The 2017-18 season has not been particularly kind to the Indianapolis Colts. Star quarterback Andrew Luck is still recovering from his January shoulder surgery, and in his absence, the team has sputtered to a 2-6 start. Now that the chances of Luck playing this season are gone, it’s becoming harder and harder to find winnable games this year. A 5-11, 4-12, or even 3-13 final record appears probable, all of which would likely nab the team a top-five pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
Though such a poor season is justifiably disappointing for Colts fans, it’s important to evaluate the team in the context of a rebuilding season. From the roster to the coaching staff, former general manager Ryan Grigson left the cupboard bare for his successor Chris Ballard. Factor in the health of Luck and it's clear that a winning season was an unlikely scenario.
With that said, it's still necessary to critically assess the moves Ballard had made during his tenure with the Colts. Though it might have been a stretch for Ballard to field a winning team in 2017, acquiring both short-term and long-term talent was clearly a priority as the franchise began its rebuild. Let’s reexamine Ballard’s moves as the Colts’ GM as we head into the second half of the NFL season.
Based on Ballard’s first foray into free agency as the Colts general manager, it’s obvious that he identified the Colts’ front seven as the most glaring weakness on a 2016 roster that was full of holes. Henry Anderson was the only established starter you could feel good about, and even he has seemingly not been able to fully recover from his torn ACL in 2015. To this point, he hasn’t been able to consistently play at the same level he did during his dominant rookie season. Hassan Ridgeway is another nice young piece on the defensive line, but Ballard recognized that relying on him as starting caliber player was foolish.
As a result, he hit the defensive line market hard in free agency, acquiring high-end defensive tackle Jonathan Hankins, who has been dominant against the run and has shown that he deserved the 3 year, $30 million deal he signed this April. Ballard complimented the signing of Hankins by looking for a couple of bargains in defensive end Margus Hunt and nose tackle Al Woods. Hunt has found relative success as a pass rusher in his limited playing time, but Woods has been superb as a solid force in the middle of the Colts defense. Woods was overlooked when he first joined the team this March, but has since established himself as an absolute steal and a solid starter on a defense that was lacking a reliable nose tackle.
The linebackers exited 2016 looking even worse than the defensive line. The outside linebackers were no longer with the team as Robert Mathis finally retired and Erik Walden and Trent Cole were not re-signed. In their absence, Ballard pursued younger options in Barkevious Mingo, John Simon, and Jabaal Sheard.
Mingo has played fairly well on a cheap contract in his limited snaps on defense and on special teams, but he’s certainly nothing to get too excited about. Simon and Sheard, on the other hand, have been magnificent as the bookend edge players on the Colts defense. Sheard, one of Ballard’s larger signings (3 years, $25.5 million), has been a fantastic player against the run this year, and though he’s not gonna confuse anyone as a dominant Von Miller-like edge rusher, he’s still managed to be an upgrade on what the Colts had at that position last year. Similarly, Simon has been a great find by Ballard, as the former Houston Texan has been a consistent presence for the Colts as a high-motor play-maker who has helped bolster the team’s run defense on the edge.
Things get a lot uglier at inside linebacker. The 2016 team fielded the uninspiring duo of D’Qwell Jackson and Edwin Jackson for much of the season, with fairly frequent appearances from Sio Moore, Josh McNary, and rookie Antonio Morrison. Ballard tried his best to add talent to the position in free agency by signing Sean Spence and Jon Bostic to cheap deals. As these moves served as essentially the only effort by Ballard to add talent to the group of inside linebackers, it was necessary that at least one of these signings paid off. Unfortunately, they have not.
Spence was released in early October, while there’s a convincing argument to be made that Bostic has been the single worst starter on the Colts this season. Ballard’s ineffectiveness in addressing the inside linebacker spot is the only real gripe one can have about his effort to address the defense during free agency. Sure, the defense has been awful, but that was to be expected based on what the defense had talent-wise coming out of the 2016 season. Ballard was able to add cost-effective starting-level talent at multiple spots across the front seven, something that should not be overlooked.
Ballard did very little to address the offensive side of the ball through free agency. The most important moves Ballard made on offense were re-signing a pair of valuable players in running back Robert Turbin and tight end Jack Doyle. Turbin was incredibly effective as a short-yardage back, and he was certainly living up to his new 2-year contract. Doyle has had an up and down season, but that’s to be expected as he adjusts to new quarterback Jacoby Brissett. He’s still shown a lot of the same exciting traits in the pass and run game that he showcased with Luck last year.
