Syracuse football trivia. Prior to Chandler Jones in 2012, Dwight Freeney was the last Orange player selected in the first round of the NFL draft. Freeney was a freak during his time at SU, leading the nation in sacks in his last season before being chosen 11th overall in 2002. All he’s done since is rack up 286 tackles, 102.5 sacks and 43 forced fumbles in ten years as a speed rushing defensive end.
After owner Jim Irsay got rid of virtually everyone in the Colts organization except for himself, the new regime has decided that one of, if not the, best pass-rushing DEs over the past decade is better off as a LB. It’s not an unprecedented move. Mario Williams make the same switch when he left Houston for the Buffalo Bills. And the trend in the NFL leans toward hybrid players who can rush both from the line and also from off it. But is this the best move for Freeney at this point in his career?Freeney, while a star among defensive ends, has always been a one trick pony, so to speak. He’s a speed rusher, and that’s it. Sure, he has that fancy spin move, but everything he does is aimed at one thing; get to the quarterback as quickly as possible. And that’s good. The measure of a defensive end is how often he puts the opposing QB in the dirt. Freeney’s specialization, though, comes at the cost of being mediocre at covering the run or doing just about anything that doesn’t involve sacking fools.
So, why a move to OLB? I get that he’s a talented and experienced football player. New Colts coach Chuck Pagano doesn’t want to let a valuable guy like that get away, despite prior rumors that Indy was looking to trade Freeney. But now they’re asking Freeney to drop back in coverage and read the QB. He might be able to do those things and might even be able to do them well, but it’s a huge transition from what he’s earned his paycheck with for the last ten years.
Plus there’s the issue of his physical tools. Dwight might be a speed rusher, but he’s also 32 years old. There’s a difference between beating a tackle off the line of scrimmage and chasing down a runner in the open field. One requires explosive quickness, the other requires more top-end speed. Who exactly does Pagano expect Freeney to be chasing down in the open field? Any halfway decent RB or TE in the NFL is going to leave Freeney in the dust. Then there’s Freeney’s height. He’s listed at 6’1″. I’ve stood next to him on several occasions and he’s lucky if he breaks 5’11”. Even at his listed 268 (likely to be decreased in an effort to get faster), he’s woefully undersized for an NFL LB.
Don’t get me wrong, Freeney has been great in his career and still has good football left in him. But linebacking in the NFL is predicated on size and speed, both of which Dwight lacks at an elite level at this point in his career. For as skilled as a player he might be, there’s likely to be plenty of other LB out there that are just good enough that their superior physical attributes will make them a better option for the position.
I want Dwight to be able to play and play well for a good team. I’ve been a casual Colts fan ever since Marvin Harrison was drafted there. But I think this might be a case where a fresh start/change of scenery/whatever cliché you want to pick might have been the better path for him. He’s a player with a very specialized skill set. Trying to change roles now could end his career before its time.