Colts finally make a free agent move, signing defensive end Isaac Rochell

Joel A. Erickson
Indianapolis Star
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INDIANAPOLIS — The Colts have made their first outside signing of free agency.

Indianapolis is signing former Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Isaac Rochell to a one-year, $2.5 million deal, according to his agent, Brian McLaughlin, addressing a position left open by Denico Autry’s decision to sign with the Tennessee Titans.

The loss of Autry, along with the free agency of Justin Houston and Al-Quadin Muhammad, has left the Colts with a hole at both defensive end spots.

Rochell, a Notre Dame product who will turn 26 in a month, is coming off of his rookie contract, and was a restricted free agent who wasn’t offered a tender by the Chargers. That means he won’t count in the compensatory pick formula, which awards draft picks to teams based on the number and salary of the unrestricted free agents they lose and sign.

But Rochell also fits the profile of defensive linemen like Autry, the sort of players general manager Chris Ballard has often pursued in free agency. Rochell is listed at 6-4, 280 pounds and has played at anywhere from 290 pounds to 270, small for a defensive tackle but big for a defensive end — Autry was listed at 6-5, 285 and played at less than that — and capable of playing both inside and out.

Defensive end Isaac Rochell (98) played for the Chargers from 2017-20 with 9.5 sacks.

Rochell, a seventh-round pick in 2017, has mostly been a rotational piece for the Chargers, but he has shown flashes of promise in a few extended starting roles when Los Angeles star Joey Bosa has been injured. In 2018, Rochell was given a career-high 536 snaps on defense when Bosa went down with a foot injury, and he responded with 29 tackles, a career-best five sacks and seven quarterback hits.

The big defensive lineman also made six starts in 2020 and played 437 snaps, but he finished with 29 tackles and 2.5 sacks, unable to quite match the production of the 2018 season. Rochell has 74 career tackles, 9.5 sacks and an interception in four seasons, and Indianapolis is likely hoping that a move to the Colts’ penetrating scheme is a better fit for the McDonough, Ga. native than the schemes he played in Los Angeles.

Under Ballard, the Colts have often found good value in free agency by identifying players who might be better-suited to the Indianapolis scheme than the one that put them on the market. Autry, in particular, had been a rotational 3-4 defensive end in Oakland and had just 10.5 career sacks in four seasons when the Colts signed him in 2018, and in defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus’ scheme, Autry piled up 20 sacks in just three years.

Unlike Autry, who signed a three-year deal worth $17.3 million, Rochell’s modest deal — worth $2.5 million, with incentives that could push it to $3 million — indicates the Colts initially see the defensive lineman as a rotational player.

A replacement for Autry’s spot in the starting lineup might already be in Indianapolis. Fourth-year defensive end Tyquan Lewis, another ‘tweener the Colts took in the second round in 2018, finally started to realize his potential in 2020, compiling four sacks and eight tackles-for-loss in 415 snaps, along with starting in Autry’s place when the veteran missed two games due to COVID-19.

Rochell will likely have to compete with Lewis and the rest of the Indianapolis defensive line for playing time.

By signing Rochell, the Colts have also added a potentially important person for a locker room that has already lost community leader Jacoby Brissett in free agency this season and could lose a few more leaders — team captains T.Y. Hilton and Justin Houston remain unrestricted free agents — before the market is done turning.

Rochell was the Chargers’ Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee last season, in part for his efforts in support of social justice and voter registration. Rochell has an apparel brand, Local Human, that sends all of its revenue to the Do Good Foundation, along with several other community and philanthropic initiatives.

For the Colts, Rochell represents the first cautious move in a free agent period that has so far been quieter than any other in Ballard’s tenure. While never a big spender in free agency — Ballard has always said he prefers to sit out the first wave and wait until the contracts match the player — the Colts have so far only tendered three non-restricted free agents, brought back running back Marlon Mack on a one-year, $2 million deal and signed Rochell.

Colts owner Jim Irsay indicated it’s all part of the team’s plan to preserve cap space and focus on extensions for draft picks coming to the end of their rookie deals. Players like linebacker Darius Leonard, right tackle Braden Smith, left guard Quenton Nelson and potentially running back Nyheim Hines have all been in the league for three seasons now, making them eligible for big-money extensions.

“First of all, I think Chris Ballard does an incredible job of finding ways to fill those holes the right way, in other words, also protecting the cap so you don’t get in a precarious situation down the road,” Colts owner Jim Irsay said Thursday. “I feel also very confident that as the time goes along, better deals come along that you can get guys done and fill some holes.”

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