The weakest part of the Indianapolis Colts’ struggling defense this year has been the play of the linebackers, and that’s frightening because it’s the position that has been least-affected by injuries. In other words, there’s not a ton of optimism about it getting better.
It’s hard for Colts fans to watch them play and then also watch the Chicago Bears play, as many did this past weekend, and see inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman playing so well. Through two games in Chicago, the former Colt has racked up 22 tackles, four tackles for loss, and a pass defensed - putting him on pace for 176 tackles and 32 tackles for loss this year to go with eight passes defensed. Many Colts fans were upset that the team let him walk in free agency, and that’s continuing now.
So since Colts fans have been discussing Freeman recently, the Indianapolis Star’s Stephen Holder took the opportunity to reveal the real reason why the Colts let Freeman walk (why he didn’t bring it up this offseason, I have no idea).
Earlier this year, the reasoning was simply that the Colts wanted to get younger at the position and that they wanted to give some of their young players a chance to develop behind Freeman. Now? Holder says it was because they wanted to add a cornerback. Here’s what he wrote earlier this week:
The Colts weren’t willing to go beyond their initial three-year, $12 million offer to Freeman in February. But why? Because the Colts had set aside money specifically for a No. 2 cornerback behind their top corner, Vontae Davis. It was one of the team’s primary offseason needs and, because their style of defense is so heavily dependent on solid cornerback play, the Colts placed that need well above their desire to retain Freeman.
Most here know that I was very much in favor of the Colts re-signing Freeman this offseason, but even I could understand their reasoning, even if I thought it was the wrong decision to make: they wanted to focus on developing young talent instead of re-signing a 30-year old linebacker. This latest reason, however, is one that I think makes the Colts look worse in the long run.
Basically, here’s the idea: the Colts only offered Freeman a three-year, $12 million deal, which is what he wound up accepting with the Bears. He obviously didn’t like the Colts’ initial offer (even though he wound up signing a very similar deal), but it led to many questioning whether the Colts should have gone slightly higher than $4 million per year in order to ensure they retained one of their best defensive players. It sounds like they wanted to add a number two cornerback instead, however, which wasn’t a bad idea, but they could have done that while also keeping Freeman.
Let me explain. Let’s just take the Colts’ current cap number, which according to Over the Cap leaves right around $10 million still available (though we don’t know details of Akeem Ayers’ deal, which have been hard to come by). So with that much cap space remaining, the Colts could easily have given Freeman $5-6 million a year to keep him around and still had room to roll over some cap space to next year or keep it available in case they need it this year. That’s with all the other moves the Colts made. It could certainly have worked. But that’s with the benefit of hindsight, so let’s just speculate that the Colts were looking to make a bigger splash at cornerback than signing Patrick Robinson (who got a three year, $13.5 million deal). Of all the free agent cornerbacks this offseason, Josh Norman received the highest average per year, but he wasn’t available when the Colts wound up signing Robinson. Sean Smith will have the highest 2016 cap hit at $11 million, which is $7 million more than Robinson’s cap hit this year. So let’s just say that the Colts maybe wanted to make a bigger splash so they wanted to have the money available to do so if need be. They could have still kept Freeman by cutting D’Qwell Jackson, which would have saved $5.25 million this offseason. They could have cut Jackson, re-signed Freeman to a similar monetary value, and still given their young guys a chance to develop while still targeting a number two cornerback. And that’s if the Colts went after the most expensive cornerback on the market. Or here’s another scenario: the Colts could have rolled more of Andrew Luck’s future extension to 2017, where they have plenty of cap room, to create a little extra space for Freeman. Here’s all I’m saying: the Colts absolutely could have made it work to keep Jerrell Freeman if they had wanted to, and they could have done so without a ton of difficulty.
So that’s why this reasoning doesn’t truly get at the heart of the issue, because the Colts easily could have made it work. Instead, they opted for D’Qwell Jackson and Patrick Robinson over Jerrell Freeman, and the results are now evident in the Colts’ struggles at linebacker. The issue is now in the past and there’s nothing the Colts can do about it now, but since the topic has been revisited this week, it’s hard not to look at the situation and wonder whether it’s one the Colts really screwed up.