Earlier this afternoon, former Colts inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman signed with the Chicago Bears in free agency to a three-year deal worth a reported $12 million (with $6 million in guarantees and $2 million in incentives). Once details from that contract began to emerge, Colts fans began to question what the Colts franchise was doing.
Freeman was one of the Colts' better defensive players over the past four seasons and was coming off of his best career year. Though he will turn 30 years old this offseason, he is a good inside linebacker and keeping him should have been one of the Colts' top priorities. It was unclear, however, whether Freeman was going to get a deal that was worth more than the Colts realistically could or should be willing to pay, especially since the increased salary cap has led to record deals. If that were the case, then it would be a bummer to lose Freeman but it would be at least understandable. Instead, however, the details of the contract make it look as if the Colts botched the negotiations.
According to Yahoo Sports' Charles Robinson, the deal that Freeman signed with the Chicago Bears was the same one that the Colts offered him before free agency began. The Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder reports that the offer came before Freeman changed agents this offseason - which would have meant that the Colts' offer came several weeks before free agency began. In other words, if those two reports are accurate, it means that the Colts offered Freeman a deal averaging around $4 million per season weeks before free agency began and didn't budge from that number. Holder notes that the Colts planned to take a hard line with contract negotiations this year, and that appears to be what the team did here.
There's a fine line, however, between doing that and being stubborn, and here it appears the Colts were the latter. The team had the money to increase their offer to Freeman, and even if they added another million per season they would have been offering their best linebacker a deal averaging just $5 million per season. Whether or not that would have made Freeman stay is unknown, but it would have been worth it to offer - something it seems like the Colts didn't do. Cap-wise, the Colts currently have $22.73 million in cap space avaialble (per the NFLPA). The team knows Andrew Luck's extension is coming this offseason, and with a $16 million cap number already, it's likely that the team will need to save another $6-8 million in cap space this year to extend Luck. The team also needs to have cap space to sign their draft class, and we'll use $5 million as that number. In other words, that would leave the Colts with between $10.73M-11.73M to work with. It remains to be seen how they will use that money, but let's be clear: they had plenty of room to re-sign Jerrell Freeman now that we've seen what he signed for, they just choose not to.
The saga is really a year-long story of the Colts undervaluing Freeman, so them letting him walk shouldn't be surprising. Last year, Freeman was a restricted free agent, and the Colts placed a second-round tender on him worth $2.35 million. He wanted a long-term deal, however, and skipped the beginning of offseason workouts because of that. Soon, though, he realized that he didn't have much leverage and then decided to sign the tender. Freeman wanted a new contract at that time, but the Colts were unwilling to give him one. So he played the 2015 season on the RFA tender, and he had a career season. Freeman talked this offseason, then, about wanting to stay with the Colts, but he also mentioned that he had been playing for cheap for the past four seasons and it was time to get paid (which is understandable). But despite Freeman having a great 2015 campaign, the Colts offered Freeman a deal beneath what he thought he was worth, so he changed agents and hired Drew Rosenhaus. According to the Indianapolis Star's Stephen Holder, once Freeman turned down the Colts' initial offer, the Colts began to make plans to move on from the linebacker.
To be fair, it doesn't seem like the Colts' evaluation of the linebacker was too far off, as Freeman wound up signing a three-year, $12 million deal with Chicago. Perhaps, then, he found the market value to be lower than he expected, and it rather was in line with what the Colts originally offered. So from that standpoint, it's hard to fault the Colts - perhaps they really did know what Freeman's accurate market value was and stuck by that. At the same time, however, they could have easily kept the linebacker by simply upping the offer a bit more - something that they had plenty of time to do after their initial offer. Instead, they
stuck to their hard line were stubborn and hoped Freeman would take their deal. They felt more comfortable letting Freeman test the open market than they did making another slightly higher contract offer - to me, that suggests they didn't really have a strong desire to keep Freeman around, which is a reason I don't blame the linebacker for signing in Chicago despite having a similar offer on the table from the Colts.
Furthermore, from Freeman's standpoint, my guess is that the Colts' offer was likely seen as a bit of an insult. Keep in mind that just a few years ago, the Colts signed 30-year old inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson to four-year, $22 million deal that averages around $5.5 million per season. That was in 2014, when the salary cap was roughly $22 million lower than it is this year. So if you think of it from Freeman's point of view, that Jackson contract would absolutely have been a fitting benchmark for the Colts to offer him, as he's soon-to-be 30-years old and the salary cap has increased significantly. Instead, the Colts offered him a deal significantly less than what they offered to Jackson. Why, then, should Freeman stick around if the team didn't value him that much?
There's really no other way to say it: the Colts dropped the ball on this one. They let one of their best defensive players walk in free agency for a bargain deal because they tried to take a hard line in negotiating and didn't up their offer to Jerrell Freeman. It has been a year-long process of the Colts not willing to seriously commit or value the inside linebacker, as they didn't give him a new deal last offseason and then gave him an initial offer this year that was lower than Freeman thought it should have been. It seems they didn't really care to increase the offer, either, rather opting to let him walk in free agency. It's unclear where they will spend that money now, but it's likely they won't add a contributor like Freeman for that cheap. They now have a hole at inside linebacker that they will likely try to fill with Nate Irving, Sio Moore, or a draft pick, but they could have signed Jerrell Freeman for relatively cheap. Keep in mind too that even if the Colts draft an inside linebacker this year, they will likely need to replace D'Qwell Jackson within the next year or two as well, as he is currently 32-years old and not great. So although they may be able to fill Freeman's spot this year with a rookie or Irving, they also will now need to fill two inside linebacker spots in the next two or three years. Now, they're left hoping that their strange decision to let Jerrell Freeman walk doesn't come back to haunt them.