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Taking an in-depth look at what Colts fans should expect from Chris Ballard’s draft philosophy

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NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Draft begins today!

After months of waiting, it’s finally here. The Colts will pick 15th overall in the first round and will have six picks in the remaining six rounds, with six of their seven picks total coming in the first four rounds. There will be plenty of opportunities for the Colts to improve their team, which is certainly something they need to do.

For the first time since 2012 (and just the second time since 1998), the Colts will have a new man in charge of the draft process: Chris Ballard, who was hired by the Colts this offseason to be their next general manager. Ballard spent the past four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, where he was very involved with their drafts, so he’s not new to the draft process - but he is new to the Colts.

As such, a lot of his interviews since joining the team have been focused on trying to get a feel for how Ballard operates and what he emphasises. So with the draft today, we took a look at the public interviews he’s given since joining the Colts to see what we can learn about his draft approach.

1. He’ll go BPA

It’s the timeless question: drafting for the best player available versus drafting for need. Most teams employ a modified version of both of these, but what about Chris Ballard?

He answered that in a podcast with the MMQB’s Peter King this offseason:

“We’ll never pass up a special player. We just, we won’t do that. And so to me, when you draft for need is when you get in problems. So every round, we’ll make sure we’re taking the best player in the round. Now there’s always core positions that you’re going to look for, pass rushers, tackles, corners, those are always going to be front-line positions and they’re going to go fast. I mean, those guys, they come off the board fast in the draft. But we’ll always be looking for those core positions and we’ll always, always be looking for the best player.”

That seems quite clear that Ballard emphasises BPA, and he reaffirmed that in his pre-draft press conference last week.

“The one thing I want you to understand,” Ballard said, “I think teams make big mistakes in the draft, and look I’ve been a part, Lord knows I haven’t been perfect in the teams I’ve been on, we’ve all made mistakes. But I don’t ever want to pass up a really good player that I think has a long career in this league that fits our criteria of what we want. So we’ll always be looking to add, if there’s a player in a round that we identify and we say, ‘ok, this is a guy we think will be a good Colt, fits our criteria,’ we won’t pass that guy up.”

Ballard went on to explain that even more in-depth.

“Best player. Best talent. Yeah, absolutely. Now, if it’s even, we’ll go with the need. But look, we put them through an exhausting process. I mean, we take each player and from the tape, from the film, it all matters. Everything matters. I always laugh when people say the workouts don’t matter; why do we work them out? Absolutely they matter. But the workout has to match the tape. So every level of the evaluation matters, from the tape, to the workout, to the interviews, to the research you do on the player, to the medical, it all matters. And then they’ve got to fit. And look, if there’s one thing we will not do, is if there is a player in the round, even if we’re loaded at the position, we’ll still take the player. I mean, I take Dee Ford as an example. We had Tamba Hali and Justin Houston that were humming, but we saw a player that we liked in Kansas City that could rush the passer, and that’s who we ended up choosing.”

So Chris Ballard is very much a believer in taking the best player available, even if that player doesn’t fill a position of need. In the long run, that’s the best strategy too because it provides an influx of talent, provided the evaluation was correct in the first place regarding who the best player available was. If it’s close (which Ballard explained as usually being 5-10 spots on the draft board), then the need will be the tiebreaker. But expect Ballard to look first and foremost at talent when he’s drafting.

2. He’s not afraid to take risks

There are some players in the draft who could be deemed a risk, whether for medical purposes or character/off-field concerns. Ballard is careful to evaluate these players case-by-case, but he’s not afraid to take the risk if he thinks it’s worth it. He explained that at his pre-draft press conference a week ago.

Regarding players with injury concerns:

“That’s a good question, because I’ve been debating that in my mind a bunch. 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.”

Regarding players with off-field concerns:

“Good question. And it’s hard. 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.”

The bottom line? Ballard is ok taking a player with injury or off-field concerns, but it’s a case-by-case basis. If the Colts do so, it will be a decision that involves multiple people and they need to be sure that they have a plan to help that player develop, but he won’t rule it out.

