Grateful Freeney signs $72 million deal with Colts

Defensive end Dwight Freeney has spent his entire football career chasing and sacking quarterbacks. Now, he's going to be paid as the premier player at his position.

Freeney, the Indianapolis Colts' franchise player, signed a six-year, $72 million contract with the team Friday that includes a $30 million signing bonus. He becomes the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history.

"To have me paid among the top players in the league -- not just as a defensive players -- means a lot of me," said Freeney, who flew to Indianapolis on Thursday night in anticipation of accepting the deal. "[Colts general manager] Bill Polian is the one who drafted me. I was hand-picked by him. He was going to do the right thing for the organization."

Polian drafted Freeney in the first round in 2002 and watched him develop into one of the game's most disruptive defensive players. Freeney registered 56½ sacks during his first five seasons with the Colts and has forced 27 fumbles during his career.

Freeney and the Colts had until Monday to hammer out a long-term deal. Had that not happened, Freeney and the Colts would have been forced to settle for the one-year tender at $9.43 million, which would have left Freeney to decide whether or not to hold out.

Neither Polian nor Freeney wanted that to happen. Freeney expressed throughout the offseason that he wanted to remain a Colt. He attended most of the team's offeseason activities while Polian and Freeney's agent, Gary Wichard, worked on an agreement.

Freeney will receive $37.72 million over the first three years of the contract. In doing the deal, the Colts will save $3.68 million of salary-cap room that they can use to keep other players whose contracts are expiring. The Colts had $3.4 million of cap room before reaching agreement with Freeney.

"This really shows a commitment," Freeney said. "I have to thank [Colts owner] Jim Irsay and Bill Polian. They have done most of their big deals with the offense prior to this. Now, they've gotten to the defense and the guys who can go out and make some big plays on defense."

Depending on the way insiders view contracts, Patriots defensive end Richard Seymour had been the league's highest-paid defensive player if you consider the new money in a three-year, $28 million contract he signed in 2006. The Patriots view that deal as a $7.5 million-a-year contract if you include Seymour's salary in 2006.

Freeney's contract takes the top defensive pay scale to the $12 million-a-year range.

"I feel great about this because no one usually gets paid for the impact they have on the team," Freeney said. "To have a contract that pays me among the top players in the league and not just for being a defensive player means a lot. Normally, tight ends get paid with other tight ends and offensive linemen get paid with other offensive linemen."

This deal will have a significant impact on other top pass-rushers who are in negotiations to re-sign with their teams. New Orleans Saints defensive end Will Smith, Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs are pass-rushers who were waiting to see how Freeney's negotiations turned out.

"It's great to see the Colts are paying a guy who stops a quarterback like a quarterback," Freeney said.

Senior writer John Clayton covers the NFL for ESPN.com.