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Chris Ballard explains what he’s looking for in cornerbacks, defenders

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NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

It’s always interesting to listen to new Colts general manager Chris Ballard speak, and today he joined 1070 the Fan’s JMV and ESPN’s Mike Wells for a conversation on 1070 at Chuck Pagano’s Chuckstrong gala.

It covered quite a wide variety of topics (it ended with the three of them playing “name that tune”), but Ballard also provided some interesting insights into what he’s looking for in defensive players as the draft approaches.

Ballard was asked about what he thinks the Colts need, and after a pause to think he answered with a clear focus on the defensive side of the football.

“We need guys defensively with speed and explosive playmaking ability, guys that can go get the ball,” Ballard said. “That’s important. Everywhere I’ve been, we’ve led the league in turnovers. In Chicago I think under Lovie [Smith] our defense was in the top five of the league every year that he was there, and then the last few years in Kansas City we’ve led the league in turnovers. And look, that was a big reason when we drafted Marcus [Peters], his ability to go get the football. Extra possessions in games, I think the average is nine, so the more possessions you could add by taking away the football is important. So the more speed you have, the more athleticism you have, guys with hands, guys that can catch the ball, guys with that can run so when the ball pops out they can get the ball, we’ve got to continue to add those type of players.”

Ballard’s emphasis on takeaways is absolutely worth noting, as it sounds like he’ll be targeting players who are capable of forcing turnovers and gaining some extra possessions for the Colts. Of course, when you think of takeaways you often think of cornerbacks, which is an area the Colts certainly need. One of the most interesting answers Ballard gave was in response to a question about what he wants and is looking for in cornerbacks for this defense.

“Bigger is better,” he began. “Bigger, longer is better. Bigger, longer, with hands. That’s important. Defensive players that can’t catch the football, I have a hard time with because those are game-changing plays during a game. A dropped interception, that’s a missed opportunity. So corners with hands that can take the ball away is an important skill that we look for. But we want longer, taller guys. I’m not gonna say we won’t ever take a shorter corner, but the shorter corner has to be a unique athlete, a special athlete, to overcome his size.”

That’s some terrific information from Ballard on some of the specifics he’s looking for at the position. As some on Twitter pointed out, there are plenty of cornerbacks in this year’s loaded class that could potentially fit that bill for the Colts, such as Kevin King (6-3; 5 INTs the last two years), Gareon Conley (6-0; 6 INTs the last two years), and Quincy Wilson (6-1; 5 INTs the last two years), along with several others. Ballard seems to be focused on size and catching ability when it comes to cornerbacks, which is valuable to keep in mind as we approach the draft.

Another area of need for the Colts is at pass rush, and that can be somewhat difficult to project because a pass rusher in a 3-4 defense will play outside linebacker whereas in a 4-3 it will be a defensive end (thus the designation of “edge”). Ballard also opened up on that transition and how, above all else, they’re looking for pass rush ability.

“So I was strictly a 4-3 in Chicago my whole career, so going to Kansas City was a help,” Ballard said. “I don’t ever want to de-emphasize that the rush is what’s important. Everybody talks about the drop and they have to be able to drop and do some things, but at the end of the day they have to be able to rush the passer. So I don’t really see much difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3. Even in a 4-3 we zone dropped our guys. Now we’ll ask, in a 3-4 the SAM’s got to play a little more man-to-man on a tight end, and we would love to have an athletic SAM that can rush. We were spoiled Justin [Houston] and Tamba [Hali] and they didn’t flip sides, and then Dee Ford can play both sides. So we were spoiled in the fact that we had three guys that could rush and all of them were functional in coverage; they’re never going to be optimal in coverage.”

But do they have to take it into account if a guy will be moving from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker?

“Yeah, we do,” Ballard said. “If there’s some guy that just can’t do it, that just can’t drop into the flat, that makes it a tougher fit. But if he’s got special rush talent, no, we’re not going to ignore that.”

There are other things that outside linebackers will be doing with the Colts, but Ballard doesn’t want to emphasize those things over pass rush ability. So to me, it sounds like the Colts might be willing to take a guy who perhaps isn’t as well-rounded as some might like but who can be a playmaker getting after the quarterback.

I find this stuff fascinating because it gives us an inside look at what Ballard is looking at entering the draft. A whole lot of the draft process is about misinformation (Ballard admitted as much in the interview, explaining that “everybody’s lying right now” and joking that he can’t be vague enough), but this kind of discussion is more along the lines of his philosophy and what he’s looking for in players. Will he follow this model all the time? No. But I do think it gives us some insight into Chris Ballard’s thinking, which should be important to keep in mind entering the draft next week.