When the San Diego Chargers signed pass-rusher Dwight Freeney last year, it was in direct response to Melvin Ingram going down with a torn ACL. The two players never had a chance to play together because Freeney tore his quad prior to Ingram’s return.
Chargers fans are understandably excited about a defense that would have both Freeney and Ingram chasing down quarterbacks. Except something doesn’t seem right about Freeney—he doesn’t yet look like a player with 108 career sacks by most accounts.
At this time last year, Freeney was an explosive every-down player making $4 million per season. Now? Freeney is a situational pass-rusher, second on depth chart behind Ingram and making just $2.5 million.
There’s still time for Freeney to get his legs under him. There’s still time for Freeney to knock off a thick layer of rust. Maybe time is all Freeney needs.
As expected, Chris Watt isn't practicing today. He and Dwight Freeney are spectating. Flowers working on side field. #Chargers— Tom Krasovic (@UTkrasovic) August 6, 2014
According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons (AAOS), many patients reported that it took 12 months before they reached all their goals after a torn quad. There’s a distinct possibility Freeney just needs more time.
The obvious concern is that it has already been 10 months since Freeney’s injury. Structurally, Freeney’s quad should be fine by now. He should be 100 percent healthy, but according to Michael Gehlken of UT San Diego, Freeney is “not quite in pre-injury form.”
A torn quad is certainly a serious injury, and Freeney is 34—the healing process may just be a lot slower than anyone wants. It could be premature to be concerned about one of the greatest pass-rushers in the game over the last decade.
There is also probably reason to be concerned. Freeney isn’t young anymore, and the most common complications from a quadriceps tendon repair are weakness and loss of motion, per the AAOS.
For a player like Freeney who uses an explosive first step and speed to get to the opposing quarterback, any loss of motion or weakness in his quad could slow him down. The fact that Freeney is still working back from the injury suggests the recovery process may not be going as smoothly as the Chargers and Freeney would like.
"There's always time, especially for me," Freeney said via Gehlken. "September is a long time ago. That's the last time I played. Those guys played in January. My last time actually playing football was in September, so I have a lot of rust I'm trying to get off. That's what this process is about. That's why you come out here."
If anyone can get back, it would be a guy like Freeney, but there’s also been some acknowledgment by both sides that he might not get there. All the talk has been positive, but actions speak louder than words.
Dwight Freeney took a pay cut from $3.5M to $2.5M. His '14 cap number goes from $4.75M to $3,843,750 in the process.— Joel Corry (@corryjoel) March 15, 2014
Freeney agreed to a pay cut this offseason by $1 million, according to Joel Corry of the National Football Post and CBS Sports. Freeney reduced his salary from $3.5 million to $2.5 million in 2014.
Veteran players like Freeney don’t typically take a pay cut unless they really have no choice. Players will restructure, but rarely does a player with an option agree to take less money just for the good of his team.
We’ll never know what might have happened if Freeney didn’t agree to reduce his salary by $1 million in 2014, but chances are the Chargers would have seriously considered if he was worth the cost. The Chargers obviously thought he was worth it just last year, and the only thing that has changed is the injury.
The Chargers also traded up in the second round of the draft to snag pass-rusher Jerry Attaochu. If there are zero questions about how good Freeney will be in 2014, the Chargers may have been more reluctant to give up a fourth-round pick to get Attaochu, who was one of the last pass-rushers on the board who could realistically be a Year 1 contributor.
"This is why the Chargers moved up," NFL Network's Mike Mayock said of the selection via NFL.com. "He is the last of the true 3-4 outside linebackers in this draft."
As with most football injuries, precedents have already been set. A torn quad is hardly something we’ve never seen before. In fact, there is another top pass-rusher who tore his quad at age 32 and has never really been the same.
Andre Carter had 10 sacks for the New England Patriots in 2011 but has just 4.5 sacks in 21 games since then. Carter is just four spots behind Freeney on the active sack-leader list, but he’s a free agent after playing in nine games in New England last season.
|Andre Carter||Dwight Freeney|
|Age at time of injury||32||33|
|Career Sacks at time of injury||76||108|
|Sacks/Game Prior to Injury||0.466||0.647|
|Sacks/Game After Injury||0.214||?|
Carter averaged a sack every .466 games prior to the injury and just .214 since then. If Freeney had a similar drop, he might only be able to get to five sacks in 2014. If you consider the fact that Freeney has been about 39 percent better than Carter throughout his career, then he might get to seven sacks in a full season after the injury.
Of course, these projections would be giving Freeney credit for his entire career and not the reality of his situation. Freeney’s sack numbers declined every year from 2009 to 2012. Freeney’s 0.5 sacks in 2014 are a poor representative of his production in the four games he played, but the reality is that he used to get those sacks.
None of this means Freeney can’t be a solid contributor for the Chargers in 2014. Even if Freeney is only getting hits and hurries as opposed to sacks, he could still be invaluable. It’s just probably time to put to bed any notion that Freeney is the 10-sack player he has been throughout his career.