When the Colts used the No. 24 overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft on Florida State defensive Bjoern Werner, head coach Chuck Pagano made it clear that Werner would transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. Werner, who had never played linebacker at FSU, impressed Pagano and general manager Ryan Grigson enough in pre-draft workouts to convince them that the 6'4, 266 pound prospect from Berlin, Germany could make the move.
Pagano also acknowledged that - after the team's decision not to re-sign all-time franchise sack leader Dwight Freeney - another pass rusher opposite Robert Mathis was a critical need to fill in the 2013 draft. Werner had 13 sacks in the ACC last season, and is expected to replace Freeney.
Pagano also praised Werner's ability to "set the edge" in the run game and his coverage skills.
Well, if Werner is so good as rushing the passer, stopping the run, and covering backs and tight ends, why should he sit on the bench in favor of recent free agent acquisition Erik Walden?
Walden is the 2013 NFL free agent signing that has pretty much everyone who covers the NFL scratching their heads. He was mediocre backer in Green Bay from 2010-2012. He also had stints in Kansas City and Miami after getting drafted in the 6th round in 2008 by the Dallas Cowboys.
The Colts are Walden's 5th team in 6 seasons.
Yet, despite his seemingly unimpressive play, Walden was signed to a 4-year, $16 million deal this offseason. Many people in league circles still shake their heads at that signing. His cap hit in 2013 is $3.25 million. If the Colts cut him next season, he'd still count $4.75 mill against their cap.
All this for a guy who, on tape, looks completely incapable of generating pressure on the quarterback. As an "edge-setting" linebacker, he looks good, and he showed decent coverage on tight ends and backs. However, he was made to look utterly ridiculous by Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers in the playoffs last season, stumbling all over himself while trying to tackle Kaepernick, who scampered for 181 yards and two scores in San Francisco's 31-17 beatdown of the Packers.
With so much money invested in Walden, how can the Colts sit him over Werner?
Werner is likely to get a deal in the four-year, $8 million dollar range. His signing bonus will be bigger than the one Walden got, which is critical for the player because signing bonus money is guaranteed.
While it's nice to think of the NFL as a place where only the best players get playing time, the reality is money does factor into who does and doesn't get on the field. Jim Irsay did not fork over millions just to see Erik Walden covering punts on special teams, and the Colts did not invest a first round pick in Werner just to have him rotate in on passing downs.
The question is who will play more, Werner or Walden?
The smart money is on Werner. If he's as good as advertised, it will be difficult to keep him off the field. However, if he completely outplays Walden, it's not like the Colts can just rid themselves of their 2013 free agent signing. Walden's contract is front-loaded, which means he's going to be around for this year and next, barring anything unforeseen.
Obviously, it's good to have as many quality linebackers as one can get. Plus, Walden isn't a bum or anything. It's nice to see a guy who has bounced around the league for a while find a home and get a good contract. Can't blame him for taking the money.
However, if Werner outplays Walden as a better "every down" backer, and if another pass rusher like Lawrence Sidbury or Josh McNary steps up and shows some pop, Walden effectively becomes an expressive roster hole.
The Werner-Walden competition will be something worth watching as OTAs and mandatory minicamp begin over the next month.