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Freeney planning to live up to $72 million price tag

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) -Dwight Freeney welcomes the pressure.

He likes chasing quarterbacks, the challenge of beating multiple blockers and, yes, especially proving all those doubters wrong. If nothing else, he now has 72 more million reasons to show the rest of the NFL that he's worth the money.

To Freeney, this is what football has always been about.

"There's always been pressure on me," the three-time Pro Bowl player said Tuesday. "When I came into the league, no one thought I should have been taken No. 11. When I had a big sack year, everyone wondered if I could do it again. So it's no big deal to me now."

Try telling that to the defending Super Bowl champions, who rewarded Freeney with a new six-year deal July 13. The annual average of $12 million makes him the highest-paid defender in the league, a distinction he most likely won't hold too long.

Before his arrival in 2002, Indy's defense had one of the league's worst reputations. It was giving up points by the dozens, unable to force turnovers or consistently get after quarterbacks. Only three Colts players reached double digits in sacks from 1995-01.

It didn't take Freeney long to reshape Indy's image.

Despite starting only eight games as a rookie, he finished with 13 sacks and then had at least 11 in each of the next three seasons. When he wasn't putting quarterbacks on the ground himself, his mere presence enabled teammates to excel on the opposite side.

The results were dramatically different. Rather than losing playoff games, the Colts started winning them. They reached the AFC title game in 2003, Freeney's first full season as a starter, and played well enough in the postseason to bring home Indy's first Super Bowl crown last season.

But there were always questions about Freeney.

When the Colts took him in the first round of the 2002 draft, many considered him little more than a rush specialist, too small (6-foot-1, 255 pounds) to hold up against the league's massive offensive linemen. Coach Tony Dungy disagreed, finding Freeney the perfect fit in his defense.

Once Freeney emerged as a major disruptive force during the second half of his rookie season, many suspected Freeney would get manhandled against additional blockers. Instead, Freeney continued to thrive. He had a team-record 16 sacks in 2005 when he won the NFL sacks title.

And now that he has the big paycheck, some wonder if opponents will do even more to stop his patented spin moves and quick feet.

"I've always had a target on my back since I came into the league, so that doesn't change anything now," he said. "We won the big one, so we'll all have a target on our back."

Even in victory, Freeney was frustrated.

When the defense regressed during the regular season, finishing last against the run, fans wondered why Freeney's sacks totals dropped. Through the first six weeks, he was shut out. After 13 games, he had only 2 1/2 sacks, and he finished with a career-low 5 1/2, pedestrian by his standards.

And in a contract year.

The Colts, and Freeney, looked at the other numbers - pressures and quarterback hits combined with sacks - and the impact he had made. Eventually, Indy concluded Freeney was still in his prime and decided to shell out the big bucks.

"It's not always about numbers," Freeney said. "It's about how you change a team and how you change a game. I could have the worst game in the world, zeroes across the board, and I'd still be taking up two guys."

Now that the contract is finished, Freeney has come to camp with a new perspective. Dungy has already seen a more relieved, relaxed player who seems more in tune with his role.

"He probably was a little frustrated last year," Dungy said. "Now that he's not worrying about the contract, he can go out and just worry about playing."

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Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore (12) makes a deep catch as Los Angeles Chargers outside linebacker Kyzir White (44) trails on the play during an NFL football game , Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, in Inglewood, Calif.

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