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Colts need to pony up Freeney soon

Dwight Freeney will become the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL if and when he and the Indianapolis Colts settle on a new contract.  In the obvious best interests of both, it should be sooner rather than later.  Freeney is the team’s best defensive performer, and the Colts aren’t interested in losing him.  That’s why they made him their franchise player, a designation that will pay $9.43 million this season and $11.3 million, or 120 percent of this year’s salary, in 2008.

That’s a ton of guaranteed money the next two years.  So why not spare Freeney and the Colts unnecessary anguish and headaches and just get this thing over with now?   The Colts have until July 15 to complete a long-term deal, and my guess is they beat the deadline.  Firstly, look at their history.  The last time they dealt with a contract of this magnitude they took the clock down to the end before signing quarterback Peyton Manning to a seven-year, $98 million deal.  Second, it makes perfect sense. They’re already on the hook to Freeney for $20 million the next two seasons, or the same amount of guaranteed money New Orleans paid its franchise player, defensive end Charles Grant, this spring.

Grant and Freeney were first-round draft picks in 2002, but that’s where the similarities end.  Freeney is much more of an impact player, with a club-record 56 1/2 sacks, which means he will command more money than Grant.  But the question is: How much more?  That’s the dilemna, with the two sides apart on their estimations of Freeney’s worth.  But that’s OK – they still have three weeks. But also keep this in mind: If the Colts and Freeney don’t resolve this – if they fail to complete a long-term deal – we’ll be having this same conversation about this time next summer.  The only difference being that it’ll cost more to retain him.

Freeney’s not your run-of-the-mill DE – no way.  Dwight Freeney is a long-term investment and it’s not as if he’s near the end of his career. He’s only 27, a three-time Pro Bowler and is durable — missing one game in five years because of injury.  And he’s not a dispensable part. He’s the Peyton Manning of the Colts’ defense.  He’s also one of the top three defensive ends in the business.  And he figures prominently in the Colts’ long-term future.  It makes perfect sense for everyone involved to settle this immediately.  Because if it’s not, you know what’s going to happen: Freeney will be a no-show at training camp and probably not sign the one-year tender until just before the start of the regular season.  And that’s no way to defend a Super Bowl title.

I know it’s easy for us to advise others on money when you’re not the one spending $30 million or so in cash.  But the Colts are in to Freeney for $20 million the next two seasons, anyway, so what’s the big deal?  Not only that, but some people will ask (if they have not done so already): Because the Colts let star running back Edgerrin James walk after a year as their franchise player, why couldn’t they do the same with Freeney?  Well, they could, but it’s not very likely. In fact, it’s virtually unfathomable.

Consider that the shelf life of a RB is less than that of a DE.  Also keep in mind that it’s easier to replace a running back than it is a franchise pass rusher, and no one knows this better than Colts president Bill Polian.  Another thing – and this is not a knock to Bob Sanders who’s pretty special in his own right – but Freeney is the most important player the Colts have on defense. Until last season he produced double-digit sacks in every year, including a league-high 16 in 2004, and he regularly draws double and triple-team attention by opponents.

So what if Freeney didn’t have a great season in 2006.  Big whoop.  He’s still the most disruptive force on the Colts’ defense — with his team-high 33 quarterback pressures last year an indication.  Those of you who watched last year’s Super Bowl have to acknowledge that the Colts defense won the game for them, not their offense.  So in my opinion – for the long-term success of the team – Polian and Co. need to lock up Freeney, Sanders and others on the defensive side long-term.  The offense is set for years; now please concentrate on the defense for once.  And naturally, Freeney is your first order of business.  Take care of it ASAP.

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