good pass rush, and while the Colts secondary isn't bad, the pass rush certainly is.
I have been a big fan of what Ryan Grigson and company have done this offseason. Big fan. But if they fail to address the most glaring need in a pass rusher, they will pay the consequences next year. Because right now, there is no other way to say it besides that the pass rush sucks and is a major, major concern. There is still time to address it; the Colts just need to make sure they do.