Is Dwight Freeney Still an Elite Defensive Talent?

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Is Dwight Freeney Still an Elite Defensive Talent?
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay sang the praises of free-agent-to-be Dwight Freeney in a recent press statement. "Few people have meant as much to the success of the Indianapolis Colts as Dwight Freeney," said Irsay (via NFL.com). "He has been a dominant player."

The past tense was damning: "has been."

Irsay, it seems, thinks the sun has set on Freeney's days as an elite defensive talent.

"Dwight was an artist, a joy to watch, and the dedication he put toward his craft was a rare quality," Irsay said. "We will miss him, but look forward to his future induction into the Hall of Fame and Colts Ring of Honor."

Freeney's production sure seemed to dip in 2012; the once-terrifying edge rusher only registered only five sacks in 14 games played. Then again, the Colts implemented a 3-4 defense last season, forcing the career-long 4-3 rush end to play as an outside linebacker.

Was Freeney limited by the scheme, hampered by injury or just losing his edge? Pass-rusher is one of the most premium positions in the NFL, and Freeney's now a free agent. Is he still elite?

Here are Freeney's raw career numbers, courtesy of Pro Football Reference:

YEAR   G  GS    Sk  PD  FF Fmb  FR Yds TD Tkl Ast
2002 16 8 13 1 9 0 1 0 0 45 1
2003* 15 13 11 1 4 0 2 23 1 28 4
2004*+ 16 16 16 3 3 0 0 0 0 32 3
2005*+ 16 13 11 3 6 0 0 0 0 30 4
2006 16 16 5.5 2 4 0 0 0 0 26 3
2007 9 9 3.5 0 4 0 0 0 0 18 3
2008* 15 14 10.5 0 4 0 0 0 0 24 4
2009*+ 14 9 13.5 1 1 0 0 0 0 19 5
2010* 16 16 10 2 5 0 0 0 0 21 4
2011* 16 15 8.5 0 2 0 0 0 0 13 6
2012 14 13 5 1 1 0 0 0 0 10 2
AVG     9.77 1.3 4 0 0 2 0 24 3.5
Career 163 142 108 14 43 0 3 23 1 266 39

Freeney's production has been outstanding, and consistently so. In 11 seasons, Freeney had eight double-digit-sack seasons, made the Pro Bowl seven times and was first team All-Pro three times. Freeney averaged 9.77 sacks, 24 solo tackles and four forced fumbles.

His incredible first steps and excellent snap anticipation have made him incredibly hard to block over the years. Even if a blocker gets in front of him, though, Freeney's lethal spin move has often earned him a free shot at the quarterback.

Sport Science broke down the physics and technique behind Freeney's spin move prior to this season:

For all his physical talent, though, Freeney's 2012 production just wasn't there. His 2012 numbers fell far short of his career averages.

Five sacks, one forced fumble and just 10 tackles just isn't good enough from a 3-4 rush linebacker. Freeney did miss three starts with a high ankle sprain, but he missed three starts in 2003 and 2005 and racked up 11 sacks in each.

Most concerning isn't the falloff in sacks, though—it's the falloff in tackles. Pittsburgh Steelers right outside linebacker James Harrison is also an 11-year veteran and also started only 13 games. Harrison had six sacks, one more than Freeney, but also made 49 tackles.

Scott Halleran/Getty Images

Out of 34 qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers, Pro Football Focus graded Freeney 15th overall. He was PFF's 10th-best 3-4 pass-rusher, but he ranked just 29th against the run.

According to Spotrac.com, Freeney's 2012 cap hit was a massive $19 million. That's 15.8 percent, or nearly one-sixth of the Colts' 2012 cap space. No wonder they didn't think Freeney's production was worth his price.

Digging into PFF's statistics, we see a more complete picture.

In its Pass Rush Productivity stat, a weighted average of pressures and sacks per pass-rushing snap, Freeney finished ninth out of 20 qualifying 3-4 outside linebackers. Freeney' snaps were the most unbalanced of the group, as 78.2 percent of them came from the right side. Freeney blitzed on 95 percent of the passing downs he played, again the highest of the group.

Freeney played on only 227 run snaps, behind fellow Colts outside linebackers Jerry Hughes (257) and Robert Mathis (243). PFF credited him with just seven solo tackles, fewer than half of the other two linebackers' totals (20 and 15, respectively).

It seems as though head coach Chuck Pagano and the Colts were trying to make Freeney comfortable. They played Freeney primarily on passing downs and asked him to rush the passer from the right side almost every time they played him. Even so, his 8.8 PRP number put him just barely ahead of LaMarr Woodley (8.7), whose lack of production seems to be causing rifts in the Steelers locker room.

Freeney also was held back, literally, by the NFL's ongoing holding crisis. Officials are calling holding penalties more inconsistently than ever, and when Freeney was "on" in 2012, he was often being mugged. Check out this collage of obvious holding perpetrated against Freeney by the Buffalo Bills:

Freeney proved in 2012 he's still capable of coming around the corner and forcing the sack-fumble. Four games after coming back from the high ankle sprain (an injury that tends to linger), Freeney had his first strongly-positive PFF game grade of the season, doing this to Miami Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill:

Freeney went on to have great games against the Bills, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans and Kansas City Chiefs, making five strongly positive games in the last nine of the regular season.

Freeney won't sign another $73 million contract this offseason. Whether Freeney can return to his usual 10-sack, 25-tackle form just by switching back to a 4-3 rush end is an open question.

There's no question, though, that a healthy Freeney is still a dangerous speed rusher. A contender with a talent-stocked defensive line could rotate Freeney in and out and keep him away from double-teams could be getting a bargain at one of the most expensive positions in the NFL.

Freeney may not be the every-down monster he used to be, but he's still an elite defensive talent.

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