How Much Does Dwight Freeney Still Have Left in the Tank?
Despite entering free agency on the heels of one of his least productive seasons in years, Dwight Freeney is generating plenty of buzz during the open market's second wave.
According to various reports, Freeney has received free-agent interest from at least five teams, including the Denver Broncos and Pittsburgh Steelers.
Mike Klis of the Denver Post reported late last week that the Broncos will "go after" Freeney, while Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk passed along that the Steelers remain an "alternative destination" should Freeney not sign in Denver.
Broncos have talked with Tom Condon today regarding Dwight Freeney but no deal imminent.— Mike Klis (@MikeKlis) March 25, 2013
Even the New Orleans Saints—who are transitioning to the 3-4 defense—are reported to have interest, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network (via Rotoworld).
Don't be surprised when #Saints emerge as a player for Dwight Freeney, especially if they miss on Nnamdi. Still trying to upgrade pass-rush— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 25, 2013
The expectation remains that Freeney will eventually sign with the Broncos.
Yet he still finds himself on the open market, despite free agency beginning its third week and several of the big names already signed. That reality was mostly to be expected, considering Freeney is on the wrong side of 30 and had just five sacks for the Indianapolis Colts last season.
However, the 33-year-old Freeney still has plenty in the tank left to offer a pass-rush starved defense, especially one running the 4-3 defense.
A review of Freeney over the last two seasons shows a still potentially elite edge-rusher, especially on third downs. When able to put his hand in the dirt and attack a left tackle, Freeney remains one of the most difficult defensive ends in football to keep off the quarterback.
Take this example from the Colts' Week 12 win over the Buffalo Bills from last season.
While Indianapolis played with a three-man front for the majority of last season—forcing Freeney to stand up and play outside linebacker at times—this example has Freeney in a traditional three-point stance in a four-man front.
It's third down and Freeney is able to go to work on rookie left tackle Cordy Glenn.
As we see in the screenshot, Freeney is executing his trademark spin move, starting on the outside shoulder and spinning back to the inside of the tackle. Glenn is put out of position, with no inside help from a guard.
The result is very predictable. Freeney hits Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick just as he's releasing, and the ensuing pass is nearly intercepted. Buffalo calls on the punt team and gives up the football.
Let's now go back to 2011, a year in which Freeney had 8.5 sacks. In this game against Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, Freeney is matched up one-on-one with Pro Bowl left tackle Jordan Gross.
Once again, it's third down for the offense. Instead of going to the spin move, Freeney works off the left shoulder of Gross and overpowers him to the edge.
By the time Newton realizes the pressure and begins his rollout, Gross is lunging for a released Freeney.
And while you'd expect a quarterback like Newton to escape a then 32-year-old defensive end, Freeney instead rips Newton to the ground before he can get to the edge and escape the pocket. The Panthers are forced to punt.
While technique and power have always been a part of Freeney's pass-rushing arsenal, speed and explosion off the snap also belong in the conversation.
In this example, the Colts are facing the Steelers in Week 3 of the 2011 season. Pittsburgh is looking at a second down while attempting to drive for a score late in the first half.
In the first screenshot, we see the play less than a second after the ball is snapped. Look how far Freeney already is up the field, in comparison to Ben Roethlisberger's drop. Left tackle Jonathan Scott doesn't have a chance to keep the pocket from collapsing.
Freeney gives one slap to the left arm and he's past Scott. As Freeney turns the corner, Roethlisberger is just finishing his drop. As you'd expect, Freeney sacks Roethlisberger and strips the football, which is scooped up by the Colts and returned for a touchdown.
Freeney would finish his matchup against the Steelers with two sacks and eight total pressures.
While Freeney has always had a rock-solid reputation for rushing the passer, his struggles have usually come against the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Freeney has graded out negatively facing the run in each of the last three seasons.
However, he's still powerful enough to make his presence known. Against the Bills last season, Freeney showed off some of that power.
Buffalo runs a strong-side pitch right at Freeney, with a pulling guard designed to set the edge for running back C.J. Spiller. The Bills put a tight end on Freeney, thinking one blocker can keep the defensive end from disrupting the edge run.
Freeney has other plans, as he drives the tight end three yards into the backfield. The pulling guard, who just happens to be new Tennessee Titans guard Andy Levitre, has to abort his assignment and help the tight end, but Freeney continues pushing the pile back into Spiller.
The clutter forces Spiller to attempt to reverse field, but the Colts bottle up the play and drop the running back for a three-yard loss. Freeney's initial power and drive creates the stop.
While Freeney won't be signed to help a defense stop the run, this play does show he has the attributes necessary to play more than just third down.
That said, the team that does acquire Freeney will likely do so in hopes of helping the pass rush on obvious passing downs. If used correctly, Freeney can absolutely be that kind of player.
Where is Dwight Freeney's best landing spot?
When the Colts limited Freeney's snaps on early downs and let him put his hand in the dirt in passing situations, he was almost always a handful for opposing offenses. His combination of technique, power and speed remains despite his age, and keeping him fresh in-game only added to his effectiveness.
The Broncos remain a perfect fit for Freeney, if for no other reason than Denver's preference of the 4-3 defense. The more Freeney can put his hand in the dirt and explode against a left tackle, the better.
Both schematic changes and injuries, including a nagging ankle problem, contributed to Freeney producing one of his worst statistical seasons in 2012. However, his tape over the last two years still showed all the attributes that helped make one of the NFL's most feared pass-rushers.
If healthy and put into the right situation—where he can play in a four-man front and take early-down snaps off—Freeney is plenty capable of producing 10-plus sacks next season.
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