INDIANAPOLIS – Colts fans had heard the story before – a free agent linebacker who joined the team with no fanfare and had an impactful presence.
Gary Brackett? No, Jerrell Freeman.
Freeman joined Indianapolis last spring after a significant three-year Canadian career, a find by General Manager Ryan Grigson.
After opening eyes in training camp, he scored the Colts' first touchdown of the year on an interception and by season's end, Freeman had amassed 203 tackles, a franchise record.
Colts fans had more of a learning curve with Freeman than he did in moving from the CFL to the NFL.
"There were a couple of things I learned in Canada coverage-wise. It helped me come in with a little confidence as a nickel linebacker and coverage guy," said Freeman. "It's a passing game up there. It's somewhat of a passing game here, but it's a lot more physical and there is more attention to detail with the run game.
"That's the only thing I was worried about. It was a 3-4 defense, but I was eager to learn. We had good coaches and great guys like Pat Angerer. It helped me be confident in what I could do and to understand the defense."
Freeman's ticket to the field came early when Angerer suffered a broken foot on the first preseason snap.
Freeman was a quick study, leading the team in tackles in each of the first seven games. Only once in that season-opening span did he fail to reach double digits in stops.
"I didn't realize that or even thought of it like that," said Freeman of the streak. "I just had the opportunity to make the plays. Coach Pagano and Coach Manusky, they expect us to make plays when the chance is there. It just so happened the plays were mine to make, so I made them."
Coaches notice when players emerge. Freeman quickly did so in Chuck Pagano's eyes.
"I didn't know Jerrell from Adam's house cat. I don't know if anybody did," said Pagano. "He came in, bought in, got a leg up, did everything the coaches asked of him, and he was always there. You could count on him."
Grigson said in late November that Freeman had not exceeded expectations because he had seen him be a dominant CFL player. Grigson liked Freeman's skill set and knew an adaption to the NFL would be no issue.
Freeman found the coaching staff urging all players to contribute. He liked the opportunity ahead of him.
"Everyone was on a level playing field system-wise with a whole new regime," said Freeman. "I was ready to do any and everything I could do to play."
He led the team in tackles in 13 different games, 11 times reaching double digits in stops. Freeman joined Jeff Herrod (200, 1994) as the only Colts players credited with 200 tackles in a season.
To the first-ever Mary-Hardin Baylor product to reach the NFL, it was not all about numbers. Earning trust in all corners was the best feeling.
"Individually, it was gratifying to see your name near the top of the league in tackles. Leading the team in tackles was fun," said Freeman. "The biggest thing was getting the trust of the players around me.
"The coaches put me in positions to be successful, and I was happy the coaches trusted me enough. I liked getting the trust of Dwight (Freeney), Robert (Mathis), Antoine (Bethea) and CRed (Cory Redding). That was the biggest thing, getting their trust. They trusted me being out there."
Freeman answered any questions from observers emphatically and sees 2013 being different.
"It will be different. Now, it's expected, and I like that. It's something I worked at," said Freeman. "Having the respect of, 'Okay, Freeman's out here. I know he's going to do what he has to do when he's on the field.' (It's better than) wondering, 'Is Freeman going to make this play? Will he be there?' I'm expected to do things, and I like being in that position.
"The next step is getting better all around. There are so many things you can be better at – cutting down on wasted steps, coverage, hand placement, recognizing certain plays. A lot of that comes with experience, especially in the run game, seeing things and watching film. (I want to) get with coaches more and see what they see, seeing the field through their eyes and getting more mature. I was thrown in the fire and had a little success. I want to build on every aspect of my game."
Pagano sees no impediment to the process.
"Jerrell's a tireless worker. He has ability, make no mistake about that," said Pagano. "He can run, strike and get off blocks. He has play-making ability. That became evident in OTAs and camp. He loves to play the game. He has a great passion for it. He made plays early and had success. We found we had something special. Ryan (Grigson) did a great job of getting him here."
The Waco product seems to have made an Indianapolis home. Success will not change the man.
"(Laughs) I'm the same, old guy. You're talking to a country guy. I'm the same, old guy," said Freeman.
Angerer fought the foot injury all season, starting three-of-11 games. He totaled 57 tackles after ranking fourth in the league in 2011 with 146. Coaches voiced the hope last season of pairing him in the lineup with Freeman.
Kavell Conner opened 12 games at 'mike' linebacker. He totaled 73 tackles and one sack, exceeding totals from 2011.
Robert Mathis made the transition to outside linebacker, starting 12 times. Mathis missed part of the season with a knee injury. He had eight sacks, one interception and one forced fumble. With the departure of Dwight Freeney, Mathis (91.5) is the club's leading active sacker, and he is poised to become the 30th NFL player with 100 career takedowns.
Jerry Hughes started six games (two for Freeney; four for Mathis), a career-high. Hughes' four sacks ranked behind Mathis and Freeney (five) and with Freeney's departure, he has a chance to solidify more playing time. It will be one of the most-watched matters for the team this year.
Justin Hickman saw spot defensive duty as well, playing in 12 games and adding special teams duty. Mario Harvey appeared in 13 games and had seven special teams stops.
Jake Killeen, Sean Loiseau, Scott Lutrus, Monte Simmons and Quinton Spears will have free agent opportunities.
Erik Walden, 6-2, 250, joined the Colts as an unrestricted free agent from Green Bay. He has started 26-of-68 games after being the sixth-round pick of Dallas in 2008. Walden played with Kansas City and Miami before joining Green Bay. With the Packers, Walden started 15 games at ROLB in 2011, then followed with nine starts at LOLB this past season. Walden had 71 tackles, 38 solo, this past season, with three sacks and two interceptions. He has 188 career tackles, nine sacks and two interceptions.
Lawrence Sidbury, 6-3, 261, joined the Colts as an unrestricted free agent from Atlanta, where he appeared in 48 games, totaling 17 tackles, 5.0 sacks and one fumble recovery. In 2011, he played in 16 games and had 11 tackles and 4.0 sacks. Sidbury will be converting to a 3-4 scheme for the first time in his career.