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Is Chris Ballard to blame for the Colts’ wide receiver woes?

Indianapolis Colts Introduce Frank Reich Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Chris Ballard didn’t do enough to improve this team in free agency.

The Colts are too cheap to use all that cap space and just content to lose.

This team is just saving money to pad Jim Irsay’s wallet.

These are the sentiments of many sour Colts fans who are disappointed with the team’s performance so far this season. There are cries from all over that the Colts’ second year GM didn’t do nearly enough to improve this roster through free agency. The most important question when proclamations like this arise is this: Is that true?

Would spending more money have made this team a better one than they are?

That’s the question I wanted some answers to. It is what led me to write this story. I had an opinion already, but after hearing so much about how Ballard failed from both fans and critics alike, I wasn’t sure my opinion was based firmly in reality.

What I want to do is provide you with some evidence. It isn’t perfect. Football has a million different variables to account for that impact each play. However, numbers can certainly be useful if paired with what we’re seeing.

What I wanted to find out was how the free agents that Chris Ballard passed on at a few positions were doing. We’re going to take a look at wide receiver, right tackle, and cornerback to see how Ballard’s moves stack up against the big ticket guys he passed on.

Today we are starting with the wide receivers. There were a ton of wide receivers that got nice paydays this offseason. More than a couple of them were on the radar of Colts fans. Chris Ballard passed on those guys and brought in Ryan Grant as their big ticket wide receiver signing. Who else was out there?

Here are the top 7 guys based on how they were paid, plus Jarvis Landry and Ryan Grant:

Free Agent Wide Receivers Signed in 2017

Player Receptions Targets Total Yards TDs Catch % Total Guaranteed Money
Player Receptions Targets Total Yards TDs Catch % Total Guaranteed Money
Jarvis Landry 31 66 392 1 47 $47M
Albert Wilson 23 32 359 4 71.9 $14.45M
Michael Crabtree 30 55 343 2 54.5 $13M
Jordy Nelson 22 31 323 3 71 $13M
Taylor Gabriel 27 34 303 2 79.4 $14M
Allen Robinson 24 38 281 2 63.2 $25.2M
Sammy Watkins 23 33 272 1 66.7 $30M
Ryan Grant 26 36 270 1 72.2 $5M
Paul Richardson 16 24 212 2 66.7 $16.5M

As you can see in this table, I’ve included each player’s receptions and targets as well as their total yards, touchdowns, and catch percentage. Lastly, I included the player’s total guaranteed money.

A glance at these numbers reveals some really interesting things. The top players in terms of pay are Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson, and they did really well for themselves. Despite having 5 and 6 times the money that Grant will make on his contract respectively, they have pretty comparable production.

You will also notice that despite Grant being by far the lowest on this list in terms of pay, he isn’t the lowest in any other metric. In fact, he’s second from the top in terms of catch percentage, only edged out by an insane 79.4% catch percentage from Taylor Gabriel.

Chicago Bears v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Despite being paid very well, none of these receivers are exactly lighting the world on fire. Albert Wilson is having the best year of the bunch, having put together 359 yards and 4 touchdowns. He is having a solid year, but even he is not on pace to break 1000 yards this season.

What about Jarvis Landry? Could the Colts not have gotten him? Maybe. If you remember, Landry was franchised by the Dolphins and then traded for Cleveland’s 4th rounder in 2018 and their 2019 7th round pick.

New York Jets v Cleveland Browns Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Giving up draft capital isn’t what Chris Ballard does, but even if he had, Landry doesn’t stand out all that much. With $47M guaranteed and two draft picks traded for you, it is a pretty big deal if you don’t stand out.

He’s had 30 more targets than Grant and has just 122 yards more to show for it. They both have 1 touchdown. Props to Jarvis Landry for getting paid, but it seems like maybe it is better that he didn’t do it in Indianapolis.

Basically, wide receivers got grossly overpaid this offseason. It would not have made sense to throw actual value out the window and be a part of that wave of teams overpaying. They knew they weren’t ready to contend now, and breaking the bank for a player based purely on projection and hope isn’t smart or logical.

Then you have to look at the talent the Colts already had on the roster. They already had their number one receiver in T.Y. Hilton. You don’t make plans assuming that your best weapon will be injured. You do attempt to put contingencies in place, but with a limited roster, there is only so much you can do to negate the impact of injuries.

Additionally, they had only had a limited sampling of Chester Rogers paired with Andrew Luck toward the end of 2016, and he consistently outperformed Phillip Dorsett. He wasn’t a big factor with Jacoby Brissett last year, but there clearly was belief in the building that he could be a suitable number 3 receiver.

Finally, it is hard to discount that Ballard did draft two wide receivers, one of whom, Deon Cain, was looking very solid during camp before he was lost for the season with an ACL tear. Drafted receivers aren’t a guarantee of production, but it was clear that Ballard felt he could bring in a receiver to be number two behind Hilton and then let his young players develop behind those two.

If you wanted to make an argument for trying to sign another player to a 1-year deal so you had more veterans and a better top 3, I could understand it. However, keep in mind that the Colts need to actually play their rookies if they hope to see them improve.

Investing in guys who will start in front of them for one year mainly just blocks their growth. Given that this team isn’t a contender for a Super Bowl this season, that isn’t good value, or good for the organization long term.

Instead, Ballard elected to sign Ryan Grant to a very reasonable one year deal. If that was all he had done to address the receiver corps, I might understand some of the frustration. However, he definitely didn’t stop there.

Ballard made what is so far the best free agent signing of the Colts’ offseason to bring in pass catcher Eric Ebron, who is having a career year and is currently tied for first in the league in receiving touchdowns with 6 through 6 weeks. Ebron has provided a consistent target for Luck and has been productive all season long.

Indianapolis Colts v New York Jets Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

With $6.5M in guaranteed money, Ebron still ranks below every one of these guys in terms of price tag. That is an excellent move to provide a potent offensive weapon. Ebron somehow doesn’t get mentioned much when people are bemoaning the Colts’ lack of offseason moves.

The reality is that this is a receiving group that, like much of the team, has been devastated by injuries. There aren’t many teams in the NFL that could lose their top receiver and top tight end and still function at a high level. Those that could are likely in serious contention for a Super Bowl. The rest would likely look as the Colt have. Underwhelming.

It is reasonable to question if Chris Ballard did enough to prepare this wide receiver group for the season. My conclusion is that he did. There wasn’t a clear talent that demanded a big payout to acquire. The Colts had several weapons and, if healthy, should have been able to easily be effective in the passing game.

Making additional moves would have been costly and would have come at the sacrifice of playing time for young developing players


Is Chris Ballard to blame for the wide receiver problems?

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So what do you think?