Polishing gems propels Colts' unlikely path

Posted Nov. 26, 2012 @ 10:02 a.m.
Posted By Nolan Nawrocki

In takes only one series to see the abandon with which Colts first-year MLB Jerrell Freeman plays. Shedding Bills standout OLG Andy Levitre on the first defensive snap of the game to make the Colts’ opening tackle is the kind of play that has become routine in the 11th NFL start of Freeman's career. On 3rd-and-7 of the opening drive, he diced past an occupied Levtire and OLT Cordy Glenn on a delayed blitz, drilled RB C.J. Spiller stepping up in pass protection and stormed into an overwhelmed Ryan Fitzpatrick to force a three-and-out and notch his second NFL sack.

He missed one tackle in the backfield, darting too low at the feet of Spiller, a dynamic playmaker, and can be caught in congestion, but on every snap, Freeman is moving fast to the ball, playing with the urgency of a player hell-bent on proving wrong all those who passed him by in 2008 after the Division III All-American was cut by the Titans in the preseason and forced to resume his playing career north of the border.

It has been quite a journey for the CFL standout and first signing of GM Ryan Grigson, who dug into his roots as a Saskatchewan Roughriders scout to add some firepower to the roster, expecting to land a core special-teams contributor and turning up with one of the NFL’s leading tacklers.

It wasn’t by design, with ILB Pat Angerer being lost in the preseason opener with a foot injury, but since given the opportunity, the speedy Freeman has turned out to be one of the most inspirational, against-all-odds stories of the NFL season on a team led by the greatest of underdog coaches.

With the exception of the Saints losing their head coach, interim head coach and GM to suspensions, no team has had to deal with as much adversity as the Colts tackling Chuck Pagano’s leukemia diagnosis. The Colts have used it as a rallying cry, uniting a "Chuckstrong" nation that's pulling for its rookie quarterback and an unlikely set of stars led by a rookie class that has given strong contributions and one of the NFL’s most overlooked rising stars.

Whether filling so fast downhill that he took out Bills FB Corey McIntyre with his legs as he whipped around while lassoing the lightning Spiller or sniffing out a screen and chasing down one of the NFL’s fastest runners to the sideline, Freeman showed up early and often against Buffalo as he has all season, finishing with a game-high 16 tackles. In fact, he has led the Colts in tackles in all but one game this season.

Beginning with a season-opening interception return for a TD against the  Bears, Freeman has created big plays and been credited by Colts coaches with 143 takedowns. He has gone from forgotten CFL standout to a budding NFL star, being dubbed “Baby Ray” by teammates familiar with the tenacity, all-out effort and energy of Ray Lewis from their time in Baltimore.

Patrick Willis and Jerod Mayo are the only two linebackers in the league right now on pace to match the instincts, technique and big-play ability of Lewis through the early part of their careers. Comparing Freeman to London Fletcher would not be a stretch. If the 26-year-old Freeman stays as hungry and as focused as he has been this season, the Colts will have an unexpected building block for years to come.   

• For as well as Freeman is playing, the Colts might have found a more shiny diamond in the rough in recent weeks. Legend continues to grow about CB Teddy Williams, who was plucked from the defunct UFL after being cut by the Cowboys in training camp. When he tested for pro scouts coming out of Texas-San Antonio, where he was a sprinter, he is said to have recorded a sub-4.3 40-yard dash at nearly 6-1, 190 pounds along with a 43-inch vertical jump and 22 bench-press reps of 225 pounds — all eye-popping results that would place him among the top corners in the league. In the UFL, he returned a kickoff 90 yards for a score and was said to be able to sky 10 feet off the ground to play the ball, possessing better physical traits than many starting NFL cornerbacks. Described by UFL coaches as the best player in the league, Williams has been snake-bitten by injuries dating back to high school. If he can stay healthy since being elevated to the 53-man roster prior to the game against Patriots, he stands a chance to follow in Freeman’s footsteps and develop into a legitimate contributor.

