WESTFIELD, Ind. — The Indianapolis Colts’ approach to free agency under general manager Chris Ballard has been well documented, particularly the last couple years.
Simply put, the Colts won’t shy away from entertaining the thought of signing the more notable free agents each offseason, but it’s rare to find the types of outside players that meet the standards the team requires both on the field and in the locker room. Besides, free agency to this team is a 365-day-a-year endeavor, as the Colts are constantly monitoring the waiver wire for under-the-radar players they hope can make a difference.
But two free agents that did meet that criteria this offseason, Devin Funchess and Justin Houston, have given the team exactly what it needed through the offseason and the first half of training camp practices at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Ind.
There’s still plenty of time until the start of the regular season, of course, but head coach Frank Reich is pleased with the progress of these two veteran additions, in particular.
“You know how cautious we are in free agency,” Colts head coach Frank Reich told Colts.com’s Matt Taylor on Friday. “And I really think we hit it on the money in these two guys.”
The Colts have been searching for a solid No. 2 wide receiver to take the heat off T.Y. Hilton for years. They’ve had some talented players fill that spot, but consistency and availability have been an issue at times.
Enter Funchess. At 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, Funchess simply adds a size element the Colts have at times lacked in recent years.
But Reich has been just as impressed with the route-running ability Funchess has displayed so far.
“Here’s a guy who is big and long; typically you see that kind of receiver, you don’t think of him as being a great route runner,” Reich said. “But what Devin has shown me in the first week is he’s got a skillset where he’s an excellent route runner, he can run all the routes — he can do it all.”
Funchess brings big-play potential to the Colts’ offense, which should help take attention away from the perennial Pro Bowler Hilton. But he also adds another threat in the red zone to add on top of a guy like Eric Ebron that could drive opposing defensive coordinator bonkers.
“What is unique about Devin is he can create separation,” Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni said. “He has that, ‘Hey, I can create this length away from the defense. Or I can get space away from the defense and then quarterback – not only that, the defense is in my back because I got out of my break so quick. Now you can put it wherever you want because I am so long.’ So that is a very unique thing that Devin has.”
In his first four NFL seasons with the Carolina Panthers, the former second-round pick Funchess showed plenty of promise, catching 161 passes for 2,233 yards with 21 touchdowns. The hope is that he’ll take another huge step forward working within Reich and Sirianni’s system in 2019.
“I couldn’t be more pleased about Devin,” Reich said. “(I’m) just very excited about incorporating him into what we do offensively.”
When Ballard talked to reporters to wrap up the 2018 season, he was asked what he felt was the biggest team need heading into the offseason. The answer: pass rush.
So when the Kansas City Chiefs decided to part ways with Houston and his 78.5 career sacks on March 10, just before the start of free agency, Ballard and his staff got to work.
Eleven days later, Houston was putting pen to paper on a reported two-year deal with the Colts.
First, Houston was already sold on Ballard, with whom he had already developed a relationship during Ballard’s time as the Chiefs’ director of player personnel and director of football operations from 2013 through 2016.
But Houston was also intrigued by the chance to move to defensive end in the Colts’ 4-3 scheme, in which he could solely focus on getting after the passer. As an outside linebacker in the Chiefs’ 3-4 defense, an edge rusher can have many more responsibilities, particularly in coverage, that can take away from what they do best.
Other than pure skill and athleticism, effort is the name of the game for Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, and he said the 30-year-old Houston has completely bought in so far.
“The first thing I see when you mention his name is that the buy in. He’s buying in to the effort and the mentality, which our standards are set. So that’s No. 1,” Eberflus said. “And then the power, those are the things that he brings to the table. He could level rush and come back inside and use that extreme power and lean that he has. He’s done a nice job with that – the one on one periods as well as team periods. So he brings a lot of power too.”
But Houston is also a terrific example for the Colts’ younger defensive linemen, who get a chance to see exactly how a four-time Pro Bowler and 2014 NFL sack champion approaches his craft day in and day out.
“Yes, anytime I can help somebody (I will),” Houston said. “They help me just as much as I can help them. So we just talk and communicate. They’re just full of questions, they just want to get better, so they’re just asking me.
“This is year nine for me,” Houston continued. “I’ve got some experience at rushing so they just want to learn and get better.”
So far, so good.
“Justin Houston is just a force out there on the field, he’s a force in the locker room,” Reich said. “His presence is felt in every way. He’s a strong leader, and he’s still playing at a very, very high level.”