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Chris Ballard and Colts must find balance in approach to free agency

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

The Indianapolis Colts are a team who is going through a rebuild under a second-year general manager and brand new coaching staff. The veteran players who were in the building under Ryan Grigson are now either out of football or have found their way onto other teams. There was no question when Chris Ballard took over in Indianapolis that he would take a long-term approach to building a roster — a view that was essentially the opposite of the win-now mentality under Grigson.

Last off-season, Ballard was mostly quiet in the early portions of NFL free agency. Big names came and went, blockbuster contracts and record-setting deals went along with most of them, and some of the most sought after free agents found their way onto the rosters of other teams. It was reported that Ballard made runs at the big name players but they found homes elsewhere. The fan base was left desperate for a sense of direction from a front office whose biggest signing was Jabaal Sheard — who at the time was not seen as a marquee player at his position.

Fans were able to get behind the idea of signing Sheard and John Simon to fill the vacated spots at outside linebacker, they were okay with adding Barkevious Mingo as a chance to compete for a roster spot in camp, and there were ecstatic when the team landed Johnathan Hankins late in free agency. Signings like Margus Hunt, Al Woods, and Sean Spence were all seen as depth moves only and did not receive a great deal of attention or create much excitement. The offensive moves were also muted with Brian Schwenke, Brandon Williams, and Kamar Aiken as the primary additions to the team.

It is fair to defend Ballard’s approach from the perspective that Sheard far exceeded expectations as a disruptive force at his position, Simon also had a knack for making big plays until he suffered an injury, Al Woods vastly outplayed any expectation as a run stuffer on the inside, and Margus Hunt — who was initially considered a potential camp body by much of the fan base — played a major role in the defensive line rotation and had arguably the biggest season of his career.

Only Jabaal Sheard and Johnathan Hankins signed contracts for notable money and none of the deals left the Colts on the hook after year one. While the defense struggled, Ballard managed to lay a foundation for the 2018 defense with these players, along with rebuilding the secondary in the draft, and did so by finding a ton of value for players on bargain contracts.

Before we can have any meaningful discussion about the lack of Colts news or activity to this point in the legal tampering period, we must accept that back drop. Ballard was successful in 2017 at adding pieces to the team who are certainly a part of the foundation for the team’s future and who were signed to very team friendly deals — many who also outplayed their salaries.

If the last 24 hours feels like déjà vu, it should.

While I am completely fine that Chris Ballard has stayed true to his mantra of not paying “B” players, “A” player money, I also think that he is walking a fine line between being deliberate about his budget and locker room chemistry, and simply failing to fill holes on his depleted roster. While the Colts fan base went through years of a gun-slinging, win-now philosophy that failed to produce a consistent winning football team and put the team’s best player in harms way far too often, it is now in danger of going through a philosophy that is too rooted on the other side of the scale.

This team needs to fill holes and it needs to add marquee players at key positions to make meaningful improvements on both sides of the ball. Ballard shouldn’t go out and blow his entire budget on players who are undeserving and shouldn’t overpay “B” players but he should strike a balance between the need to be conscious about his budget and locker room, and putting his football team in a difficult position to get better by trying to tap a smaller, depleted slate of free agents who have already been picked over by other teams.

I think the amount of money that was paid to Andrew Norwell, Sammy Watkins, and even Anthony Hitchens was higher than what they’re worth. I think the teams who signed those contracts overpaid and I think that, in general, signing players to contracts that are too high from day one is a bad policy. However, I also think that budgeting in the NFL moves fast. What is the biggest and best contract today will not be the biggest or best contract in a year and will be even further down in rankings in three or four years when you’re looking at re-signing said player.

The Colts are in a position right now to throw around a little money to address important needs and they shouldn’t be afraid to do so. Hitchens at $9 million is high but we need an inside linebacker in a brand new defense, he is a player super familiar to Matt Eberflus and who would be ideal to help the defensive transition as a field general. Even at that cost, Hitchens wouldn’t stop Ballard from making other entirely reasonable moves that are similar to the ones he made in 2017.

Norwell may be vastly overpaid at his position but the team must have help on the interior of their offensive line. While re-signing Jack Mewhort on a short-term prove it deal due to health concerns makes a ton of sense, they need to land a legitimate day one starter who is ready to protect Andrew Luck. If Ballard can land Justin Pugh, Jonathan Cooper, and/or Cameron Fleming he could still come out smelling like a rose but if he would have landed Norwell, he could have knocked out one of the team’s primary needs and still had plenty left in the till to pay others. He also would have had one of the best interior offensive linemen in the league and reduced or eliminated the need to use a high draft pick at the position.

The point is, there needs to be balance in the new approach to free agency. We can’t continuously target aging veterans who are past their primes in some attempt to buy a Super Bowl until the team has a solid foundation. We can’t afford to throw ridiculous money at unproven players in free agency who haven’t earned an “A” level paychecks. We must be sure to build the type of locker room culture that will work for the long haul and set the proper tone. We also must be sure to pay home grown players and in order to do that we need to draft well.

All that said, we must not allow opportunities to address holes in our roster pass us by over a couple of million dollars per year here and there. The reality is that the new CBA and rookie contract limitations push the contract risk out to signing young free agents who are coming off of their rookie deals. You can’t avoid taking all risks and hope to play winning football.

Free agency is far from over and I’m not declaring Ballard’s effort as a failure a full day before the signing period even begins. I am saying that not all of the frustration that is circulating the Colts fan base is unfounded.

Andrew Luck won’t be here forever and we can’t operate under an off-season philosophy that entirely lacks urgency.