The early wave of NFL free agency never fails to deliver a couple head-scratching moves, and Erik Walden's four-year, $16 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts is certainly among the most puzzling.
Walden, 27, started 24 games for the Packers in the past two seasons. After signing with the Packers Oct. 31, 2010, Walden played a key role in punching Green Bay's ticket to the postseason. In their must-win Week 17 game matchup the Chicago Bears, Walden sacked Jay Cutler three times.
The Packers made the playoffs and went on to win Super Bowl XLV.
Walden entered the 2011 as the starting outside linebacker opposite Clay Matthews. He started 15 games, recorded three sacks and entered unrestricted free agency.
There wasn't much of a market for Walden on the free-agent front, so the Packers were able to bring him back on a one-year contract worth $700,000 with no guaranteed money, according to ESPN Wisconsin. And after another three-sack season in 2012, Walden received a pay raise of over $15 million from the Colts.
The terms of Walden's deal were jaw-dropping. Reggie Bush, who has accounted for 2,072 rushing yards, 78 catches and 15 touchdowns in the past two seasons, signed a similar four-year, $16 million contract March 13 with the Detroit Lions.
Appearing in 31 games dating back to 2011, Walden generated all of six sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble. But financially, Walden and Bush are on an equal level.
According to Pro Football Focus, Walden was the NFL's worst 3-4 outside linebacker during 2011 and 2012. He wasn't one of the worst; he was the worst.
In 2012, Walden's PFF season grade of minus-25.5 as a pass rusher ranked dead-last in the league, and in 2011, his minus-17.6 grade in run defense ranked 28th among 28 players at the position.
But which game yielded the best individual performance of Walden's five-year career? Week 5 of this past season against his new team, the Indianapolis Colts.
Walden's name doesn't stand out on the box score for that game, as he was responsible for just 2.5 tackles and two pass deflections. But looking deeper into his performance that day, it's easy to see how the Colts' coaching staff could have been impressed by No. 93 in white.
Outside linebackers in a 3-4 and defensive ends in a 4-3, right or wrong, are often judged by sacks. And while Walden failed to come up with a sack against Indianapolis, PFF credited him with three hurries and two hits on quarterback Andrew Luck.
After signing Walden, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson was effusive in his praise, per ESPN's Paul Kuharsky.
"We played against Walden," Grigson said. "We watched the film. We go through a process with all the pro scouts and then the coaches remember who they couldn’t block. It’s an entire process."
The Colts' front office and scouting department surely did their homework on Walden before offering him $16 million; they didn't offer him a four-year contract based solely on one game. But it's hard to find another logical reason in giving a mediocre-at-best player that kind of money.
Walden, however, doesn't view himself as a mediocre player. From Colts.com:
“You are getting an aggressive, high-motor (player) and a guy that is passionate and holds himself to the highest standard, where he’s going to make sure he’s prepared every week to be the best player he can be and also be productive and disruptive, making impact plays, not just solid plays, game-changing plays,” Walden said after signing with the Colts.
He hasn't had many impact, game-changing plays in his five years in the league up to this point. But if Walden and the Colts are right, perhaps the best is yet to come.
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