grigs - Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Free Agency under the PFF Microscope Part 1: The Front Seven

Free agency is an exciting time in the NFL, and Colts fans are all abuzz about how Ryan Grigson will go about spending some the team’s estimated $37.9 million in cap space to bolster the roster this offseason.  Two weeks from now, we’ll begin to find out, but for now, we’ll speculate and analyze. 

We’ve talked at length about interior offensive linemen (some center everyone keeps mentioning). Today, though, we shift our attention to defensive front seven, where the Colts had trouble stopping the run, and, other than Robert Mathis, didn’t have much luck rushing the passer.

Shoring up the defense up front, especially with a second legitimate pass rusher, would go a long way toward making the rest of the defense look better (I feel as though I’ve said this before). 

The problem is twofold.  First, the Colts already have a three-man rotation at outside linebacker with Robert Mathis ($8.75 mil), Bjoern Werner ($1.8 mil), and Erik Walden ($4.25 mil).  The trio eats up just under $15 million in salary for 2014, which makes a major signing less likely despite the need for a second pass rusher.

Most likely, they plan to bank on Werner becoming that second pass rusher while they see what former rugby player Daniel Adongo can bring to the table in his second season as well. 

The second issue is that this year’s free agent group isn’t very deep at 3-4 outside linebacker, with the top two prospects likely to command big, ponderous, cap-killer contracts.  The next place to look for a pass rusher, though a distant second, is along the interior of the defensive line.  Since the nose tackle typically leaves the field in nickel situations, we’ll focus on defensive ends (bear in mind, the right DE in the Colts’ scheme typically is called a defensive tackle). 

Cory Redding ($4.4 mil) and Ricky Jean Francois ($5 mil) are the incumbent starters at end.  Redding, who’s in a contract year, was brilliant in 2013, compiling a Pro Football Focus grade of 18.5 against the run and 21 overall. He finished with a 0.7 score (zero is average) rushing the passer, meaning he wasn’t a liability, but his main contribution by far was run stopping. 

Jean Francois wasn’t nearly as impressive, but he was no slouch either, finishing the season with cumulative grades of 6.0 against the run and -2.5 against the pass for an overall positive score of 4.5. 

If the Colts can afford it, especially with the 33-year old Redding nearing the end of his contract, a third defensive end – preferably one who can wreak havoc in passing situations – could be a big boost to the front seven and help ease the workload of their aging run stopper and leader on game day. 

As with anything else, the price would have to be just right, and many of the players worth considering will be seeking a raise and a long-term deal.  Some of these guys could be a very solid depth addition, while others are little more than a pipe dream, but it’s free agency.  We can dream a little, can’t we? 

Here are a few of the pending free agents around the league and their overall Pro Football Focus grades from 2013.  Some of the names that have come up in conversation recently didn’t fare all that well.  I included them anyway for comparison:

1. OLB Jason Worilds, Steelers, 6-2, 262, 25 yrs. old.  Worilds is a free agent following his best overall season.  In just 11 starts and 792 snaps, he racked up 8 sacks and 21 total quarterback pressures.  He struggled early on before coming on strong as his playing time increased.  Pittsburgh wants him back, but according to Rotoworld, Worilds only wants to return if he’s guaranteed a starting job.  Verdict: Signing an OLB is unlikely, but if they do, Worilds is a pass rusher on the rise. 

2. OLB Brian Orakpo, Washington, 6-4, 257, 27 yrs. old.  Washington wants Orakpo back, but they have been negotiating for a while and aren’t committed to the franchise tag.  The problem is, if they can’t keep him, he may be too expensive, especially with no expiring contracts for the Colts at OLB next season.  Verdict: Pipe dream, fantasy football. 

3. DE Michael Bennett, Seahawks, 6-4, 274, 28 yrs. old.  Bennett is actually a 4-3 defensive end, but his productivity is impressive.  He graded out at 27.5 in pass rush and 36.2 overall in 759 snaps while replacing the 323-pound Red Bryant on passing downs.  Bennett led Seattle in sacks with 8.5 and racked up an eye-catching 51 quarterback hurries.  Verdict: Lots of fans like him, but he would be playing out of position in Indianapolis.  Still, a heck of a player. 

4. DE LaMarr Houston, Raiders, 6-3, 300, 26 yrs. old.  Another popular 4-3 defensive end, Houston has the size to move inside.  As one might imagine, at 300 pounds, he didn’t fare well as an edge rusher (-1.6), but he excelled against the run (14.9).  Despite his low pass rush grade, Houston did manage 41 pressures to go with his half dozen sacks.  Verdict: If you want to stop the run and still generate a little pressure, this is your guy.  However, he may be just good enough at his age not to be a bargain. 

4. DE Tyson Jackson, Chiefs, 6-3, 296, 27 yrs. old. Jackson is a true 3-4 interior lineman, and he’s coming off a good season for in Kansas City.  Most of that production however was against the run, where he posted a PFF grade of 15.  He only generated 4 sacks and 8 pressures all season while playing 1,049 defensive snaps.  Verdict: Jackson won’t solve the Colts pass rushing issues, but they need help against the run too. 

5. DE Antonio Smith, Texans, 6-4, 289, 32 yrs. old.  Smith is not popular with many Colts fans, and he still wants to retire a Texan.   However, if the new regime decides to let him walk, Smith might like to join a division rival and get some revenge for a year or two.  He was a better pass rusher in 2013 (18.8) than a run stopper (-3.5), but he only had 5 sacks and has never totaled more than 7.  Verdict: He could make for some great depth, but if the Colts sign a DE, he’ll probably be the heir apparent to Redding.  That won’t happen with Smith. 

6. DE Arthur Jones, Ravens, 6-3, 315, 27 yrs. old.  Jones is another true 3-4 DE, and another run-stuffing specialist.  He was solid last season, earning a 12.9 against the run from PFF and still pulling off a positive 1.9 in pass rushing.  Jones only generated 15 pressures and 4 sacks, but he only played 529 snaps.  Verdict: Baltimore is almost certainly too cash-strapped (We’ll call it “Flacco’d) to keep him, but he isn’t an every down player.  So, if he comes to Indy, let’s hope it isn’t for every down money. 

(Edited 2/26 – MD)

7. (Late addition) DT Clinton McDonald, Seahawks, 6-2, 297, 27 yrs. old. McDonald was suggested to me as an under-the-radar-guy, but he had a very productive season: 35 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 22 QB hurries, and an interception.  He graded out at 11.5 despite a three-game midseason slump.  McDonald struggles against the run (-2.6) but does well rushing the passer (10.1).  Verdict: He looks like a Tony Dungy-style 4-3 DT. 

The Colts need a pass rusher, and they’ve struggled against the run despite the efforts of Redding and Jean Francois.  The problem is the amount of money already tied up at OLB and DE/DT.  Their hope seems to be that they already have that second pass rusher in Werner and an ace in the hole in Adongo. 

If they’re right, the Colts can sign a rookie or a decent, affordable run stopper.  If not, they may find themselves bringing less pressure than an open book test – outside of Mathis, of course. 

We’ll pick this series back up with the oft-discussed interior of the offensive line (Yes, that means centers too), and move on to defensive backs and wide receivers.   

Marcus Dugan

About Marcus Dugan

Marcus is a husband, dad, twitter geek, and all around average guy who covers news, game recaps, and additional material for The Colts Authority, while working even harder as an Indy area real estate broker. He's been known to overuse parentheses while editorializing (but who doesn't?)