Maybe the experience of watching what was supposed to be a “dream team” fall to an 8-8 season in Philadelphia two years ago affected him. Or maybe breaking the bank on big-name free agents just “isn’t in his DNA”, to use his own words. Either way, GM Ryan Grigson and the Indianapolis Colts brain trust shied away from the big-name players, opting instead for “under-the-radar free agents’’ with upside.
Said Grigson, “… I’m not a person who likes to put all my eggs in one basket, if I can get good players and a handful of them. It just makes good common sense to help the team in a balanced sort of way instead of going for broke with one guy.”
All anyone could talk about lately was the Colts’ shaky offensive line and how it needed a serious upgrade. Considering Andrew Luck was sacked 41 times last year, and hurried countless others, it’s hard to blame them. The free agent wish list included names like Bills guard Andy Levitre, San Diego guard Louis Vasquez, Miami left tackle Jake Long, Baltimore outside linebacker Paul Kruger and Atlanta cornerback Brent Grimes to name a few. And with roughly $43 million in available cap space to spend, the prospect of landing one of these big names seemed more real than ever before.
But alas, it was the start of free agency and the Colts made anything but a splash. Names like Gosder Cherilus, Greg Toler, Erik Walden, Donald Thomas and Lawrence Sidbury left all but the most dedicated armchair scouts asking, “Who’s that?”
On his Twitter page, Colts owner Jim Irsay tweeted, “I know sum of u fans want BIG names n neon-Old, hurt or off field question marks/Grigson isn’t GM of year, who won 11 games by being wrong!’’
There is some merit to this type of thinking. After all, it’s not as if the Colts were a team just one player away from a Super Bowl in 2012. This was a team with holes-o-plenty. So while it might be tempting to drop $70 million on Levitre or Vasquez like Tennessee and Denver did, or $40 million on Kruger like Cleveland did, the reality is that the Colts couldn’t afford to gamble big on just one or two guys, not with so many other needs.
“It wasn’t like I never thought about any of those guys,’’ Grigson said, “but I figured I wanted to spend my money more wisely … I mean Jim’s money. It just makes good common sense to help the team in a balanced sort of way instead of going for broke with one guy.”
So who ARE these guys anyway?
Gosder Cherilus is perhaps the Colts’ biggest acquisition thus far. Selected 17th overall in the 2008 draft, Cherilus is a 6-7, 325 lb. right tackle who started 71-of-75 games for Detroit. The Colts reportedly signed him for 5 years and $34 million. With Cherilus, the Lions ranked 2nd in the NFL in total passing yards and allowed just 29 sacks (9th in the NFL).
“You can’t coach (his size), who plays snap-to-whistle,” said Grigson. “He doesn’t take any flak from anyone. He will fight and scrap until every whistle. He’s 28, has a lot of experience. He’s there on Sunday’s and you can count on him.”
Greg Toler started 15-of-38 games for Arizona after being selected in the 4th round, 131st overall, in the in the 2009 draft. In 2012, he started just two games, but recorded 26 solo tackles, eight passes defensed and two interceptions, one of which he returned for a 102-yard touchdown.
According to Grigson, “He is an exceptional athlete. He can run. He has great quickness. Like Vontae (Davis), he is a gifted cover man with great athletic ability. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there. He will tackle you. He plays with a tempo that you love to see in a corner. We feel we have a strong tandem moving forward.”
Lawrence Sidbury is a 6-3, 261 lb. defensive end out of Atlanta who has great measurable on paper, at least. He ran 4.53 at the combine and has 35-inch arms. If he can learn the Colts’ 3-4 scheme he may really have a chance to blossom.
Erik Walden is a 6-2, 250 lb. linebacker, originally chosen by Dallas in the sixth-round of the 2008 draft. He was eventually waived by Dallas and went on to start nine games for the Chiefs that year. Most notably, after starting just nine times in the 2012-2013 season, he had 71 tackles, including 38 solo, plus 3 sacks and two interceptions. Over his entire career he has 188 tackles, nine sacks and two interceptions.
Said Grigson, “The one thing that sticks out about Erik…he can set the edge. In a 3-4, that’s what your outside linebackers have to do. This guy has done it in a textbook way. He jolts people’s head back with contact. He’s violent with his hands. His motor never stops.”
Donald Thomas, 6-4, 305, is another player who could be a great help to the offensive line. Plucked from the New England Patriots, he played in 43 games and started 21. By all accounts, he played at a high level. With him in the line, New England ranked first in the NFL with 557 points, 6,846 net yards and 444 first downs.
“Thomas has a good number of starts under his belt,” said Grigson. “We feel the arrow is up on him. He’s a good, young lineman. He played at a high level for a great organization. He’s going to compete for one of the guard spots. We’re extremely excited he can help bolster the interior. He can play three positions, both guard spots and he can snap some.”
While the exact contract details aren’t known, don’t think that the Colts are done in free agency. Even with half of the $43 million in free cap space potentially already allocated to their most recent signings, they still have plenty of money left to pursue a big name, maybe two. As they have always done, they will look for high-energy, high character guys who come at the right price.
NFL history is ripe with examples of high-profile free agent signings that didn’t pan out. Just as the Washington Redskins, who signed the two-time All-Pro defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth to a $100 million contract, with $41 million guaranteed, only to see him flop big-time, playing entirely as a backup his second year before being traded to New England for a 5th round draft pick in 2011.
Haynesworth is perhaps the poster child for free agency flops, and a prime example of the kind of the kind of mistake the Colts seek to avoid. Not making a splash in free agency means any ripple effects will be small in the event of a bust. A balanced approach has served the team well in the past. With any luck, it will continue to serve them well into the foreseeable future.