With the Colts' plethora of free agent signings this offseason, it's easy to say that Ryan Grigson has improved the roster. I've said it myself multiple times.
On the surface, it certainly seems like it. Players like Tom Zbikowski, Winston Justice and Donnie Avery were some of the league's worst starters at their positions. By replacing them, even with just average players, the team should be much better off.
But actually how much of an improvement are these new players? To answer that question, we'll take a look at each of the new free agents from a statistical angle, comparing the production from the 2012 Colts to their free-agent replacements.
Right Tackle: Gosder Cherilus vs. Winston Justice
Justice was a good pass protector when the Colts played teams without premier pass rushers, but when under pressure against high-end defensive ends, he folded. Cherilus, on the other hand, was one of the league's best in pass protection, with his pass blocking grade of plus-21.0 finishing fifth among all tackles in 2012 (subscription required) and best of any right tackle.
In run blocking is where Justice really hurt the 2012 Colts. He's never been a great run blocker, and it showed as he failed to consistently hold his own in one-on-one blocking.Cherilus, in comparison, isn't a world beater by any means, but he won't hurt the team nearly as much. Cherilus isn't a road grader, but isn't going to get quickly off the snap nearly as much as Justice did.
Overall, Cherilus is arguably the best player the Colts signed. His contract wasn't a great deal considering the market for right tackles, but he's a definite, impressive upgrade over Justice.
Left Guard: Donald Thomas vs. Seth Olsen/Joe Reitz/Jeff Linkenbach
All three of the Colts' 2012 guards were below-average players, and injury caused them to lack continuity at the position, hurting them even more. Reitz and Linkenbachwere far better than Olsen, who was the whipping boy of fans after two weeks of starting, but still were far below average. Reitz in particular had a disappointing year after a promising 2011.
Personally, I still have more faith in him than any other guard on the roster not named Donald Thomas, and I wonder how much injuries nagged at him in 2012.
Nevertheless, Thomas should be a big upgrade in run blocking over the three, where he really excels. He's also a decent pass protector, although it will be a test for him to be a consistent starter. Overall, like Cherilus, he's a big upgrade over his predecessors.
Cornerback: Greg Toler vs. Jerraud Powers
On this one, I think the numbers are a little misleading. Toler was in a very good defense in Arizona, while Powers was playing in a new system on a defense with very little pass rush and little support in the secondary.
Nevertheless, Toler is a better cornerback than Powers, who is an average starter at best in this league. The real question is health. Toler missed the entire 2011 season and played just 300 snaps in 2012. Can he handle starting for an entire season? I wouldn't put money on it.
Nose Tackle: Aubrayo Franklin vs. Antonio Johnson
Colts fans have tolerated Johnson as the primary nose tackle for five years now, and Franklin is a welcome replacement. Johnson has simply never had the talent to be a starter at nose tackle, and is a primary reason why the Colts' run defense has struggled so much in recent years. Add in the fact that he offers next to nothing in pass rush, and you have a struggling interior defensive line.
Franklin hasn't been the dominant player he once was ever since leaving San Francisco, but he was much better in San Diego's 3-4 defense than he was as a 4-3DT in New Orleans. He should fit in well as the nose tackle in Pagano's scheme. LikeToler, however, Franklin's health is an issue. He only played 285 snaps in 2012, and his age is going to continue to limit him. Hopefully Josh Chapman gets onto the field in 2013.
Defensive End: Ricky Jean-Francois vs. Drake Nevis/Ricardo Mathews/Fili Moala
This one is an odd one. Jean-Francois wasn't brought in to "replace" a starter as much as he was to compete with these other three in the defensive end rotation. Nevertheless, we can see that Jean-Francois' strength comes in stopping the run.
While Nevis was solid against the run in 2012, he struggled to actually get to the ball and make the stop. He held his ground well and plugged up holes, which allowed others (namely inside linebackers) to swoop in and get the stop. When Nevis did get the tackle, it was just about always a stop.
Mathews is a below average player in both aspects, and should be the last on this list.Moala's re-signing hinged on his ability to rush the passer from the 3-4 end spot. He was actually the only defensive linemen on the Colts (to play more than 60 snaps) to finish with a positive pass rush grade from PFF (subscription required).
Jean-Francois will bring some upgrade in the run stuffing category, but nothing in pass rush, which the Colts continue to struggle at on the defensive interior.
Wide Receiver: Darrius Heyward-Bey vs. Donnie Avery
Overall, DHB isn't a huge upgrade over Donnie Avery. Both are not very efficient producers at all, but DHB is basically less bad. Both players were notorious for dropping balls in 2012, although again, DHB is slightly less awful.
DHB does present a big upgrade in YAC potential, as he tends to use his speed in open field a little better than Avery. DHB also has more size, which results in more red-zone targets (and more scores).
Fortunately, DHB may not be asked to play the volume snaps that Avery did in 2012. T.Y. Hilton's role looks to increase, and an early drafting of a wide receiver is a very distinct possibility as well.
Safety: LaRon Landry vs. Tom Zbikowski
I don't agree with Zbikowski's grades from PFF much, as I think he was one of the worst starters in football last season. PFF graded Zbikowski highly in coverage, despite the fact that all numbers say otherwise. Passer ratings were over 100 when throwing atZbikowski, and it wasn't like he was targeted less because he was blanketing people. He was in the bottom half of the league in targets per coverage snap (subscription required).
That being said, LaRon Landry is, by all accounts, even worse in coverage. However, Landry is a much better run defender. He's still overrated, in my opinion, but he has the athleticism and tackling ability to be a force. He sometimes can take poor angles to the ball, but not nearly as much as Zbikowski did last season.
Landry is known as a Pro Bowler, but the fact is that he's nowhere near deserving of that label. Landry will be an upgrade from Zbikowski in 2013, but not as much as some fans believe.
Outside Linebacker: Erik Walden vs. Dwight Freeney
Finally, we get to a player who is much worse than the man he's replacing: Erik Walden. Freeney may have been miscast in the 3-4, and he may be declining with age, but he is still miles ahead of Walden.
Walden is a decent run stopper, especially when it comes to setting the edge. However, he struggles to beat blockers one-on-one and make a play on the ball. So, his impact simply isn't good enough to offset the enormous drop-off in pass rush.
Even with Freeney's struggles in 2013, there's no question he's still a solid edge-rusher, while Walden lacks the speed or power necessary to get to the quarterback. Aside from PFF's very low opinion of his pass rushing skills, Bleacher Report's NFL1000 also gave him the lowest grade for any 3-4 OLB in pass rush.
I expect the Colts to rotate Jerry Hughes in on a high number of plays, especially when they go to nickel or dime sets. Hughes, while disparaged by much of the Colts fan community, did a solid job rushing the passer in 2012, finishing 11th in PFF's Pass Rushing Productivity (pressures per snap) metric and 16th overall in the NFL 1000 rankings.
An OLB in the draft is a very high possibility as well, as the Colts have very little potential in the position long-term.
Conclusion: Definite Upgrades Dominate the Signings
Sometimes our first instinct in analysis doesn't match up with the tape and/or stats. In this case, it does. While I'll continue to say that the team could have gotten some better deals financially, there's no question that Grigson definitively improved the team with these signings. Erik Walden represents a big hole in the starting lineup, but the overall body of work was incredibly positive.