With the beginning of free agency came a frenzy of movement around the league. In the days leading up to yesterday’s official beginning of the league year, teams like the Jaguars, Browns, 49ers, and even the typically quiet Packers made some big splashes to get players who could ostensibly improve their rosters.
Given the many significant roster holes for the Colts and their salary cap room available, it seemed logical to expect some big moves from them early in free agency to snag some of the better names in what is ultimately a pretty weak free agent class.
Andrew Norwell and Anthony Hitchens both made sense as guys who filled major needs on the roster and would stand to make a lot of money. The Colts had the money to swing bigger deals, so it followed to wonder if those players would be on their way to join the Colts once things got going. But as the “legal tampering” period started, no word on any moves from the Colts surfaced.
When the news finally did break of a Colts signing, it was for Raiders defensive lineman Denico Autry, in what looks to be a rotational player role for a guy who is a good scheme fit for the new defense. He is viewed as a sneakily good signing at a very affordable price, but let’s be honest, he isn’t turning a lot of heads. For many, the response to his signing was to wonder aloud who he was.
In the age of the minute-by-minute Twitter updates from Adam Schefter and Ian Rapoport, it can feel infuriating to think that Ballard is doing nothing to improve this roster. Hot takes have abounded from every corner of the internet, both from the casual fan and the expert. With a roster in need of so much improvement, it is fair to ask why Ballard hasn’t been spending some of the Colts’ massive amount of money to make this team better.
At least part of the answer to that actually lies with the Patriots. One of the most famous traits of Bill Belichick is that he cares a great deal more about building a team than amassing a group of supremely talented individuals. The Patriots’ ridiculous run of success has been due primarily to that fact.
While it is easy to just believe he is some magical wizard-coach who engineers more innovative and dynamic play out of inferior guys, that just isn’t true, at least not completely. Is he an incredible coach? Sure. But he understands something that many fans and even many teams don’t. The makeup of a team matters. Culture and team chemistry matter. Once you establish a team culture, your roster can afford to add guys with high upside and the possibility of being a bit more difficult personalities. Doing so before that is in place often goes poorly.
Chris Ballard shares this philosophy. He also understands that this young Colts team doesn’t have that culture or that identity yet. He has talked multiple times about how you cannot buy a locker room. Time and again this has been proven in free agency. The teams who look good making all the flashy moves in March are usually doing it because of mistakes made in the draft. Teams who do free agency successfully are teams who have built contenders already and simply need to find a talent to put them over the top.
However, teams with rosters that lack talent at several positions cannot just instantly cure them through free agency. This will be increasingly true as the salary cap creeps higher and higher. Teams are becoming more and more capable of keeping their own top talent, meaning that the guys who hit free agency are doing so for a reason.
Contenders are built through the draft. Drafting and developing your own players is the only sustainable way to become a long-term force in the NFL. That is the most obvious explanation for the trouble the Colts find themselves in currently.
The Grigson era was a black hole for the draft. The Colts have no members of their 2013 or 2014 draft classes on their roster currently. Zero. No team can miss completely on two drafts and not feel it. At minimum, you ought to have 4-5 significant contributors to the roster that simply aren’t there. That is the hole Ballard has to dig the Colts out of. It won’t be a quick fix, and it won’t be accomplished by frittering away all their cap space on players who may or may not be worth the money and who might also wreck the locker room.
I have no doubt that as the market calms down and some of the remaining free agents begin making their rounds with teams, that Ballard will get some work done. Ultimately, his goal will be to bring in guys who can help create a winning culture and give this team an identity, while continuing to make incremental improvements to the roster. If there are big name guys he thinks can do that, I don’t doubt he will try to bring them in. Otherwise, I wouldn’t expect him to break the bank.
It is totally fair to question how much trust Ballard has earned from Colts fans so far. It is still too soon to really judge his first draft, but it didn’t make the immediate impact on the roster that teams hope for. The first year of free agency was better, but there were still several areas that need vast improvement. He has a lot to prove going forward, but it is really too soon to know if he has made mostly the right moves.
It is equally too soon to judge this year’s free agency. John Simon and Jabaal Sheard weren’t signed until the second day of free agency last year. Al Woods signed a week in. Johnathan Hankins signed with the Colts a whole month after free agency started. He was one of the most impactful members of the defense last season. In other words, don’t get dragged into thinking that because the Colts didn’t get every player who was a possible fit for the roster on day one, that they “lost” free agency. There will likely be plenty more to come.
How are you feeling about the Colts’ offseason so far?
This poll is closed
Terrible. Ballard hasn’t done enough to sign top talent.
Fine. Glad we aren’t overpaying for less than elite players.
Just waiting on the draft and Andrew Luck’s shoulder.