Dwight Freeney had high hopes of retiring from the league with the Indianapolis Colts, where he’s spent his entire 11-year NFL career after he was selected by Indy No. 11 overall out of Syracuse in the 2002 NFL Draft.
Freeney is now singing a different tune as he prepares to hit the open market. The lethal 6-1, 268-pound pass rusher recently eluded to the interesting situation he’s facing as 2013 NFL Free Agency approaches.
“I would definitely say very interesting. Exciting just to see the possibilities. And change could be good,” Freeney said, via Sports Radio Interviews. It’s definitely unfamiliar territory for me, and unexpected, but you have to roll with the punches.”
After lining up as a 4-3 defensive end for 10 seasons, Freeney struggled to make the adjustment to 3-4 OLB in 2012. He became a liability in coverage and collected a career-low 12 tackles with just 5.0 sacks, which was also the lowest sack total from Freeney outside of the 2007 season when he played in only nine games and racked up 3.5 sacks.
However, in 11 seasons, Freeney, 32, has chalked up 298 tackles, 107.5 sacks and 44 forced fumbles and the seven-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro should command plenty of interest around the NFL.
Without further adieu, let’s take a look at the Top 10 potential suitors for Freeney (in no particular order).
Last year, the Buccaneers emerged as the top run-stuffing unit, but that had much more to do with their woes against the pass (where they finished dead last in the league) than their success at stopping the ground game.
Regardless of what happens with Da’Quan Bowers (who is facing gun charges in New York) and impending free agent Michael Bennett (who had a breakout season in 2012 with 41 tackles, 9.0 sacks and three forced fumbles), Tampa Bay must add some veteran leadership and apply more pressure up front to go along with impending additions in the secondary.
Don’t expect the ‘Boys to be big spenders on the open market, as the team will need to restructure multiple contracts just to get under the cap. However, Dallas might look to make a few moves and improving in the trenches is the team’s No. 1 offseason priority.
The Cowboys are also expected to make the transition to the 4-3 system under new defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and Freeney would be a great fit in the new scheme opposite another star pass rusher, DeMarcus Ware.
The Bengals don’t necessarily need to pick up a guy like Dwight Freeney. One of the best defensive tackles in the NFL right now, Geno Atkins, 24, registered 53 tackles, 12.5 sacks and four forced fumbles in his third year in 2012. Carlos Dunlap, who also turned 24 on Thursday, had 40 stops with 6.0 sacks, four forced fumbles and an interception in his third season.
In addition, Michael Johnson collected 52 tackles with 11.5 sacks and an INT in his fourth year, while Domata Peko produced 53 tackles with 2.0 sacks. Wallace Gillberry also recorded 24 tackles with 6.5 sacks and a forced fumble and Robert Geathers totaled 30 tackles and 3.0 sacks.
As if that wasn’t enough talent and depth on the defensive line, the Bengals also selected DT Devon Still in the second round (No. 53 overall) and DT Brandon Thompson in the third round (No. 93 overall) of the 2012 NFL Draft and also took a chance on Aaron Maybin, who’s also only 24.
So why would Cincy crack this list? Well, only five of those nine linemen are 4-3 DEs—Dunlap, Maybin, Gillberry, Geathers and Johnson. You also can never have too many veteran leaders and the Bengals clearly have tons of young talent on the defensive line. They also have more cap space than any other team heading into free agency.
Contrary to Cincinnati, the Falcons don’t have much money to spend and need to bolster their pass rush. Albeit Atlanta recently released three veterans, including defensive end John Abraham—indicating the ‘ole out with the old, in with the new philosophy to implement more young talent and use its money more effectively—Freeney could come in and immediately improve the Falcons’ front four.
Only four teams amassed fewer sacks last season than Atlanta, who came up just five points short of winning the NFC Championship Game and advancing to Super Bowl XLVII. Their Super Bowl window is tight and this defense needs to defend the run better against mobile quarterbacks like Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick and Cam Newton. Osi Umenyiora is also a potential replacement for Abraham in Atlanta.
