According to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, the 33-year-old will be visiting with the San Diego Chargers—a team that was left to scramble for another quality pass-rushing option after learning 2012 first-round pick Melvin Ingram tore his ACL (via Pro Football Talk).
Ingram was expected to be a major contributor at the outside linebacker position this season after a disappointing 2012 campaign. Last season, the 6’1”, 265-pound linebacker notched just one sack, but tallied 41 tackles in 16 games with the Chargers.
Whether Ingram would have turned the corner this season is now irrelevant. San Diego has to find a way to add some depth and replace the production it hoped to get from Ingram in 2013, even if that means adding a player with limited experience at the linebacker position.
Freeney was drafted 11th overall by the Colts in 2002 and played each of his 11 NFL seasons in Indianapolis. In that span, the 6’1”, 268-pound pass-rusher amassed 107.5 sacks and 44 forced fumbles—almost all of which came from the defensive end position.
In 2012, the Colts moved to a base 3-4 front that necessitated a change of position for Freeney. His transition to outside linebacker went as expected, yielding five sacks in 14 games played.
With general manager Ryan Grigson at the helm, the Colts looked to change direction following the 2012 campaign, opting not to re-sign the three-time All Pro selection. There simply wasn’t a good spot for the 33-year-old as a full-time player.
Freeney talked a little about the last season, the changing tide in Indianapolis and his performance in 2012 in the following video, acknowledging a small difference in how he played last campaign compared to his earlier seasons.
That said, Freeney still has the talent to be an impact player in San Diego should the Chargers choose to sign him.
Even at 33, the seven-time Pro Bowler has the quickness to play in a stand-up role in San Diego’s 3-4 front. Experience goes a long way for a pass-rusher, and schematic fit shouldn’t deter him from producing in an edge-rushing role in John Pagano’s defense.
Still, Freeney isn’t the dominate rusher he once was, and there was an obvious drop-off in his 2012 production playing in a 3-4. For Freeney to be successful this season in a three-man front, he’ll have to take on a more specialized role that will allow him to play with his hand in the dirt at times.
Finding the Right Fit
Far too much emphasis is placed on base defensive alignment. While every team runs either a 4-3 or 3-4 base, all of those teams mix in plenty of sub packages that necessitate different alignments on the defensive line.
Fielding four down linemen is the norm for most nickel packages, which according to Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus, has accounted for at least 18 percent of all defensive alignments since 2008.
Given Freeney’s specialization as an edge rusher, there will be plenty of opportunities for a team like San Diego to slide him down to a three-point stance at the end of the line in passing situations, especially in nickel and dime packages.
Ingram may have been in line for a full-time linebacker role this year, but don’t expect Freeney to fill that void himself. Even if Freeney signs with the Chargers, Pagano may still choose to use him in a rotational role in hopes of finding another linebacker more aptly suited for first- and second-down responsibilities.
The Big Difference
There’s no denying the massive difference in the demands of playing linebacker in a 3-4 or 4-3 front, but the roles of 4-3 defensive ends aren’t all that dissimilar from 3-4 outside linebackers.
Both positions demand a player who can utilize leverage and quickness to rush the passer on a high percentage of defensive snaps. While there’s certainly a difference in technique when transitioning from a three-point stance to a stand-up role, the demands of the positions aren’t entirely different.
In a 3-4, however, linebackers are often asked to drop into coverage and play a bigger role in shooting gaps to fill running lanes—both responsibilities being big reasons for a low success rate for players making the transition.
Good defensive coordinators know how to utilize their players’ strengths, though. Freeney wouldn’t necessarily be expected to play a full-time role at the outside linebacker position, instead utilizing his skills as a pass-rusher to offset his shortcomings in coverage.
While defensive schemes are often analyzed in black and white, there is plenty of gray area when it comes to finding the right fit for good players. Freeney can find a fit in San Diego, though it may mean not being on the field more than 40 or 50 percent of defensive snaps.
The Bottom Line
Freeney would certainly be a better fit in a four-man front, but he still has a lot to offer teams utilizing a base 3-4 defense. If San Diego chooses to sign him, Pagano will find a suitable role for the former defensive end.
What that also means, however, is a need for San Diego to find another replacement for Ingram to platoon with Freeney. Larry English and Tourek Williams may still stand to see additional time at the position when Freeney is off the field.
There’s no guarantee the Chargers will come to an agreement with the former Indianapolis star, but it wouldn’t be all that surprising if a contract were finalized in the near future. As odd as the fit may seem at first, he still gives the Chargers a solid pass-rushing presence who can get to opposing quarterbacks and add depth at the position.