Shortly after free agency begun on March 12, the Indianapolis Colts agreed to a deal with outside linebacker Erik Walden. A whopping 4 year, $16 million deal.
Walden is a guy entering his 6th season, and the Colts are the 5th team he has been on. The Dallas Cowboys drafted him in the 6th round of the 2008 draft out of Middle Tennessee State, but they waived him during the final roster cuts in training camp. The Kansas City Chiefs signed him, but they also waived him by mid-season. That's when the Miami Dolphins claimed him, and he stayed in Miami until the 2010 season, when, you guessed it, he was released mid-season. The Green Bay Packers signed him and Walden actually played a big role in the Packers getting to (and winning) the super bowl. Walden's best career game came on January 2, 2011 against the Chicago Bears, as he recorded 16 tackles and 3 sacks on his way to being named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Week.
In the 2011 season Walden started 15 games and played in all 16, looking to continue to improve on the success that he had the previous year (namely against the Bears, when pretty much his entire season production came - he finished the year with 25 tackles and 3 sacks). He didn't. Like, at all. Despite starting 15 games at outside linebacker, he managed only 3 sacks and had little impact. Pro Football Focus rated him as one of the worst outside linebackers in the entire NFL, in both run and pass defense. He was an unrestricted free agent after the 2011 season and, with very little interest in him from other teams, the Packers brought him back on a 1 year, $725,000 deal.
2012 didn't go any better for Walden. He started 9 games (playing in 15 after he was suspended for the first week of the season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy) and he once again recorded only 3 sacks (on the bright side, he did pick off 2 passes!). Walden was at his worst in the Packers' playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers. While he certainly wasn't the only reason why the Packers lost, he was truly awful. His failures were a large reason why 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick ran wild for 181 yards and 2 scores on the ground. PFF once again ranked him dead last in the NFL in pass rushing among 3-4 outside linebackers. They also ranked him dead last on their list of free agent edge defenders. The Green Bay Packers really had no desire to re-sign him, Walden would later say. It isn't hard to see why. Devin Shanley of Acme Packing Company, the Packers SB Nation blog, wrote this of Walden in his free agent preview of the outside linebacker:
Likelihood Of Re-Signing
I hope with all my being that it’s poor. I’ll say this again, Walden is the worst OLB available in free agency right now according to PFF. The Packers could sign literally anyone else and have it be an upgrade. The problem is that Ted Thompson likes to keep his own guys and Walden is bound to be extra cheap (he is the worst OLB free agent available after all); so it’s not unreasonable to expect him back trying out for the team again in 2013. Sigh….I think I died a little typing that sentence.
Wow. Harsh stuff, and from what I've heard, Shanley's feelings were shared by Packers fans. Just reading the comments on that article is quite shocking how much people wanted him gone. That leaves the question of what in the world the Colts were thinking when they signed Walden. Packers fans weren't even sure about bringing him back on a very cheap deal. Walden will count $3.25 million against the Colts' salary cap this year. What was Ryan Grigson thinking?
Short answer: I have no freaking idea.
The Colts didn't re-sign Dwight Freeney (who just recently signed with the Chargers), leaving a big void at the outside linebacker position. Jerry Hughes was the best player there, besides Robert Mathis, of course (and now Hughes is gone too, with the Colts trading him to the Bills). Grigson was addressing the biggest need on the roster, sure... but he addressed it with a player worse than the one they let walk away (maybe even worse than the one they traded away, too).
All of that said, the biggest way Walden will hurt the Colts will be with his cap hit and not his play on the field. The team drafted the pass rushing outside linebacker Bjoern Werner in the first round of this year's draft, and it would seem that he will start next season. Brad Wells wrote an article a short while back about whether Werner could start over Walden, and he reached the conclusion that not only was it possible, it was maybe even likely.
There will be a training camp battle between Erik Walden and Bjoern Werner, and I'd guess that Werner wins it. It's actually kind of awesome that Ryan Grigson could make a poor move like signing Walden not impact the team much by nailing the draft pick of Werner.
Anyways, the role Walden figures to play with the Colts will likely just be as a situational player. While Walden may indeed be better at some aspects of the game right now than Werner is (such as run defense), Werner has A TON more potential in pretty much every area and the smart thing to do would be to start him now and let him learn on the go. Assuming the Colts do that, the free agent signing of Walden won't come back to hurt the Colts as much as everyone thought it might. Still, the contract that they gave to him is what had everyone shaking their heads in the first place, and that is still there.
I know I will be blasted by the legion of fans who take the saying "In Grigson we Trust" as bit too literally, but this signing (namely, the huge contract) was a mistake. A rare mistake for a very good general manager, but it was a mistake nonetheless. That mistake seems to have been minimized in the draft and Walden's role seems to have decreased significantly (again, this is pure speculation and we will have to wait until August to have real answers).
Seeing guys like Walden, who is on his 5th team in 6 years, settle down and find a home and have a nice career is awesome. I just don't think that's what Walden will find in Indianapolis. Colts.com's Kevin Bowen wrote of Walden:
The time is now for Erik Walden.
Tired of spot-duty action and bouncing around NFL teams, Walden comes to Indianapolis craving an opportunity to become ‘the’ guy.
In Indianapolis, I think all he will be is just 'another' guy.
What impact do you think Erik Walden will have this season? Do you think he will be the starter over Bjoern Werner? Should he be? Let your voice be heard in the comments!