How exactly do you replace the franchise's all-time sack leader?
How do you replace an aging pass rusher who didn't fit the current scheme well or offer much against the run?
Well, now that is a different question entirely.
No matter your personal opinion about Dwight Freeney, a few things are certain.
- He will finish his career as one of the greatest Colts of all time, and the second-most important Colt of the Manning/Polian era (Marvin was the second-greatest, but Freeney is the second-most important).
- Even though Robert Mathis has a chance to pass his franchise sack record (he's just 16 behind with three more years on his contract), Freeney will always be the first one mentioned of the duo.
- He will always be more comfortable in a 4-3 than a 3-4.
- He's a liability against the run.
- The Colts made the right decision to let him go.
The Colts are committed to one veteran pass rusher already, and it simply didn't make sense to try to hold on to another one, again, one that simply didn't fit well.
So now what?
The first point of order is to point out that there are two scenarios here, one more likely than the other, that have to do with Robert Mathis.
First, the Colts keep Mathis in the strong-side OLB position that he played this past season, dropping him back in pass coverage nearly 12% of the time, rushing him predominantly from the left side, and giving him occasional stunts and inside rushes.
The second scenario is the one that I see most likely. Here, the Colts would move Mathis to Freeney's rush OLB spot, allowing him to more frequently just line up and attack, dropping into coverage far less (Freeney dropped back just 3% of his snaps, Suggs just 6% in '11), and rarely given stunts/inside rushes.
Mathis is more comfortable as a pass rusher, his time in coverage this season was generally a horrible thing for the Colts. In fact, Mathis actually had the worst pass coverage grade on the team this season (According to ProFootballFocus), despite being in coverage for just 83 snaps. He's simply not made for it.
Plus, it's well-known Mathis' strength is the outside edge rush. He has fantastic body control that allows him to get lower than the opposing tackle and use that leverage to get to the quarterback. Running him around on stunts, while it still will likely happen (just the nature of the defense), likely will be contained when at the ROLB position.
The second part of this scenario then, would be the Colts' acquiring a free agent or rookie outside linebacker, specifically a strong-side outside linebacker. This is a player who can rush the passer, but is also a force against the run, preventing cutbacks. This player must also be able to drop back into coverage when necessary. Freeney and Mathis both struggle against the run (although Mathis has traditionally been better), which was a big reason why the Colts were one of the worst teams in the league at stopping it this season.
There are two players in free agency that can fill this void, but one fits better than the other, in my opinion.
Paul Kruger and Anthony Spencer are not unfamiliar names for Colts fans at this point, at least, they shouldn't be.
Both players are complimentary pass rushers, Kruger playing Robin to Terrell Suggs' Batman in Baltimore while Spencer has been second fiddle to DeMarcus Ware for years. Both players finished 2012 in the Top-5 for ProFootballFocus' pass rushing grades for 3-4 outside linebackers, as well as in pressure per snap numbers.
Both players are also about average in coverage, not coverage linebackers by any means, but they have the skill to do it when needed. Both linebackers saw more snaps in coverage than Mathis did in 2012, although Spencer had a bigger ratio than Kruger did in terms of coverage snaps.
But a noticeable difference comes when it's time to stop the run, the area where the Colts' outside linebackers simply didn't match up in 2012. All of the Colts' top three OLBs finished in the bottom six in PFF's run defense grade, as Hughes, Freeney, and Mathis all finished the season between -5.0 and -5.5.
While Kruger would likely be a slight upgrade in the run (although still in the bottom half of the league in 2012), the upgrade that Spencer would give would be extreme. Spencer was easily PFF's number one rated outside linebacker against the run in 2012, as well as having the highest run stop percentage. The difference there would help push the Colts' to new heights defensively, especially if they continue to build on the defensive line and replace huge holes in the defensive backfield.
In my opinion, Kruger would be a nice consolation prize in this free agency period, but Spencer should be the Colts' number one target. Of course, there is always the draft as well, but the Colts have the money and Spencer seems to be the perfect fit for what they need right now.
The only question that remains, is how much is he worth?