Freeney in the fold
Colts DE gets 'exclusive franchise' tag; team turns attention to other free agents
By Mike Chappellmailto:email@example.com
Free agent losses are inevitable every offseason, especially for a Super Bowl champion. But whatever defections await the Indianapolis Colts, they won't include Dwight Freeney.
Meeting the media: Colts DE Dwight Freeney, shown during Super Bowl week, had 5 1/2 sacks and 33 quarterback pressures this past season. - MATT KRYGER / The Star
The team on Monday made certain its career sack leader would remain its defensive cornerstone for at least one more season by designating him its "exclusive franchise player."
"He wasn't going to go anywhere,'' team president Bill Polian said.
Using the "exclusive" tag eliminates the possibility of Freeney testing his value on the NFL's free agent market, which opens March 2. It also guarantees him a one-year contract at the average of the top five players at his position at the end of the upcoming free agent period.A "non-exclusive" franchise tag would have allowed Freeney to talk with other teams, and it paid a one-year contract at the average of the top five players at his position from last season -- $8.644 million. The exclusive tag assuredly will pay more.
Despite "tagging" Freeney, Polian's hope is to sign the three-time Pro Bowl defensive end to a long-term contract. Polian and Gary Wichard, Freeney's agent, spoke at length Monday.
"We'll continue to talk with the idea toward putting together a long-term deal,'' Polian said, calling Freeney "an integral part of this team."
Wichard did not immediately return telephone calls to a reporter.
Freeney was the Colts' first-round draft pick in 2002, the 11th overall selection, and has posted 51 sacks in his five years. He was limited to a career-low 51/2 sacks last season but had a team-high 33 quarterback pressures.
With Freeney's situation at least temporarily resolved, the team will turn its attention to its other pending free agents. Those include a dozen players who either started at some point or played a prominent role in the 2006 Super Bowl season: linebackers Cato June, Rob Morris and Gilbert Gardner; running back Dominic Rhodes; cornerbacks Nick Harper and Jason David; safety Mike Doss; kick returner Terrence Wilkins; guards Jake Scott and Ryan Lilja; defensive end Josh Thomas; and tight end Ben Utecht.
"As a coach, you want everybody back,'' Tony Dungy said. "We know that's not going to happen. That's just the way the system works.''
Dungy explained that he typically compiles a wish list regarding personnel, fully aware the NFL's salary cap -- expected to be $109 million in 2007, up from last season's $102 million -- forces difficult decisions.
"You have your wish list,'' Dungy said, "and Bill knows 'OK, if we get item A, then you can't get B, C and D.' He knows what my wish list is, then he has to put it together to get the most out of that.''
Last offseason, the team decided to re-sign wide receiver Reggie Wayne, defensive tackle Raheem Brock, defensive end Robert Mathis and linebacker Gary Brackett to long-term contracts that included more than $30 million in signing and roster bonuses. Such hefty investments meant the Colts were unable to re-sign running back Edgerrin James, linebacker David Thornton and defensive tackle Larry Tripplett.
"It's a tough road to navigate,'' Dungy said.
The toughest decision this offseason might involve June. He led the team with 162 tackles in '06 after being voted to his first Pro Bowl the previous season. The Colts will want him back -- if the price is right.
"The key thing is what the market will bear,'' Polian said. "There is a price for everybody we feel we can afford and we can actually live with under the cap.
"There is a number beyond which we can't go for any player.''
Other decisions include whether to retain defensive tackles Corey Simon and Montae Reagor and wide receiver Brandon Stokley. Simon (undisclosed illness) and Reagor (facial injuries from an automobile accident) finished the season on the league's non-football illness/injury list. Stokley suffered a season-ending ruptured right Achilles tendon in December.
"A lot of these things are going to be dependent upon physical examinations,'' Polian said, adding that the team is having trouble scheduling a physical with Simon