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How Will Ryan Grigson's Aggressive Free-Agent Strategy Pay Off?

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How Will Ryan Grigson's Aggressive Free-Agent Strategy Pay Off?
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Ryan Grigson's aggressive free-agency strategy rests on three controversial patterns, and it demands serious trust from Indianapolis Colts fans.

Paying players like outside linebacker Erik Walden more than their recent production merits has been the main pattern of Grigson's strategy.

Walden is the most contentious signing. The negative reaction to Walden stems from the deal he was awarded versus his production.

Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that Walden's contract breaks down at $16 million over four years. That's a more than handsome pay day for a 27-year-old with only nine sacks and 26 starts in six pro seasons.

Walden has never managed more than three sacks in a season, yet he is being tasked to replace Dwight Freeney, a franchise star boasting 107.5 career sacks.

The problem is that Freeney was never really suited to the version of the 3-4 the Colts transitioned to last season. Having spent his career as a 4-3 defensive end, Freeney lacked the range and agility to rush effectively from a two-point stance.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
He may have struggled in the 3-4, but Dwight Freeney is a tough act for Erik Walden to follow.
He was also lost when asked to drop and cover short zones. Freeney simply contributed nothing out in space.

The issue of scheme-suitably is the motivation behind some of the huge contracts handed out by Grigson.

He has spent big to find better personnel fits for the 3-4 defense. The reality is specific 3-4 players aren't easy to find, even with half the league using the front.

Those who thrive in the scheme don't stay on the market long, and they don't come cheap.

The Colts learned both of those lessons when Paul Kruger signed a five-year, $40 million deal with the Cleveland Browns. The market for quality 3-4 outside pass-rushers had already diminished after the Dallas Cowboys gave Anthony Spencer the franchise tag.

Grigson tabbed Walden as the best available player to be a factor rushing the passer and in coverage. However, while 3-4 edge-rushers aren't usually available cheap, there are exceptions Grigson might have considered.

One option he surprisingly passed on is Antwan Barnes. The ex-San Diego Charger notched 11 sacks for current Colts defensive coordinator Greg Manusky in 2011.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports
Antwan Barnes thrived for Colts' defensive coordinator Greg Manusky in 2011 and would have been a cheaper alternative to Walden.
Still, despite Manusky's insider knowledge, the Colts left Barnes on the market. The New York Jets pounced and secured Barnes' pure pass-rush skills on a modest three-year deal.

Maybe Manusky knows something that put the Colts off. In fairness, Barnes has never been a full-time player, usually performing a situational role.

Manusky's experience with the Chargers might also have poured cold water on the idea of signing veteran Shaun Phillips. Colts fans may never know.

Whenever a free agent is signed, a franchise implicitly asks for trust from its fans. However, Grigson and the Colts brass are asking for more than most.

How else can they explain the contract awarded to Ricky Jean-Francois? Adam Caplan of The Sideline View detailed the signing, explaining that Jean-Francois will earn $22 million over four years.

That certainly calls for a lot of trust considering Jean-Francois was never a starter during four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers. Yes the Colts need a credible nose tackle. Their 3-4 schemes won't work without one.

However, it was two of Grigson's projects, Brandon McKinney and Martin Tevaseau, who failed to anchor the defense last season. Still feel like trusting him?

Trust is central to every move Grigson has made. What is in his favor is his commitment to fixing the obvious areas of weakness on the roster.

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Do you trust him? Colts fans are being asked to place a lot of faith in Grigson's abilities.
Without proper fits for the 3-4, the Colts defense ranked 21st in points and 26th in yards in 2012. The run defense was 29th, surrendering 137.5 yards per game.

He paid a pretty penny, but Grigson did find two natural 3-4 players for his front seven in Walden and Jean-Francois. Without a better defense, the Colts are unlikely to repeat last season's heroics.

Grigson also needed to fix an offensive line that gave up 41 sacks and couldn't consistently create holes for a ground game that ranked 22nd.

However, does that need justify the deal given to Gosder Cherilus? That's a deal that ProFootballTalk.com reported will pay the former Detroit Lion $35 million over five years, including a $10 million signing bonus.

Those are significant figures for any lineman. Grigson is paying them to a tackle who blocked for 2012's 23rd-ranked rushing attack.

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Grigson can counter by arguing that Cherilus did help protect Matthew Stafford, who led the NFL's best passing offense. Improving the protection around franchise passer Andre Luck is a move few can argue with.

After all, the boost to the running game might come thanks to guard Donald Thomas. Grigson must think so, because he again paid big to land a backup.

The Boston Globe states that the player with 21 career starts in five seasons will earn $14 million over four years. However, Grigson can again point to some solid reasoning behind the move.

Thomas was part of a New England Patriots O-line that cleared the way for the seventh-best rushing offense in 2012. Like Jean-Francois and Walden, Thomas represents the second major pattern in Grigson's free agency strategy.

The Colts general manager has consistently targeted projects over established talent.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Paying solid money to a career backup with three teams, like Donald Thomas, is the risk Grigson has taken.
Jean-Francois is 26, Walden and Thomas both 27, while Cherilus is the senior at 28. Grigson has identified relatively young players with potential.

That pattern was certainly emphasized by the signing of cornerback Greg Toler.

Sports Illustrated reported the Colts will pay the 28-year-old $15 million over three years to fix last season's 23rd-ranked pass defense. That's certainly not a lavish deal.

However, signing Toler reveals the third and perhaps most worrying pattern of Grigson's strategy. Several of the Colts' new additions have had trouble staying healthy.

Sports Illustrated detailed Gosder's recent knee surgery and Toler's injury woes. The corner has missed 21 games in the last two years.

Perhaps the most troubling injury history belongs to one of Grigson's bigger investments, LaRon Landry. The safety did make 15 starts for the New York Jets in 2012.

However, he missed 15 games during the 2010 and 2011 seasons with the Washington Redskins. He's had major issues with Achilles' tendon injuries.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Grigson hopes LaRon Landry can stay healthy enough to earn his $24 million contract.
That could be a problem for an all-action safety, expected to play near the line as well as covering deep. It makes Landry a significant risk on a contract worth $24 million over four years, according to USA Today.

For Grigson's aggressive strategy to pay off, he must prove he can retain the magic of last season. He must prove that the ability to unearth a project like Jerrell Freeman from the CFL remains intact.

He must also prove that the core group of 20-somethings he has signed can put the finishing touches on an already youthful roster.

If Grigson rewards Colts fans' trust on one or both of these issues, he'll be able justify the money he's spent in this free-agency period.

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