The Indianapolis Colts got a head start on 2014's free-agency gold rush. After visiting several teams, and there being reported interest from many more, FOX Sports 1's Mike Garafolo reported inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson agreed to a four-year, $22 million deal with the Colts.
Reaction on Twitter was swift and loud: The Colts overpaid.
Fans and media alike struggled to see how a 30-year-old linebacker who was Pro Football Focus's 42nd-best inside linebacker of 2013 could command a four-year deal(subscription required).
How could the Colts—a team coming off of back-to-back playoff appearances and which fancies itself an AFC title contender—think a guy just cut by of the hapless Browns could put them over the top?
If D'Qwell Jackson, beloved and respected by Browns fans, media, coaches and teammates alike, was cut to avoid $4.1 million in bonus payout, as ESPN's Pat McManamon reported, what is Colts general manager Ryan Grigson doing forking over a guaranteed $11 million?
The answer is Econ 101: supply and demand.
Football Outsiders data can help us break that down further.
Their defensive line analysis shows the Colts were outstanding at stopping the run in short-yardage situations, but rarely stopped tailbacks at or behind the line of scrimmage (16 percent of carries, ranked 26th) and ranked 24th in what Football Outsiders calls second-level yards: "Yards earned by opposing running backs against this team between 5-10 yards past the line of scrimmage, divided by total running back carries."
The Colts inside linebackers, it seems, weren't coming downhill and stuffing running lanes, nor were they doing a good job of bringing down runners once they came out of the hole and into the second level.
Once-promising 2010 second-round pick Pat Angerer has developed into a sure tackler—but he doesn't display much range, nor does he make a lot of impact plays. He's also a liability in coverage.
Pro Football Focus linebacker stats (subscription required) can help us see the problem:
|Snaps/TA||Snaps/TA Rnk||Yds/Snap||Yds/Snap Rnk||Snap/Rec||Snap/Rec Rnk||Tackle Eff.||Tackle Eff. Rk|
Pro Football Focus
Out of 51 qualifying inside linebackers, Angerer ranked 49th in target rate, 49th in yards-allowed rate, 35th in receptions-allowed rate and 35th in tackle efficiency. Jackson was 11th, 11th, 14th and seventh, respectively.
Put in words, Angerer was relentlessly picked on in coverage last season. When opposing teams threw at his man, it was often completed for plenty of yards—and he rarely made the tackle.
Though Jackson and Angerer are nearly reversed in run-tackling efficiency, the two were 49th and 39th overall in PFF run-defense grades, and 40th and 53rd in run-stopping percentage. Angerer is a better run-stopper, but still a poor one—and Jackson is so much better in coverage it isn't even funny.
While Jackson seems like a Band-Aid to help stiffen up the Colts run defense, he's actually there to improve one of its strengths. His competence in the middle of the field will take a lot of pressure off the safeties behind him.
Add in Jackson's charity work and locker room presence, and you can see why the Colts wanted him at the heart of their defense.
They weren't the only ones.
Jackson visited the Tennessee Titans, Denver Broncos and Miami Dolphins, per Mike Chappell of the The Indianapolis Star. Washington, the Minnesota Vikings and the Arizona Cardinals also had interest, according to Josh Alper of Pro Football Talk.
What do you call seven teams in on the same player? Demand. What happens when demand goes up? The price goes up.
Why would seven teams be in on Jackson? Denver-based CBS4 sportscaster Vic Lombardi went a little bit sour grapes on Twitter after hearing the news:
As I've said all along, D'Qwell Jackson is a good player. Don't think he's a difference maker. Other LB's available at lesser price.— Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) March 6, 2014
Except, there aren't any other starting-caliber inside linebackers available, and they certainly won't come at a lesser price. Daryl Smith of the Baltimore Ravens and Karlos Dansby of the Cardinals are both coming off much better seasons, and both of them appear likely to re-sign with their original clubs. Donald Butler has already re-upped with the San Diego Chargers.
As I wrote on Wednesday, this is going to be the most frustrating free-agency period in many, many years. The surprise $10 million salary-cap bump is keeping a lot of would-be free agents off the market and a lot of cash burning holes in general managers' pockets.
The few impact players available in free agency are going to go for kingly sums, and even marginal starters like Jackson will also rake it in.
Believe it or not, though, Jackson didn't sign with the cap-rich Colts because they could shake out the most change. In fact, according to NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, it's the opposite:
Benefit of being financially set like D’Qwell: You can choose a team based on where you want to be. I'm told he turned down more elsewhere— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) March 6, 2014
As Chappel reported, Jackson said "a big part" of why he came to Indianapolis was to reunite with former Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski, now a Colts assistant.
Jackson gets to make plenty of cash playing for a contender in an atmosphere in which he feels comfortable. The Colts, as is their wont lately, sign a mid-level free agent who perfectly fits the profile of what they need to improve their defense—and paid what the market demanded to quickly lock him up.
It's the very definition of a win-win deal.
Now, six other teams are left to kick rocks, go back to the free-agent market and aggressively bid against each other for players even less dynamic than Jackson.
How many of them will keep running up the prices of middling free agents—and how many, as I wrote Wednesday, will give up and turn to the deepest draft in years to meet their needs instead?