• Great evaluators understand that exceptional talents have to be cultivated. It’s the reason the Panthers were willing to take a chance on Cam Newton, the Giants took Jason Pierre-Paul, the Patriots took Rob Gronkowski, the Saints took Jimmy Graham, the Dolphins traded for Vontae Davis and the Titans took Chris Johnson. Rare traits, even when accompanied with warning signs, can be well worth the risk given the right support structure. Colin Kaepernick fits the category as a rare talent, but unlike many others that have exited college with looming questions, Kaepernick had few discernible issues exiting college outside of playing in an unorthodox "pistol" offense. As one veteran evaluator said when Kapernick was exiting college, “He’s not as much of a development project as many others. He has a better arm than Vince Young. He is just as fast. He won a (boat)load of games with nothing around him, he is smart — he had a 37 test score. He can learn an offense. He’s a leader — a great kid. He has a huge arm. Maybe I am wrong. I think he has some ‘it’ to him. This kid went to the Manning camp — knew what he had to work on and everyone was raving about him after he left. Everyone keeps saying he is a running quarterback. I am so tired of hearing it. There has never been another quarterback pass for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000. Check out Vince Young's stats from his junior year and check out this kid’s. Kaepernick’s are better. And he is a better person and smarter and has a bigger arm. I stayed after one of his practices and there were few people around — this kid was working to the point he was lathered. Have you seen him in person? Wait until you see him. He is built like a brick s***house. He’s 6-4, 230 and has abs an inch deep and long arms. … When you come across a great one, you just get a feeling about it. I may be the only one in the country, but I got that feeling with this kid that he could be special.” With the way Kaepernick has played the past two weeks, it's clear that Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers’ organization understand cultivation.  

• In what could be a preview of the NFC playoff picture, the Saints, Buccaneers and Packers, riding three-, four- and five-game winning streaks respectively and fighting for position in the NFC entering the week, were tested by three bona fide division front-runners — the 49ers, Falcons and Giants, respectively. Not only did all three streaks end but statements were made along the way. The 49ers, with Alex Smith’s handcuffs being taken off the offense, now features a dangerous vertical element that has been lacking in the passing game, not to mention an exciting flair in the pocket. The Giants, coming off a bye week, snapped out of a two-game funk, appearing especially improved on the back end of the defense with Kenny Phillips returning to the lineup for the first time since September. The Falcons, with Sean Weatherspoon returning to the lineup, contained the NFL’s hottest back (Doug Martin) in their most defining win of the season against a legitimate contender.

Greg Schiano acted quickly to clean up the culture in the Buccaneers' locker room during his first year on the job, trading Kellen Winslow to the Seahawks, Brian Price to the Bears and Aqib Talib to the Patriots for minimal picks, sending a message to the team about the importance of discipline. Losing one of the best pairs of guards in the league, Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks, would have taken a big toll on many coaches, not to mention season-ending injuries to other key contributors such as DRE Adrian Clayborn, WLB Quincy Black, WR Arrelious Benn and WR Sammie Stroughter. With GM Mark Dominik locking and reloading and Schiano instilling a win-at-all-costs mentality, the Buccaneers are well-positioned to fend for a wild-card spot heading into December, a drastic turnaround from the days of Raheem Morris.

• The Bears are sitting at 8-3, but after losing Matt Forté, Charles Tillman, Lance Briggs and Devin Hester to injuries in a very physical matchup with Minnesota, not to mention injuries to a pair of offensive linemen on an already marginal protection unit, the Bears will be challenged to sustain success in the final month of the season. Perhaps most troubling is the blueprint the 49ers provided the rest of the league on how to slice a one-gap scheme, as Jim Harbaugh effectively did against Pete Carroll’s USC squads during his stay at Stanford.

• The Lions' Thanksgiving Day loss triggered a lot of mixed opinions around the league, especially given that Lions head coach Jim Schwartz criticized 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh for the very same mistake Schwartz made in throwing the challenge flag on a non-challengeable score in the Lions’ 34-31 overtime loss to the Texans. If there are two traits that could ultimately doom Schwartz in Detroit, his counterparts around the league point to a “hot head” and his arrogance, “thinking he has all the answers and is smarter than everyone else.” Despite looming questions about whether he deserved the extension he received before the season, Schwartz has helped improve the Lions’ bottom-feeding roster since his arrival. General sentiment is that he deserved to be extended but might self-implode before the contract is up.

• For as much as the Browns have struggled in recent years, outgoing team president Mike Holmgren leaves the roster in Cleveland in considerably better shape than what he inherited. The defense features quality talent at every level, from Phil Taylor to D’Qwell Jackson to T.J. Ward and Joe Haden, and is very well-coordinated by Dick Jauron. The key positions on offense — QB, OLT, C, RB and WR — are all very capably filled with good, young talent. With the help of a David Shaw, Jon Gruden or Josh McDaniels — innovative coaches who are capable of maximizing the offensive talent — the Browns could easily contend for a division title next season. They are not nearly as far away as their record indicates.