It was Ryan Grigson’s first week on the job as general manager of the Colts. He had a lot of plates in the air, including figuring out his coaching staff. But one week after Grigson was hired, on the same day he fired Jim Caldwell, Grigson signed a player.
It didn’t get any headlines because hardly anyone had heard of the guy. He was a Division III player who went to camp with the Titans a few years ago and promptly was cut. He spent three seasons in the Canadian League for the Roughriders. One thing about him stood out: in 2011 he led the CFL in tackles with 105.
Grigson didn’t even know what kind of defense the Colts would be running. But he knew he needed players, so he pursued him. There was some interest from other teams, and the player’s agent told Grigson his offer wasn’t enough. Eventually, Grigson doubled his offer, and got his man.
He became a starter for Chuck Pagano at inside linebacker, and on the team’s fourth defensive play of the season, he intercepted a pass and brought it back for a touchdown. It was far from the last play he would make in 2012. The player would lead the Colts in tackles and finish with more tackles than all but four players in the whole league.
The lesson to be learned from Jerrell Freeman? Don’t overlook production—at any level.
It was a lesson Grigson had learned from Charley Armey when he was a scout with the Rams. “He would correct reports with red marker and send them back,” Grigson said. “If I had a guy with 7.0 production, that was outstanding. He’d put an arrow to my grade. Look how productive he was, why are you downgrading the guy? If a guy makes a ton of tackles, unless he’s slow as dirt, there is a good chance he will do it at the next level.”
It’s easy to dismiss production in a lesser league, just as it is easy to dismiss production from a smaller school. But it always is an indicator of something.
Freeman has made plays from sideline to sideline. But he also has made plays in coverage. Some think he should have received Pro Bowl consideration.
“He really has a knack in coverage, and can run,” Grigson said. “You don’t see many inside linebackers in a 3-4 who can do what he does in coverage.”
Even Grigson didn’t envision Freeman excelling as he has while playing against better competition, in a different league and in a new scheme. But he thought his production was intriguing, thanks to lessons hammered into him by Armey.
“Unless we took that approach in our department, he wouldn’t be here,” Grigson said. “At least I knew he could run and hit and had instincts. From the beginning I knew he was a make it guy or I wouldn’t have given him the bonus I did.”
Dan Pompei covers pro football for the Chicago Tribune at chicagotribune.com.