In our latest edition of the “Potential Colts Cap Casualty” series for the Indianapolis Colts, we’ll keep our focus on the defensive side of the football. Previously, we looked at the contracts and production of LaRon Landry, Greg Toler, and Ricky Jean-Francois respectively. Today, we’ll look at the pay and production of starting outside linebacker Erik Walden, and whether he could be in serious consideration for release like his other aforementioned highly paid veteran defensive counterparts.
Sep 28, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Erik Walden (93) against the Tennessee Titans at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Originally signed to a somewhat surprising 4-year $16 million dollar deal in March of 2013, Walden has actually proven to be a fairly solid starting outside linebacker for the Colts over the past 2 seasons. While he’s never been more than an average pass rusher during his 7-year career, he actually stepped up his pass rushing prowess this past season as he had a career high 6.0 sacks in the absence of Robert Mathis.
However, he was never signed to be much of a pass rusher, rather the Colts and specifically head coach Chuck Pagano liked his ability to “set the edge” against the run. Walden was brought in to help stop the run first and foremost. This season, in 14 starts, he had 37 tackles and often, was exceptional in his edge-setting ability.
Going off simply the eyeball test, and Walden looked like a fairly solid starting outside linebacker for the Colts last season. The advanced grades provided by ProFootballFocus (subscription) somewhat disagree with this notion however. Walden received a -2.7 grade overall, which ranked him as the 37th best starting 3-4 outside linebacker in football. Just behind him, was actually the Colts other starting outside linebacker and largely 1st round disappointment, Bjoern Werner, which probably tells you all you really need to know.
This is one of the few instances though, where I can’t help but disagree with such an advanced grade from what I saw from his play on film. It seemed to me that Walden played pretty well for the Colts this past season, all things considered. Other reputable sources seem to further validate my stance, at least in the majority of his most meaningful games per Andy Benoit, Expert NFL Film Analyst for Sports Illustrated:
In Divisional Round playoff game against the Denver Broncos:
In Wild Card Round playoff game against Cincinnati Bengals:
2015 Cap hit: $4.25M
Potential “Dead Money” if Released: $500K
2015 Cap Savings if Released: $3.75M
Outlook: There is no question that Walden is slightly overpaid. To put his contract in perspective, his $4.25M cap hit in 2015 is just $500K less than Seattle Seahawks starting outside linebacker K.J. Wright and $300K more than the New England Patriots Rob Ninkovich. The former was the 6th highest rated 4-3 OLB in football per ProFootballFocus with a +13.5 grade overall, while the latter had 8 sacks for the New England Patriots this past season and was a key player on a Super Bowl champion defense.
Jan 11, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Erik Walden (93) in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
However, just looking at comparable players, while overpaid, he’s not grossly overpaid. It’s true that the Colts could save $3.75M by releasing him, but it’s going to cost $3-4 million to find a similar player to replace him. The Paul Krugers, Connor Barwins, and Elvis Dumervils of the world at outside linebacker are making an upwards of $7-9MM annually right now.
It’s one thing if the Colts would look to use that saved money by releasing Walden to upgrade the position entirely toward a marquee player making $7-9 million per year (probably even more given today’s lucrative free agent market), but it’s a different situation entirely if they’re looking to spend a similar amount of money on the same type of player as Walden.
Given his familiarity with the defense and the fact that Walden is probably the Colts best linebacker against the run and “setting the edge”, and he seems like a relatively easy player to keep unless the Colts have bigger plans to significantly upgrade the position entirely through free agency.
While other outside linebackers like Jonathan Newsome and the returning Robert Mathis are both better natural and more productive pass rushers, the defense still needs a starting outside linebacker to play alongside them against the run. Walden effectively does the trick, and his contract at $4.25 million per year isn’t too big of a hindrance on the team’s overall salary cap to warrant dumping him given his fairly sound production.
Jan 11, 2015; Denver, CO, USA; Indianapolis Colts outside linebacker Erik Walden (93) tackles Denver Broncos running back C.J. Anderson (22) during the second quarter in the 2014 AFC Divisional playoff football game at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports