INDIANAPOLIS —"You want to have good leverage. You want to be low coming off the ball. Being a little shorter helps me do that. This game is about leverage. The height thing is overrated."
That was Dwight Freeney 16 years ago tomorrow, on April 20, 2002, talking to local reporters after the Indianapolis Colts made him the 11th-overall pick in that year's NFL Draft.
Already armed with one of the top offenses in the league — thanks in large part to the trio of quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison — the Colts entered the draft that year with a brand new, defensive-minded head coach in Tony Dungy, who was looking to shore things up on the other side of the ball.
Speed was the name of the game in Dungy's defensive schemes, and working alongside general manager Bill Polian and his scouting staff, the Colts saw just that — and more — in Freeney, who draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. wrote in his draft guide that year "may just be the fastest defensive end to ever come out of the college ranks."
Still, some knocked Freeney for his height coming out of Syracuse — he measured in at 6-feet, 7/8ths inches tall — completely ignoring the fact he led all college pass rushers with 17.5 sacks his senior season.
And despite the fact the likes of Wisconsin's Wendell Bryant and Tennessee's Albert Haynesworth, both standout defensive tackles, were available for the picking when the Colts went on the clock with the 11th-overall pick, Polian, Dungy and team owner Jim Irsay had no qualms at all when it came to selecting Freeney to be the centerpiece of their new defense.
Boy, did that decision pay off.
And almost exactly sixteen years to the day later, Freeney is calling it a career.
Freeney is officially retiring from the NFL as a member of the Colts, the team announced today. He's scheduled to have a formal press conference in Indianapolis on Monday.
Freeney leaves the game as one of the best pass rushers in league history; in 16 seasons with six different teams, he compiled 125.5 sacks, which is tied with Terrell Suggs for 17th on the NFL's all-time list.
Of the 17 players ahead of or tied with Freeney on that list, 11 have been inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while two players — Julius Peppers and Suggs — are still playing, and a couple others, including DeMarcus Ware and Jared Allen, just recently retired and are considered sure-fire Hall of Famers when they become eligible.
But Hall of Fame conversation aside, Freeney will forever be remembered for the havoc he wreaked off the edge in his 11 seasons with the Colts.
Freeney was as fast as advertised — if not faster — when he got to Indy, but when he mixed in his signature spin move, dizzying opposing blockers who had no chance at getting their hands on him, he was simply unstoppable.
Freeney made an instant impact for Dungy and the Colts, collecting 13 sacks and nine forced fumbles his first season in 2002 and finishing runner up that year to Peppers — who had 12 sacks and six forced fumbles — in the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year voting.
But No. 93 was just getting going for the blue and white.
Over the course of his career in Indianapolis, Freeney racked up 298 tackles, 107.5 sacks, 46 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries (one for a touchdown), 17 passes defensed and forced one safety. He had seven double-digit sack seasons, including a career-best 16 in 2004, which led the league.
Freeney was a three-time First-Team All-Pro selection during his time with the Colts, and seven-time Pro Bowl selection.
But, perhaps most importantly, Freeney was also a winner — and a champion. The Colts averaged an amazing 11 wins per year during Freeney's 11 seasons in Indy; he also had 11 sacks in 22 playoff games with the Colts, including two sacks during the Colts' playoff run in 2006, when the team would go on to defeat the Chicago Bears, 29-17, in Super Bowl XLI.
"It was an amazing experience, obviously, for us," said Freeney, who also appeared with the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV three years later. "And just being in that game, just to get to that point — you know, teams are getting knocked off left and right — we didn't care if it was a monsoon or what, it didn't matter to us. We just wanted to go out there and have a good time and play the best game we possibly can."
Freeney wrapped up his career with stints with the San Diego Chargers (2013-14), Arizona Cardinals (2015), Atlanta Falcons (2016) and the Seattle Seahawks and Detroit Lions (both in 2017).
But he appropriately is riding off into the sunset where it all began — with the Colts.
"Bill had seen Dwight and thought he was exactly the guy I had been talking about," Dungy said of Freeney. "We're sitting at No. 11 in the first round and people looked at his size and thought it was too high to draft him. Bill, to his credit, said, 'If this is going to be the big piece of the puzzle, let's not worry about where we take Dwight and what other people think. Let's get the guy who is going to be the perfect piece.' Dwight was the straw that stirred the drink."
The Indianapolis Colts today announced that great pass rusher Dwight Freeney, a first-round pick in 2002 who compiled 125.5 sacks in his career, has decided to retire as a member of the Colts.