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Chris Ballard opens up on his free agency approach: “You can’t buy a locker room”

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NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

We’re just over a week away from free agency, which begins on March 9 at 4:00 p.m. ET. The Colts will have a lot of money to spend, but that doesn’t mean they’ll be making a huge splash in free agency.

New general manager Chris Ballard has made it no secret that it’s most important to grow your own players, but he’s not staying away from free agency either. His emphasis, however, is on how that player impacts the locker room first and foremost.

“Alright, so I’ll give you my thoughts [on free agency],” Ballard said today at the NFL Combine, “because I don’t want to create the misconception that we’re never going to hit free agency. That’s not right. What I am going to say, though, is when we do dip into free agency and sign other players, we have to be right on the player you sign. So let me give you an example: you pay a guy a lot of money, and you plug him into the locker room. Well the locker room is watching. They are watching. So to me, in my mind, that guy has to be a worker, he has to be a good teammate, he has to earn it. He has to earn that money and earn that right. And he’s got to be a fit. He’s got to be a fit for what you’re doing offensively and defensively. So that’s where my fear of free agency comes in, making sure we know exactly what we’re [getting], is he a good fit, is he the type of person that’s going to come in and the other players are not going to resent him because he’s making an amount of money. If he’s a worker and he’s a good teammate and he’s going to help us win, they’ll buy in and he’ll be a good player for us. That’s my take on free agency. Are we going to be 100-percent right? No. I wish I was, I mean I’ll end up where Mr. [Bill] Polian was if I was, but I’m realistic. I’m realistic.”

Basically, what Ballard wants to ensure is that the Colts aren’t just handing a bunch of money to a guy who might be talented, but who isn’t a good fit for the locker room. He realizes that palyers are watching that and can tell when a guy gets a lot of money but isn’t a hard worker or hasn’t earned it, and that sends a bad message. He explained that a bit more in-depth during an interview with Dan Dakich on 1070 the Fan this afternoon.

“You want to raise your own,” Ballard began. “And it takes time to build a team. It takes time to build that team and build that locker room and that camaraderie that it takes to really have something special. And you can’t buy that. You can’t buy a locker room. So when you do dip into free agency, and I’m not saying we won’t do it, because if we do, we’ve got to be right on the person we bring in the locker room. So just think of it this way: if you give a guy an inordinate amount of money, a lot of money, make him one of your highest-paid players, and he has a character flaw, you have just sent a message to your locker room that it doesn’t matter. That’s the message you’ve sent. That guy has to be a guy that works, loves football, and is committed. Players respect that. Players don’t mind if you’ve paid a guy who’s earned it, who’s earned the right to make that paycheck, and who every day sacrifices with them. What players have a problem [with], in my opinion, is when you pay a guy and he hasn’t earned the right.”

Ballard raises a terrific point that I think often times gets overlooked. Most of the time, what everyone looks at is whether a player is the right fit on-the-field - which is definitely incredibly important. But teams also have to evaluate how a player might impact the locker room and the team off-the-field too, and the GM has to be aware of the message it might send to players in the locker room if they don’t do that - just like, in a similar manner, Ballard acknowledged that he knows players are watching how he’ll handle the David Parry situation, too.

It’s clear that Chris Ballard places a very high emphasis on the locker room. He mentioned in his introductory press conference that you can’t buy a locker room, and he reiterated that today - though he expanded on those thoughts greatly. For Ballard, it seems like the player’s fit in the locker room will be just as much of a focal point as the player’s fit on-the-field in free agent decisions. That doesn’t mean the Colts won’t take any risks on guys with question marks, but one of the emphases Ballard has is to build a strong locker room.

From a more on-the-field standpoint, though, one of Ballard’s main goals is to add competition. He explained during his press conference that adding competition will always be a goal of his, from number 1 through 63 on the roster, and that it won’t change regardless of how they did the season before. As he explained on the radio with Dakich, it’s about building a roster that makes guys compete.

“So let me say this: every team has needs,” he explained. “There’s not a team in the NFL that doesn’t have a need, there’s not a team in the NBA right now that doesn’t have a need, some type of weakness. Our job is to get the most competitive roster we can get. You can’t get good unless you have enough people to compete for jobs, and that’s what we want to get to. We want to be able to get as much talent in the building so they have to compete to play. Hey, you’ve got to earn your way. You’ve got to earn the right to win. This is still a hard, tough, physical game, and you’ve got to earn the right to win. And the only way we’re going to do that is if we make them compete. So the most competitive 63-man roster we can put together is what we’re going to do. That’s what we’re striving for.”

That’s nothing revolutionary and has been an approach by general managers for as long as the sport has been around, but it’s still a good approach: continually seeking to add talent that will improve the level of competition. He mentioned that he hopes to get to the point where the Colts are cutting good players that are getting signed by other teams because of the overall talent level of Indy’s roster overall.

So here’s the short version of the takeaways from what Ballard said today about free agency: 1) they will be involved in free agency, but they primarily want to grow their own players; 2) they will emphasize the importance of signing guys that will be good fits in the locker room; and 3) even if it’s the seemingly insignificant bottom-of-the-roster offseason signings, it’s in an attempt to create as much competition as possible on the team’s roster. All of that sounds good - now it’s about actually executing that vision, which is something much tougher.