3. He wants to build through the draft

There are different strategies when it comes to building a team, with some emphasizing free agency more than others. It might be easy to think that Ballard, who signed a lot of free agents this offseason, favors that, but in reality he wants to build the core of his team around young, home-grown talent. He explained as much in his introductory press conference:

"No, look, you want to raise your own. You want to raise your own. We want to be a great drafting team. We want to have a sound structure and foundation in place where we're producing players every year for the Colts. You have to. You have to produce three or four guys that are going to help you every single year. Now saying that, between street free agents, between waiver claims, we'll get into free agency a little bit, but we will not - like I said earlier, you can't buy a locker room, and you have to be very careful when you enter into free agency. But we're going to try to acquire as many young players that we can [for] a competitive roster. I mean, we want the most competitive roster we can get. That's how you get great. That's how you get to be special as a team, when daily they've got to go out there and compete to get better."

4. There are core positions he’s always looking for

You might have noticed something else about that quote from Ballard’s interview with the MMQB earlier: he mentioned core positions. Here’s what he had to say about those:

“Now there’s always core positions that you’re going to look for, pass rushers, tackles, corners, those are always going to be front-line positions and they’re going to go fast. I mean, those guys, they come off the board fast in the draft. But we’ll always be looking for those core positions and we’ll always, always be looking for the best player.”

What Ballard is saying is that there are positions that he’ll always be looking for, such as pass rushers, tackles, and cornerbacks. These are the guys that are hard to find but that are essential to building a contending football team. So in other words, those are the areas we might expect him to focus on.

Previously, in a February interview with 1070 the Fan’s JMV, Ballard also explained the importance of the trenches:

“It’s always about your fronts. So look, when you have a good quarterback, and you can have a good offensive and defensive line, you’ve got a chance to win. And if that defensive line can get after the quarterback, especially with four people - I mean, y’all lived it. Y’all lived it for a long time here in Indy when you had [Dwight] Freeney and [Robert] Mathis coming off the edge when Tony [Dungy] was the head coach. That makes all the difference in the world and covers up a lot of your mistakes in the back end.”

So talking about the trenches, that’s probably quite important to Ballard and an area he’ll always be looking to address, right?

“I promise you, that will always be my mindset. That is something that I’ll always keep my eye on, and you’ve always got to be trying to acquire talent at those positions.”

So it seems that while Chris Ballard is BPA, he’ll always keep an eye out for some of these core positions - offensive line (especially tackles), defensive line, pass rushers, and cornerbacks.

5. He’s open to trading down

Chris Ballard has been pretty transparent about the fact that, at least this year, he’s certainly open to trading down in the draft and picking up more picks. According to Colts.com, he plainly said as much at the NFL league meetings a month ago:

“We won’t be [afraid to trade back]. We will not be timid about moving around in the draft. Will it happen? I don’t know. There’s some years we said that in Kansas City and we didn’t make one trade. And then last year we beat bopped around a few times in the draft. You’ve got to have a partner that’s willing to trade with and you have to be willing to work out the compensation. We are definitely open to trading back in this draft and we have to make sure when we do it, that it’s the right thing, [and] we still have the right players on the board targeted.”

Then last week in an interview with 1070 the Fan’s JMV, Ballard mentioned that they’ve fielded some calls about that possibility so far this year.

“We’ve had a couple calls. I’ve talked to a couple teams. It’s still early, so people are just kind of trying to find out who’s willing to move, because you just never know on draft day. I think I said this a few weeks ago, in Kansas City my first year there we wanted to trade back and we just couldn’t ever get deals worked out or there wasn’t enough calls coming in; you just never know. Sometimes it just depends on who’s gone, who’s on the board, and then does a couple teams really covet a player.”

6. He knows specifically what he’s looking for at EDGE and CB

In that interview last week with JMV, Ballard was asked some really good questions by JMV and Mike Wells about specifics that Ballard is looking for in cornerbacks and outside linebackers.

Regarding cornerbacks:

“Bigger is better. 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.”

It’s clear that size and catching ability (leading to turnovers) are both crucial parts of what Ballard is looking for in cornerbacks. But what about outside linebackers? In particular, what about those players who will be transitioning from a 4-3 defensive end to a 3-4 outside linebacker?

“So I was strictly a 4-3 in Chicago my whole career, so going to Kansas City was a help. 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.”

Ballard admitted that they need to take that transition into account and that if a guy can’t cover it makes it more difficult, but “if he’s got special rush talent, no, we’re not going to ignore that.” So the main takeaway here is that Ballard isn’t particularly interested in making things that complex: he’s mainly interested in finding guys who can rush the passer.

