We’re already over ten days removed from the start of the new league year, and since that time Chris Ballard and the Colts have been quite busy.
In the last two weeks, the Colts have signed twelve players, cut one, and traded another - and still have a significant amount of cap room available. So far, Chris Ballard has done exactly what he said he was going to do: add competition to the roster. Most of the moves he’s made so far aren’t splash signings and aren’t all that exciting, but they do raise the overall talent level of the roster and add guys who will be competing for spots. He hasn’t shied away from free agency, but he’s also not overly relying on it.
While Ballard’s approach shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who has been paying attention to his comments this offseason, it’s still worth taking a look at what he’s done to see some of the emphases he’s placed on free agency this year. Here are seven observations from what Ballard has done in free agency so far.
1. He wasn’t fond of the state of the Colts’ roster
One of the things that quickly became evident was that Chris Ballard didn’t think too highly of the current state of the Colts’ roster that he inherited from Ryan Grigson. That was clear by the fact that Ballard jettisoned several starters, as he cut D’Qwell Jackson and later Patrick Robinson while trading Dwayne Allen to the Patriots. It was also clear by the fact that Ballard declined to re-sign most of the team’s free agents, bringing back only Jack Doyle before the free agency period began and then Robert Turbin and Darius Butler since then. Lastly, it’s also clear by the fact that Ballard has been readily adding competition all over the roster. It can be debated how much Ballard has improved the roster, but it seems quite obvious that Ballard didn’t think he inherited an overly talented roster (and he’s right).
2. He’s upgrading the roster, but with largely unheralded signings
I would argue that Chris Ballard has definitely upgraded the talent level of the roster, though he hasn’t done so in ways that some fans may have liked. A number of the moves that he has made are for guys that will simply be depth or competition. Brandon Williams, won’t be the starting tight end, but he’ll be battling for the third tight end spot and time on special teams. Guys like Margus Hunt, Al Woods, and Brian Schwenke will all face quite a bit of competition on the roster too. At the same time, however, Ballard has made a number of moves for guys who would currently be projected as starters: Jack Doyle (TE), Darius Butler (S), Sean Spence (ILB), Jabaal Sheard (OLB), John Simon (OLB), and Jeff Locke (P). Some of that will likely change as more signings and draft picks are added (and not all of them are clear upgrades), but Ballard has added some guys who likely will be contributing. And overall, he’s signed two tight ends, a running back, a guard/center, two defensive linemen, three outside linebackers, an inside linebacker, and a punter. The guys he’s signed might not be the most exciting names, but Ballard is indeed upgrading the talent level slowly but surely.
3. He was serious about that emphasis on competition
Some of you may wonder why those in the Indianapolis media continue to harp on this theme of competition - because, after all, doesn’t every GM in the NFL want to add competition to his roster? The short answer is yes. But here’s why we keep talking about that ‘competition’ word: some fans are under the impression that every move made right now must be for a starter or some exciting player, and that’s shown by the anger and frustration from some at adding backups. Here’s the deal, though: the Colts aren’t just looking for better starters, they’re also looking for better depth. This is related to the first two observations, but it’s important to note that Ballard hasn’t just placed an emphasis on finding starters, but he’s also placed an emphasis on finding guys who can be low-risk players to take a chance on as depth to compete this offseason and training camp. That’s not a bad thing, especially since none of those deals have cost the team a lot yet.
4. He’s giving guys a shot
Along the lines of adding competition, there’s another interesting thing about some of the players Chris Ballard has brought in so far. As a follower on Twitter pointed out last night, a lot of the players that Ballard is bringing in are guys who have never really gotten a shot at being a team’s full-time starter. So Ballard isn’t bringing in a ton of guys who haven’t worked out but guys who haven’t had as much time starting. Of the eleven guys the Colts have signed (not including punter Jeff Locke), they have averaged 19.7 starts in their careers. Only four of them have started more than 20 games (Jabaal Sheard, Darius Butler, Brian Schwenke, and Jack Doyle), while the eleven of them have had just eleven combined seasons of starting half of their team’s games or more (eight or more starts in a season). If you take away Jabaal Sheard (who’s started 59 games), the other seven new additions have started an average of 13.7 games in their entire careers - so not even a full season’s worth of starts on average. My point? Ballard is signing guys who have been role players and spot starters throughout their time in the NFL, giving them a chance to show what they can actually do on a roster lacking in talent.
5. He’s not targeting old veterans
Probably related to that last point, Ballard is signing guys who are still relatively young (at least when it comes to free agency). Only three of the twelve players signed by Ballard so far will be 30 years old or older when next year starts: Darius Butler (31), Margus Hunt (30), and Al Woods (30). It can be argued that only one of those players would be a projected starter at this point (Butler). The average age for these twelve players when next season rolls around will be 27.8 years old - which, for players actually hitting free agency, is pretty young. There’s certainly nothing wrong with signing older veterans in free agency, but there needs to be caution with getting a roster that’s too old. The Colts have attempted to get younger, and they’ve been doing that. In fact, get this: of the 71 players currently on the Colts’ roster, only nine of them will be 30 or older when next season starts: Adam Vinatieri, Frank Gore, Darius Butler, Kendall Langford, Matt Overton, Art Jones, Margus Hunt, Scott Tolzien, and Al Woods. Only two of them will be older than 31 (Vinatieri and Gore).
6. He’s being frugal
One of the easiest and most important things to note from Chris Ballard’s free agent moves so far has been the low-money contracts. Most of these deals are low-risk moves for the Colts that are heavy in incentives. We don’t have contract details for Al Woods or Brandon Williams yet, but for the ten that are known, seven of them include some form of incentives (that we know of). There’s also not a lot of guaranteed money being poured into these contracts, making it a realistic suggestion that Ballard could cut some of the depth guys after the preseason without much harm. The only players signed who will have a cap hit of more than $2.5 million in 2017 are the obvious ones: Jabaal Sheard ($9.97M), Jack Doyle ($8M), and John Simon ($5.84M). Sean Spence is close enough that we could count him too ($2.47M), but it’s clear that there aren’t really big-money deals being handed out by the Colts. The only guys signed to big money are the team’s starting tight end and possibly two starting outside linebackers.
7. He’s not hurting the team long-term
Along those same lines of contract structure, it’s especially important to realize that the Colts aren’t locked in long-term to any of these signings. Of the ten signings we have contract details for, none of them have guaranteed money past 2017. None. There have also been four one-year contracts given out by the Colts (to Darius Butler, Barkevious Mingo, Sean Spence, and Brian Schwenke), adding to the idea that the Colts aren’t locked in long-term. That means that Indianapolis can see what these guys can do in 2017 (in what seems clear will be somewhat of a rebuilding year, though with a franchise quarterback in place) without having to worry about dead money if they cut any of them in the future beyond 2017. For a new GM taking over a team that’s very likely more than one year away from seriously contending that’s a nice luxury to have.