Since arriving from Saskatchewan in 2012, inside linebacker Jerrell Freeman has been a bargain for the Indianapolis Colts.
As a Canadian Football League import, the Colts didn’t have to pay him much until last season, when the restricted free agent earned $2,356,000 as a restricted free agent. In four seasons, the 57-game starter led the team in tackles twice and amassed 478 total stops.
Despite the obvious production as a staunch run stopper, Freeman was allowed to enter free agency and signed with the Chicago Bears Saturday to a reported three-year, $12-million deal with $6 million guaranteed and $2 million in incentives.
Why didn’t the Colts keep Freeman?
It’s not that the Colts couldn’t afford to re-sign him. They haven’t spent hardly anything in free agency so far and are $20.9 million under the salary cap, according to spotrac.com.
Like it or not, the most reasonable explanation is how much the Colts have already invested in the middle linebacker position.
Middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, the NFL’s No. 2 tackler with 150 total tackles last season, has $11.5 million remaining on the final two years of his contract.
But the player to focus on is inside linebacker Nate Irving. Some might ask Nate who? He’s the guy the Colts signed to a three-year, $7.25-million deal last offseason. But Irving was coming off knee surgery and has yet to regain the form that earned him a starting role with the Denver Broncos in 2014.
Irving still has $5.5 million remaining on the final two years of his deal. It was back-weighted, presumably because the Colts suspected his production would be down in the year after surgery. He earned just $1.75 million last season, when Irving had just 14 tackles and one sack in eight games with but two starts.
That the Colts wouldn’t ante up on Freeman says they are counting on Irving to be the starter they envisioned when he was plucked in free agency a year ago. Seriously, this team isn’t paying him $5.5 million the next two years to be a reserve and special-teams guy.
Freeman tried to lobby for a new contract a year ago, holding out for a week during offseason training activities. But he didn’t have any leverage and relented to the one-year tender he received as a restricted free agent.
Everyone knew this was his time to get paid. The Colts were reportedly far apart in their negotiations with his agent. While most free agents are grossly overpaid in the beginning of this process, the Colts stuck to their pocket books and refused to do so with Freeman.
He deserved the lucrative deal received from the Bears. And the Colts could regret not paying him should Irving not pan out.
But this team has obvious needs at other positions. The Colts need to bolster the offensive line and find pass rushers to help the defense. They’ve made it clear so far they’re unwilling to overspend on the players available, and that included Freeman.
Phillip B. Wilson also can be found on Facebook and Google+.