By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
For the second consecutive offseason, the Indianapolis Colts find themselves searching to replace a franchise icon.
Unlike last year’s Peyton Manning-for-Andrew Luck swap, however, the heir to defensive stalwart Dwight Freeney is not so evident.
The seven-time Pro Bowler’s production dipped in the past two years (13.5 sacks in 30 games), and it became clear he was not a good fit as an outside linebacker in head coach Chuck Pagano’s new hybrid 3-4 defense.
That doesn’t mean the man will be easy to replace.
He’s the franchise leader with 107.5 career sacks, and it was Freeney who first sat down with Luck during training camp at Anderson University last summer and explained there was no time for the Stanford star to play like a rookie this season.
Indianapolis has a host of leaders on defense — including outside linebacker Robert Mathis, defensive end Cory Redding and safety Antoine Bethea — but the Colts are going to miss Freeney’s quiet excellence.
“I can’t thank Dwight enough,” Pagano said at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine after word the star would not be re-signed was released. “He’s been a pillar, a guy here for a long, long time. Obviously, we know what he did on the football field was tremendous. What he’s done for the city, what he’s done for the fans, what he’s done for this community, the organization, you just can’t repay him enough.”
Freeney missed just two games last season after spraining his ankle in Week 1 against the Chicago Bears, but the injury affected his play throughout the season. Without his trademark burst off the line of scrimmage, Freeney wasn’t able to provide the pressure on the quarterback necessary to make Pagano’s system — the same one used by the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens — effective.
With teams allowed to speak with free agents from other rosters beginning today — though no contracts can be signed until Tuesday — the quest to find Freeney’s replacement is on.
Ravens free agent Paul Kruger figures to be near the top of the list. But the 27-year-old has made just six starts in his four NFL seasons and has 15.5 career sacks.
Kruger was a star during Baltimore’s postseason run, however, with four sacks including two in the Super Bowl. Pagano knows him well from their days together with the Ravens, but his asking price is said to be in the neighborhood of $10 million per season.
Other free-agent options are limited.
Detroit’s Cliff Avril played as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme and would need to make a similar transition to the 3-4 as Freeney and Mathis did this year. Houston’s Connor Barwin, meanwhile, is coming off a season in which his sack total fell from 11.5 to 3, and it’s fair to question how much San Diego’s Shaun Phillips — who worked with Colts defensive line coach Gary Emanuel at Purdue — has left in the tank. Though Phillips did have 9.5 sacks in his ninth NFL season last year after missing four games in 2011.
Fourth-year veteran Jerry Hughes (5 career sacks) and second-year man Justin Hickman (no sacks in 12 career games) are the leading in-house candidates.
The Colts also could wait to address the position with the No. 24 pick in April’s draft. Options there could include Southern Mississippi’s Jamie Collins, Illinois’ Michael Buchanan and Auburn’s Corey Lemonier.
Whatever path Indianapolis chooses, expect the outside linebacker position to be a key topic of conversation throughout the offseason.
“It’s going to be like any position,” general manager Ryan Grigson said at the combine. “I’m going to create competition. Chuck’s going to create the best competition. We have some young guys coming up through the ranks that we feel have promise. Some of them aren’t battle-tested. Some of them haven’t even been in our scheme, but we feel have some traits to eventually be that guy. With free agency and the draft, we’re still going to be looking real hard.”