A few weeks ago on Sirius XM radio, Freeney said that Gang Green would be an intriguing destination and believes Rex Ryan‘s system could give him favorable matchups and opportunities to get after the quarterback and create havoc at the line of scrimmage.
“We’ll see, obviously Rex is a great guy, I actually know Rex, I met him a few times,’’ Freeney said. “Obviously playing in New York, that is obviously something that’s very attractive. Scheme-wise, I’m sure Rex knows how to free guys up. That would be a good fit but a lot of teams would be a good fit. I’m an east coast guy, it makes sense, it feels good but we’ll see the next few weeks who’s actually interested.’’
Freeney also mentioned about three weeks ago that Peyton Manning has been recruiting him to join the Broncos.
“He sent me a text and he just said, ‘Hey man, don’t worry, come play with me in Denver,” Freeney told PFT Live. ”I don’t know how serious it was but, you know, it’s good to hear some of your former teammates still follow you, they care and they want to see you succeed.”
“I think they’ve got a couple good pass rushers over there,” Freeney said. “I don’t know if they have room for me.”
If he doesn’t end up with Gang Green or re-unite with the Broncos’ star signal-caller, he could always take his talents to Big Blue, where the Hartford, Connecticut native would be playing for the same team as Peyton’s younger brother, Eli Manning.
Freeney recently stated joining the G-Men “would be a dream,” given that “I grew up a Giants fan, all my life.”
“I think the biggest thing I’m looking for is a contender, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a Super Bowl team—at least it’s a team that is contending for the Super Bowl, in the playoffs and fits the things that I do. I played 11 years and I want to continue to win,” he added. “I can’t see myself going to a non-winner.”
Well, that pretty much rules out about a fourth of the league that runs the 4-3 scheme and could be interested in acquiring a proven veteran defensive end. But nobody expected him to go to “a non-winner” anyway.
The Vikings have other needs that are more pressing and aren’t exactly flushed with cash, either. However, this team could be on the cusp of becoming a perennial playoff contender. In addition, Peyton Manning isn’t the only star player around the NFL that’s trying to recruit the veteran pass rusher.
Freeney ran into Adrian Peterson a couple of weeks ago at the NBA All-Star Game. ”We’d love to have you,” Peterson told the Colts’ all-time sack leader, according to Mike Freeman of CBS Sports.
Though they’re far from being flushed with cash, the Patriots have a history of pursuing—and attaining—talented veterans on the open market. In addition, New England needs to bolster its pass rush and the Pats would suit Freeney’s desire to play for a serious Super Bowl contender.
“A lot of my friends have brought that up … that’s a great organization over there, they have won a lot of games, have a lot of great players,” Freeney said. “I would be honored to play for anybody, especially that type of organization.”
10. Seattle Seahawks
You can never have too many veteran leaders or talented pass-rushers, especially when you’re playing in the same division as the San Francisco 49ers. The ‘Hawks have to address the defensive line this offseason, especially since Chris Clemons—who lead the team with 11.5 sacks in 2012—may not be 100 percent by the start of the 2013 season after he tore his ACL in early January.
While the team doesn’t have a ton of cap space, Seattle is a very appealing destination for players like Freeney looking to land with a potential Super Bowl contender. The NFC West is on the verge of becoming the best division in the NFL.
[RELATED: 5 Potential Destinations For WR Wes Welker]
Michael Gartman is a College Football and NFL Senior Writer, the AFC South and NFC West Lead Writer and the Founder, CEO of GridironGrit.com. He’s also about to start reporting on topics across all sides of the political spectrum and analyze important issues in the liberty movement for a political website. Follow him @_MichaelGartman on Twitter. Be sure to ‘like’ Gridiron Grit on Facebook and follow us on Twitter @GridironGrit to keep up with the latest coverage on college football, the NFL and more!