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Chris Ballard discusses approach to evaluating draft prospects with injury, character concerns

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

New Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard held his pre-draft press conference today, and he spent much of the presser talking about his draft strategy.

This will be the first time that he’s the head guy, but Ballard has plenty of experience when it comes to the NFL Draft. As we already mentioned earlier today, Ballard said the Colts will operate with a focus on the player and his talent rather than how he fits an immediate need.

But perhaps the most interesting and insightful discussions centered around Ballard’s thoughts on taking players with injury and character concerns. I think it’s worth taking a look at what Ballard had to say about each area.

Injury Concerns?

Ballard admitted that taking injured players is something he’s been thinking through recently, and he went on to offer some good guidelines on what the Colts are looking for - mainly, the player’s long-term prognosis.

“That’s a good question, because I’ve been debating that in my mind a bunch,” Ballard said. “You got to think long-term. So there’s a couple of things: you’ve got to look at long-term implications of the injury. How does this affect him long-term? Can he have a long-term career? And if we say he can have a long-term career, and we think the upside of the player is what we want and think it’s high, then we’ll take a shot on the player. Look, with any guy you have to have a plan, injury issues, you’ve got to have some type of plan to make him successful and get to his ceiling. It’s all a part of player development. And that’s our job when they get in the building, from what we do strength, nutrition, mental, off-the-field, everything we do has to help the player get to his ceiling. They don’t choose us; we choose them. So if we take a player with an injured past, we’ve got to have a plan for his long-term success, so we’ve got to be comfortable with his long-term prognosis of how he’s going to be long-term.”

Something to like about Ballard’s answer is the focus on having a plan for developing the player. If you take a guy with injury concerns, you can’t just throw him in with the team and hope he’ll recover. If you’re going to take a guy with a concern like this, then the Colts need to be responsible for helping that player however they can to recover from injury and achieve the ceiling that made the Colts draft him in the first place. This provides a slight but important shift in emphasis: instead of it being up to the player to recover, it puts the responsibility on the team to do everything they can to put the player in position to succeed. So if the Colts take a player with injury concerns, you can bet that they have already thought through how best to help the player recover and reach the ceiling. It might not work out as they hope, but it’s the right approach.

And, of course, it’s also impossible to miss Ballard’s emphasis on thinking long-term. That will be a driving factor, and Ballard is willing to take criticism for it initially if they believe in the long-term ability.

“No, I mean look, it will be difficult for us for the first few months as we take the daggers for doing it,” Ballard said, “but long-term, if you see the long-term upside of the player, you’ve got to have a long-term vision. You can’t just be short-sighted, one month thinking. You can’t do that. That gets you in trouble. That’s like taking a need over the best player. Long-term, if we think it’ll be ok, I have no issues doing it.”

So what does that mean? It means that the Colts likely won’t be passing on a player simply because of an injury concern - say, for instance, Reuben Foster. The Colts seem perfectly fine with taking a guy who might not be able to play right away and taking the criticism for that pick if they believe that the player can be a very productive player down the road for them. If they’re not concerned with the long-term prognosis of the injury and love the player’s talent, it doesn’t sound like there will be hesitation in taking him.

Character Concerns?

Injury concerns are one thing, but character concerns are another. Those generally receive much more attention and also much more criticism when a team makes such a pick. So that’s a whole different question, and it’s also one that was asked of Chris Ballard today.

“Good question. And it’s hard,” Ballard said. “And I think my background helps me a little bit with that, just being at A&I all those years and Kingsville all those years in coaching. Look, guys make mistakes. So it’s our job as an organization, and I’ve mentioned this before, tune out the [noise], I don’t care what everybody else thinks and [what] their opinions are. Make our opinions internally. Do our work internally, and make sure we exhaust it with the player to know what we’re getting with him when he enters the building, and then how he’s going to be in the community also. It’s a case-by-case basis. And when we take a guy that has issues, that we have a plan for him to work. We have a plan to develop him in the house, we have a plan to develop him as a man. These are young guys; they make mistakes. Are we comfortable with it? Is the organization comfortable with it? Are we comfortable with how he’s going to be in the community? Those are all questions that we ask with every guy, case-by-case. We don’t just loop them and say, ‘ok, here’s this group of players and here are the problem guys.’ No, if we’re not comfortable at the end of the day, they won’t be on the board. That decision will not be made on draft [day], we’re not having discussions on draft day. Those discussions have been had before the draft and if I know, ‘hey, this guy doesn’t fit the Colts criteria, we don’t believe that he can be successful here in Indy,’ then we’ll take him off the board.”

We’ve heard Ballard say similar things in past interviews too, as he’s maintained that it’s a case-by-case basis. The Chiefs took Tyreek Hill, for example, but that doesn’t mean that Ballard will be comfortable with every player with character concerns. Instead, they’re going to be looking into it. This is an admirable approach, as what the Colts are attempting to do is find out for themselves what happened and how the player is now as a person rather than what everybody else says. Asked whether there is anybody off the Colts’ board yet, Ballard said, “at this point no. We still haven’t gotten there yet.” He mentioned that the Colts are still evaluating until draft time, so there’s plenty of time for them to make those decisions. But it’s also worth pointing out that Ballard said those conversations won’t happen on draft day, but that going into draft day the Colts won’t have players on their board who they’re not willing to take.

So, of course, the question becomes Joe Mixon. He’s probably the most notable prospect in this year’s draft with character concerns because he’s a good running back but also has had some legitimate and serious off-field issues. So Ballard was asked about Mixon, and he said, “Much like any player, we exhaust them all. No stone unturned. All of them. All of them we go A to Z.”

That very much sounds like an unofficial confirmation that the Colts have in fact done their homework on Joe Mixon. And with Ballard’s explanation of his team’s approach to guys with character concerns, it would be shocking if the Colts didn’t take a look at Mixon, but it doesn’t mean they’ll be ok taking him. With Mixon and any other player with character concerns, the Colts are doing their homework to formulate opinions for themselves. As Ballard said, it’s a case-by-case basis, so there won’t be one overarching rule the Colts follow when approaching difficult questions like these.