7. He takes measurables into account but prioritizes the tape

It seems there is often a lot of disagreement over how much emphasis to place into measurables throughout the draft process - for example, how a guy tests at the NFL Combine and his pro day. Does Ballard take that into account? He certainly does, as he explained at his press conference at the NFL Combine.

“I think it’s important. The high-end players in our league, they have certain physical traits that allow them to be high-end players. If they don’t have one of those traits, then they better have something to offset them. If they are deficient in one area, then they better be really special in another area. To your point, yes, we do take the measurables into consideration.”

But for Ballard, as he’s mentioned multiple times over the last few months, it ultimately comes down to the tape. So he doesn’t think measurables should be used to trump the tape.

“I try not to. But I’ll say this, maybe we missed them on tape. Whenever a guy tests really well, what we do is if we have him low, we go back and see if it matches. Tell me, what did I miss? Was there something they were using him schematically that was restricting what he was doing to be able to show this talent? Or is he just a pure tester? You’ve got to go back and watch. It’s a great filter to me because that’s when you find guys that others might have killed on tape, but if we can find the instances where he does that then that’s a good thing.”

At the NFL Combine (speaking about the process of scouting all of these players as he took on the new job), Ballard explained that to him, at the end of the day, it’s all about the tape.

“It’s a whirlwind. It has taken a lot of hours. We’re still not there yet. It’s a working plan. We’re not there yet. You can’t watch enough tape. You can’t watch enough tape and you can’t watch the same tape enough. Rod Marinelli used to tell me, ‘Hey Chris, if you watch a tape four times, you are going to see four different things that you didn’t see the last time.’ It’s just a matter of putting your eyes on the tape. Look, I don’t scout with my ears. I scout with my eyes. You have to continue to watch the tape to figure out what guys can do. Look, I have a better impression of some and that’s a good thing.”

Measurables are important, and Ballard has mentioned that he’s looking for guys with elite traits and guys who are height, weight, and speed guys. But those measurables should match up with what he’s seen on tape.

8. You can find talent anywhere

Going along with the idea of measurables, Chris Ballard talked with JMV in February about that idea and how you can find players anywhere. He told a story of how he found Ron Parker out of Newberry, thought he could be a solid special teams guy, and has developed into a good starting safety for the Chiefs.

Newberry isn’t the most well-known school (to say the least), and that led to Ballard explaining the approach to finding players from those smaller schools:

“No, there’s always players somewhere. Hey, look, 80% of our league is going to come from division one schools, and so that’s where we’re going to concentrate heavily on. You don’t ever want to just keep taking the exception. I mean that’s why height, weight, and speed in my mind are so important because when you don’t take somebody with a unique trait, you’re taking the exception. It’s no different, in the college draft, you don’t want to load your whole draft up with a bunch of small players. Saying that, there are going to be guys that have the physical traits to ascend that haven’t had quite the development that they have at these D-1 schools that they’re going to be really good players in the league.”

9. The draft is a team effort

Chris Ballard spends a lot of time talking with coaches, scouts, and team personnel figuring out the draft board and who’s the best player to take. So while he has the final say at the end of the day, it’s a team effort for Ballard, as he explained at last week’s pre-draft presser.

“We will have the collaboration before. We will have them stacked and ranked before we ever get to draft day. Whenever we get to draft day, the cement is dry. Those discussions are happening right now. Ultimately, the pick is on me. If the guy doesn’t work out, then that’s my fault. That’s on me for not making sure we did everything we could to make the player successful. If we get it right, then that’s for us. We, as a group, got it right.”

10. Everybody lies in the pre-draft process

Though Ballard has been pretty open about what his draft strategy is, he hasn’t been nearly as open about what his plan is for this year’s NFL Draft. And that’s for a very specific reason: he doesn’t want to give away any information. When Mike Wells told him in last week’s interview on 1070 the Fan that Ballard isn’t helping him out in mock drafts, Ballard joked:

No, and I’m trying not to help you out. It’s vague; I can’t be vague enough. If I could give any more general answers, I can’t think of any more.

Ballard continued to explain that, in the pre-draft process, everybody is lying:

No. Everybody’s lying right now. There is 31 other teams lying through their teeth. They’re bringing in guys they have no intent of drafting, they’re leaking every bit of information about guys they have no intention of taking, just to get somebody else to get in panic mode.

That’s something that is important to keep in mind.