Through two seasons, the Indianapolis Colts' general manager Ryan Grigson has had mixed results. While the Colts have been to the postseason twice and have been wildly entertaining, many put the bulk of that success on quarterback Andrew Luck's shoulders. Judging Grigson by his individual moves is a far more accurate way to gauge his performance.
Grigson, for example, followed up an incredibly successful 2012 draft with a thus-far disappointing 2013 draft. His work in free agency has produced far more overpaid, bad players (Samson Satele, LaRon Landry, Erik Walden, Darrius Heyward-Bey) than good deals. He's made some very productive trades (trading up for T.Y. Hilton in 2012) while also some historically bad transactions (trading for Trent Richardson in September of 2013).
No matter your gut feeling toward Grigson, everybody can recognize that the success has also been counterbalanced by some head-scratching failures.
But the one area that Grigson has continuously succeeded in, drawing great production value for little cost, is finding the "diamonds in the rough." It's an area where media attention is rarely drawn (nobody is going to watch ESPN's list of top UDFA prospects), but it's an area where a team can get a significant boost if the time and attention is given. Of course, it helps to have an eye for scouting.
The CFL, AFL, IFL and UFL: More Than a Joke
For many, the Canadian Football League is a joke, a place where players who couldn't cut it in NFL training camps go if they want to continue playing football for a living. If Tim Tebow is encouraged to try out there, it's safe to say it's not high on the sources for NFL talent.
The AFL, on the other hand, is something that most fans don't even realized still existed. The last time the AFL was relevant was when it was mentioned as a part of Kurt Warner's biography. The Indoor Football League, United Football League? Ninety-nine percent of people probably didn't realize those places ever existed.
Yet for Grigson, the lower leagues have been a place where the Colts have continuously looked for talent that others may have missed over.
As a former CFL player and scout, Grigson knows the caliber of player that can slip into these kind of situations, as he told media at last year's training camp:
I don't discriminate. Because I would see guys in those leagues where I would say, 'Heck, I was in three NFL training camps. That guy can play. Why is he in this league?' So I just figure we scour those leagues as best we can, and maybe we look at 250 guys and we find three guys that look like suspects. And out of three suspects, one guy can play.
As Grigson would go on to say, it's a numbers game when it comes to these sources.
Don't come to me and tell me after you looked at every guy in the CFL, Arena League, the IFL or UFL, don't tell me out of 1000 bodies we can't find three guys have a chance. It's a numbers game.
It is a numbers game when it comes to these kind of players. They're long shots to even make the roster, much less make a significant impact. Make no mistake, Grigson has played the numbers game, signing players from all four of the aforementioned leagues over the last two years. But if we're talking numbers, it seems fair to point out that Grigson has gotten a much better return on his investment than most other NFL teams have.
Grigson's signed no less than eight of these players, with six of them eventually playing in a regular season game for Indianapolis. But we're not talking just special teams players either. The Colts have gotten significant contributions from these players, contributions that have been critical to the team's quick resurgence.
Former Hamilton Tiger-Cat Justin Hickman came to Indianapolis in 2012, and he became a key rotational linebacker for Indianapolis, playing over 170 defensive snaps.
His versatility and ability to play inside and outside linebacker made him a coach favorite. Coaches even had Hickman dropping back and playing safety-type roles during the 2013 training camp.
Prior to his season-ending lisfranc injury, Hickman was getting starting reps as an inside linebacker, and he projects to be part of the rotation if he is re-signed (He's an exclusive-rights free agent in 2014).
Caesar Rayford, who spent time in both the AFL and CFL before Grigson brought him in last May. Rayford had phenomenal athleticism and build, and he produced at an astounding rate as a pass-rusher in the preseason. While he never played a regular-season down for Indianapolis, Rayford was traded to Dallas for a 2015 seventh-round pick.
Former IFL player Dominique Jones was a key blocking tight end/fullback for Indianapolis in both 2012 and 2013, playing in 10 games.
Of course, the biggest name is LB Jerrell Freeman, who has quickly become a fan favorite due to a knack for big plays. Freeman forced six fumbles and caught two interceptions in 2013 and while he's still a bit inconsistent, he's a three-down linebacker who can be a threat as a blitzer (5.5 sacks), moves well all over the field and has decent instincts in coverage.
Freeman was second in the league in sacks among inside linebackers in 2013, and league-leader Karlos Dansby (6.5) had nearly 100 mores snaps in pass rush.
While the Colts touting him as the single-season franchise record-holder for tackles with 203 in 2012 is unfortunately artificial inflation (The NFL has him with 145, Pro Football Focus, subscription required, has him with 134), Freeman is undoubtedly a cornerstone piece for the Colts' defense.
No Stone Unturned
Of course, these "minor" leagues aren't the only place where Grigson is unearthing his diamonds.
WR Griff Whalen, one of the Colts' best bargains in 2013, was signed as an UDFA in 2012. Grigson took a chance on WR Da'Rick Rogers early in 2013, and it paid off as Rogers started making in impact late in the season, including the play that ignited the Colts' playoff comeback against Kansas City.
Center A.Q. Shipley was signed off the streets in 2012, and the Colts got five high-quality starts and 14 total games from him before flipping him for a 2014 seventh-round pick (although I still contend they should have kept him around). Another player signed off the streets, Deji Karim was a hotel valet before coming to Indianapolis and having one of the best seasons ever for a Colts kick returner.
Grigson does his homework on other team's dregs as well. Not only did he trade pittance for Cassius Vaughn (FB Chris Gronkowski) and Josh Gordy (2014 seventh-round pick), depth corners who played big parts for Indianapolis in both 2012 and 2013, Grigson also plucked S Delano Howell off of the Buffalo Bills' practice squad in 2012, and the safety gave the Colts over 200 quality snaps as a starting safety (in LaRon Landry's spot) before his season-ending neck injury.
Then there are the 2013 media darlings: linebackers Josh McNary and Daniel Adongo. McNary was signed while still in active service with the Army and ended up playing a key role as a rotational linebacker late in the season. Adongo, a native Kenyan, was plucked from a South African rugby union and became a national success story.
While both Adongo and McNary haven't produced at notable levels yet, both are long-term projects whose very place on the roster is a testament to the digging that Grigson and his team of scouts have done over the last two years.
Now, as the Colts prepare for the 2014 season, it's a veritable guarantee that Grigson will find production from the most unlikely of sources.
Of course, Grigson has already gotten a head start, signing players like Jack Breckner of the AFL's Iowa Barnstormers and CFL All-Star LB Henoc Muamba. Muamba is especially intriguing, and the Colts thought enough of him to sign him to a three-year deal with $107,000 guaranteed.
Whether or not the two players will make the roster or contribute at all is unknown, but Grigson has done enough in this area over the last two years to validate the strategy for years to come, even if another one of these signings doesn't make the roster for years to come.
Grigson has things that can be criticized, but it's important to call attention to the areas where he's been exceptional as well. When it comes to "diamonds in the rough," Grigson's mined them like nobody else in his first two seasons in Indianapolis.