Freeney shows at minicamp, but still wants long-term deal
INDIANAPOLIS -- His mere presence here for a mandatory weekend minicamp that he technically could have dodged because of his current contract situation spoke volumes about the significance that Indianapolis Colts' star defensive end Dwight Freeney assigns to things like team unity and his role as a leader on and off the field.
And in addressing his status as an exclusive franchise player, a designation the team applied to him before the start of free agency, Freeney said all the right things, too.
But the Indianapolis career sack leader, by far the highest profile performer on a Colts' defense that statistically ranked only 21st in the league in 2006, also reiterated that he will not sign the one-year qualifying offer tendered him three months ago.
Which means that the clock is ticking for the Colts to strike a long-term deal with their lone dominant defender.
"I've been upfront with them about wanting to stay here, to finish my career here, and that means a [long-term] contract," Freeney told ESPN.com after finishing an impromptu press session at his locker stall. "I've said all along that I won't sign the [one-year] tender. That definitely hasn't changed. But I'm confident we'll get it worked out."
The two sides have less than two months to reach an accommodation which satisfies the needs of everyone involved. Under the most recent extension to the collective bargaining agreement, the team must have a multi-year deal in place with Freeney by July 15. After that Freeney can sign just the one-year qualifying offer, of $9.43 million, which he steadfastly maintains he will not do.
Should the deadline pass without a long-term deal, things could get sticky. League rules mandate a player have a signed contract to report to training camp.
Freeney, 27, is one of four franchise players around the NFL who have not signed contracts. Of the three other franchise players in the league, New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant signed a seven-year contract with a maximum value of $63 million, while Seattle kicker Josh Brown and Cincinnati defensive end Justin Smith signed just the one-year tenders.
A much less accomplished player than Freeney, who has made three Pro Bowl appearances in five seasons, Grant received $20 million in guarantees as part of his contract. That will not escape the notice of Freeney or agent Gary Wichard, who has suggested in the past that his client should be the league's highest paid player.
In five seasons, Freeney, the Colts' first-round choice in the 2002 draft, has 169 tackles 56½ sacks and a remarkable 27 forced fumbles in 79 games. The master of the sack-and-strip technique, Freeney posted double-digit sacks in each of his first four seasons, with a career-high of 16 in 2004, but dropped off to 5½ sacks last year.
On a young defense that figures to have at least three new starters in 2007, Freeney clearly is the centerpiece and least replaceable component. And while the Colts have seen several key defenders defect in free agency over the past four years, it is notable that owner Jim Irsay and team president Bill Polian haven't lost any veterans of Freeney's ilk. The Colts usually find a way to keep their premier player, even if it means Irsay having to dip into his personal finances, and so the suspicion is that a long-term contract with Freeney eventually will be hammered out.
Even if the sense during the weekend minicamp was that the two sides have not yet made significant progress toward an accord. But the Colts' brass, and certainly their players, know that Freeney is indispensable.
Said quarterback Peyton Manning: "Talking to other coaches this offseason, most of them say Dwight is the one guy [around whom] they game-plan for defensively. That's a guy you want on your defense."
It won't hurt in negotiations, of course, that Freeney made a good-faith gesture by attending the minicamp, a move some other franchise players in the league did not make.
"I'm a part of this team and I'm not going anywhere," said Freeney, who is precluded by the exclusive franchise label from negotiating with any other clubs. "I'm certainly not planning on going anywhere. Hopefully, that's their mindset, too. So, I mean, what else am I going to be doing, right? I just felt like I ought to be here.
"A lot of guys were surprised, probably, by that attitude. I don't think you see too much of that these days -- a no-contract, franchise player showing up to a minicamp. Never mind regular [training] camp. To be at minicamp without a contract is unheard of. But I'm here to show my support. Around here, a lot is geared toward the offense. For a defensive guy on this team to be locked down, that's a special thing. It means a lot.
"That being said, I still want a long-term deal."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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