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COLUMN

Declaring NFL free agency winners a fool's game

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For more on the Colts, follow Reggie Hayes via Twitter at www.twitter.com/reggiehayes1

Remember, the money is for expected future performance

Saturday, March 16, 2013 - 7:30 am

INDIANAPOLIS – One of the more ridiculous questions asked after the first flurry of NFL free agency is this: Which team made the best moves?

It's an unanswerable question in March. Or April. Or May, June, July or August. That, of course, doesn't stop ESPN from asking it nor does it keep their analysts from allegedly answering it.

See you in September, and even then it's only a snapshot.

The free-agent winners can be judged only in retrospect after the 2013 season, or at least after the bulk of it. Those millions the Colts dished out to seven free agents (right tackle Gosder Cherilus, safety LaRon Landry, defensive end/tackle Ricky Jean Francois, linebacker Erik Walden, cornerback Greg Toler, guard Donald Thomas and linebacker Lawrence Sidbury) are for future performance.

There's no way to say Cherilus is worth $34 million over five years today. He hasn't kept Andrew Luck upright once.

No, I wouldn't pay Erik Walden $16 million for his previous four years of production. But he's being paid for the next four, as the Colts expect him to earn his pay in sacks, tackles and quarterback pressures. Will he earn it? There's no way to know in March.

It goes the other way, too. Everyone is praising the Denver Broncos for landing Wes Welker. Based on his past performance, it's more than a little coup. The Broncos add to Peyton Manning's receiving corps while subtracting from Tom Brady's group. But what if Welker, who will be 32 in May, is on the downside of his career arc? Is he a good signee then? Again, check back in December.

Specific to the Colts, I like what it looks like on paper, which is the only way to judge it.

They've added young, hungry players to areas of need (outside linebacker, offensive line, secondary) and bolstered the defense in its continued move to a full 3-4 look. Walden's presence is expected to allow Robert Mathis to move to rush end, which should reduce Mathis' pass coverage responsibilities and allow him more time to terrify quarterbacks.

The biggest defensive addition should be Landry. He's a physical specimen, a hard hitter not unlike the meteoric Bob Sanders, who was at one time the NFL Defensive Player of the Year and the Colts' prime difference-maker.

Colts coach Chuck Pagano, who knows a quality defender when he sees one, gushes over Landry.

“When our opponents put on the film, just like we did this year, he's a game-wrecker,” Pagano said. “He's a game-changer. When you walk in, people are now going to have to look at it and they are going to have to look at the personnel and one of the first guys they're going to talk about is LaRon Landry. They're going to say, 'We've got to account for this guy. We've got to make sure we block this guy.' ”

Offensively, the Colts steered clear of the skill positions, barring a possible still-to-come bid for a wide receiver.

The big need is offensive line and Cherilus and Thomas account for $48 million between them.

“Our top priority is, we've got a really special guy under center (in Luck),” Pagano said. “When he's upright, he's healthy and we keep him clean, then we're going to continue to win a lot of football games around here. So adding those two guys was huge and paramount to us moving forward in our success.”

The Colts will continue to make moves leading up to the draft. They signed cornerback Darius Butler, a surprise bright spot last season, and released safety Tom Zbikowski, who battled injury and low production. Zbikowski has a great attitude and can be a hard hitter, but he didn't play consistently strong football in his only season with the Colts.

There are parts to come in the draft, where Colts general manager Ryan Grigson will be hard-pressed to match the haul of a year ago that brought not only Luck, but T.Y. Hilton, Vick Ballard, Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen. He actually has a couple rookies from last season that should get their chance to shine this season – nose tackle Josh Chapman and wide receiver Griff Whalen.

“You have different avenues you can acquire talent from,” Grigson said. “Obviously, the draft is a wise one and it's usually how you build a team and you build for sustained success. But I really feel like you need to strike a balance and if there's player that you can get and help create more competition and raise the bars and make your team better, you have to at least explore those options.”

The Colts explored some options. Owner Jim Irsay opened his checkbook.

Did they make the right moves? Judging now is foolish at best.

If the Colts got it right in free agency, we'll know by the end of the year. Same with getting it wrong. Ramifications will be clear either way, but they do require waiting.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.