When it comes to new additions, the returns are less exciting. Tight end Brandon Williams did not draw any headlines when he signed with the team after playing the 2016 season with the Seahawks, but he has been a solid player as a backup tight end. Kamar Aiken was a year removed from a 1,000-yard season with the Ravens when he signed with Indianapolis, and the thought that he could return to that level of play made him an exciting signing for Colts fans. Midway through the season, Aiken has been mostly ineffective and has managed to take snaps from Donte Moncrief despite the fact that Moncrief has more long-term potential than Aiken. Be this the fault of the front office or the coaching staff, it is fair to consider the Aiken acquisition a net loss for Ballard.
While the front seven was the clear focus of the Colts’ free agency, defensive back clearly became the position of focus for Chris Ballard and the team during the NFL draft. First-round pick Malik Hooker was considered a steal at the time he was drafted and came in with lofty expectations. Hooker was magnificent and a clear defensive rookie of the year favorite before he lost his season to a torn ACL in late October. He looks like a foundational piece of what the Colts hope eventually turns into an above-average defense, and Ballard deserves all the credit in the world for not blindly sticking to the team’s draft plan when Hooker fell on draft night.
Second-rounder Quincy Wilson has had an up and down season in Indianapolis; most notably, the former Florida standout was a healthy scratch for multiple games in a row. He’s performed well enough when given a chance to play but it will be important that he becomes more trustworthy and a better practice player for the Colts’ next coach than he seems to have been thus far under Chuck Pagano.
The Colts went defense again with the selection of Tarell Basham in the third round. The former MAC standout has a single sack in his first 8 games as a Colt, and his low level of play has been called out by both Ballard and defensive coordinator Ted Monachino. Basham is a guy who has clearly had trouble adjusting to the pros, and though he’s still got a ton of potential and writing him off this early into his career is obviously foolish, it’s a legitimate cause for concern that he hasn’t fully made that transition just yet.
Fourth-rounder Grover Stewart has played sparingly, but that’s not a surprise given the guys the team has ahead of him at this point. Nate Hairston has been a find as a fifth-round corner. The former wide receiver has played absurdly well as a nickel cornerback given his inexperience both in the pros and at the position. He’s been a playmaker as a blitzer from the slot and has been surprisingly sound in coverage. Hairston is looking like one of Ballard’s best picks from this previous draft, and he represents another potential foundational piece as the Colts try to build a respectable defense. Finally, fifth round linebacker Anthony Walker has barely played, which is a little concerning given the lack of talent in front of him, but its nothing to get too worked up about.
Like they did in free agency, the Colts remained quiet when it came to adding offensive players in the draft. Ballard only drafted two offensive players. The first was USC offensive tackle Zach Banner, who was waived before the season and was a complete waste of a pick, which is something that was incredibly predictable when he was drafted with an early day three pick. Things get interesting when you get to Ballard’s next pick, running back Marlon Mack.
Mack has been one of maybe two guys all year (the other being T.Y. Hilton) to make explosive plays over the course of multiple games. He’s clearly not the runner Frank Gore is at this point, but the burst and explosion he has showcased should have fans and Ballard excited. Mack looks like he has the potential to develop into a lead back, or at worst an exciting complementary piece, something that you will absolutely take with a fourth-round pick.
Though Ballard disappointed many fans (including myself) with his inactivity during the incredibly active trade deadline, he still has to be commended for the one notable trade he made this season. The acquisition of quarterback Jacoby Brissett for receiver Phillip Dorsett was an absolute fleecing of the Patriots.
Yes, the team did have to give up a former first-round receiver to acquire Brissett, but Dorsett’s draft status is irrelevant given his play in Indianapolis. Dorsett has done close to nothing for New England while Brissett, though he’s had a fair amount of struggles, has come in and stabilized the quarterback position in the wake of Luck’s prolonged absence. Sure, the idea of flipping Brissett for a day two pick is seeming more and more unlikely as the year goes on, but that should not take away from the fact that the Colts acquired a quality player at a position of need, and didn’t have to give away anything of value in return.
At this point, Chris Ballard has done a fantastic job as the general manager of the team. He acquired quality players in the draft and added talent without leveraging the team’s future (a la Ryan Grigson) in free agency. If you find yourself reading this and wondering how Ballard could possibly be doing a good job given the team’s ineptitude in the first half of the season, I ask you to consider the circumstances.
Ballard was given a team completely devoid of talent from the top down that was missing its only true superstar. On top of that, he was given a lame duck coaching staff who knew they were gone after the season ended. The Colts are bad. Really bad. But Ballard has his eyes on the future and in all honesty, you’re not evaluating the team well if you aren’t looking at the team from that perspective.
Thanks for reading! What do you think of Ballard’s job so far as the Colts’ general manager? Leave a comment below, or hit me up on Twitter, @AlexJacobson_