That’s a word that we’ve heard over and over again this offseason from Chris Ballard and the Colts, as it’s clear that it’s the mantra that Ballard has been preaching. Their roster moves so far have all been about improving the competition level of the roster.
But there’s a funny thing about the NFL: not all competition is created equal. If a player is a high draft pick, for example, and is competing with an undrafted free agent, the high draft pick is almost always going to win the competition regardless of how he performs. We’ve seen multiple examples over the past few years in Indianapolis of questionable lineups that at least seemed partly motivated by what the team invested in the player.
With Chris Ballard, however, he realizes that can’t be the case. If he’s preaching competition over and over, he can’t then ignore the outcome of that competition - even if that means an undrafted free agent is the one winning it.
“It’s real important, and look, I’ve had it both ways where we’ve had guys make it and some years we don’t,” Ballard said of the UDFA process. “But it’s very important. Look, the undrafted guys are, in my mind, no different than a draft pick. They’re going to get the same opportunity, and if they win the job, then we’ll move on from the other guy. But you can’t preach competition and not live it. Last year in Kansas City, if you’ve done your research, we cut our third-round pick for a sixth-round corner that we drafted. So, you can’t be scared to – you can’t preach competition and not live it because I promise you the locker room knows. They know who deserves to make it and who doesn’t deserve to make it.”
The move that Ballard referred to last year in Kansas City was when the Chiefs drafted Notre Dame cornerback KeiVarae Russell in the third round and cut him following the preseason in favor of sixth round corner D.J. White out of Georgia Tech. White went on to play in eleven games for the Chiefs last year, recording eleven tackles, three passes defensed, and a pick. To the outside observer, it looked like the Chiefs completely missed on their third round pick. To Chris Ballard, it was just them living out their emphasis on competition.
Now, let’s be clear: both can be and are true. The Chiefs did miss on the Russell pick, but they also did live out their competition mantra. Both are true, and so Ballard and the Chiefs shouldn’t just be universally praised for cutting a third round pick that didn’t work out. But, for Colts fans wondering about how far this emphasis on competition goes, this situation should be noted.
There are limits, of course. For example, if Andrew Luck were to have a bad camp he wouldn’t lose his starting spot, nor should he. Similarly, if Malik Hooker has a slow start, the Colts won’t simply cut him in favor of an undrafted rookie. But I think the general idea is clear: the Colts are going to truly let this competition play out. That’s good news for undrafted players who are hoping to make the roster, and it’s good news for Colts fans too because hopefully it means that the best product will be on the field.
In fact, the very reason why undrafted free agents are signed is because the Colts think they can contribute something. When Bill Polian was building the Colts, he knew the importance of the UDFA process, and it seems Ballard understands that too.
“Oh no, it’s beneficial,” Ballard said. “Now, unfortunately we’re not where Bill was in terms of a roster. They had 12, 13, 14 high-end players that were all making big money, so we’re not there yet. But they’re very important. Those guys are every bit as important as our draft picks. We don’t have camp bodies. In my mind, there’s no such thing as a camp body. If they’re not good enough to make us better, then we need to find somebody better that can upgrade that spot.”
Ballard is at least saying the right things, and it would be a welcome sight if he lives it out too.