Ever since his hiring, Chris Ballard has remained pretty consistent in what he says he wants in regards to building the Indianapolis Colts roster. He constantly tells us that he doesn’t make decisions out of panic, will continue to bring in players to interview, and churn the roster in attempt to raise the talent level — all while evaluating the league each and every day.
We’ve seen him do just that. He wants speed and instincts, which has been evident on both sides of the ball. The team transitions to a base 4-man front/zone coverage base on one side, and has added guys like Nyheim Hines, Eric Ebron and Deon Cain along with several other big receivers with some wheels.
Right now, though, Colts’ fans are wanting the answers to a few questions about Ballard’s offseason process over the past couple months. There are some players available — young too — and some who’ve already been signed that fans fail to understand why he’s not made a real push to acquire them with the funds the Colts have available.
Why didn’t he draft a cornerback this year? Why has he drafted who he did thus far? Will the Colts be adding any of these free agents that are still out there? There are so many questions right now with the Colts, most of which is surrounding the return of Andrew Luck, but a great deal about the overall talent level of this roster as well.
So, here’s what Ballard answered for us right from the jump at his Combine presser.
The Colts won’t sign a player just because he’s the hot player at a given time
This time of year, a healthy dose of the questions have been about acquiring a free agent to improve the roster. Well, there are a couple things at play right now. We all know Ballard likes creating a youth movement, and some have been in that sweet spot between 24 and 27 for him to take a crack at, yet, no deals.
Meanwhile, one of the Colts’ largest unknowns is how the linebacker position will play out, and someone like Mychal Kendricks signed a 1-year, $3.5 million deal when they have a massive salary cushion. Tre Boston, Kenny Vaccaro and Bashaud Breeland remain on the market despite a real need for playmakers in the secondary.
There are several quotes that cover this. But, here’s one that seems to have been passed up on throughout the first two years of his tenure.
“I don’t scout with my ears, I scout with my eyes.”
Of course he says this with his crazy little side-eye. But, more than anything, you see that regardless how much a player is propped up in the media or by other draft analysts, Ballard simply doesn’t care. Maybe Ballard doesn’t like the fact that Boston currently only has one big year in terms of production. Maybe he doesn’t like that Vaccaro has missed 9 games over the last two seasons, and maybe Breeland doesn’t strike him as a great fit for the scheme.
Additionally, does the Colts safety corps really need a player like Boston or Vaccaro with Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers and Matthias Farley? Need is a heavy word. I guess my point is, that if you think they do ‘need’ a big-name safety, then we feel differently about that group on the backend of the defense. Depth maybe. Sure. I think Chris likes what he has right now, though.
Ballard didn’t see what he wanted in the draft at some positions
“I think one of the best times to find players is September, October and November. When rosters get tight and they’re getting cut and getting claimed.”
Again, this one tells us all to reel it in a bit in terms of either bringing in the big name free agent everyone’s talking about, or striking a trade for a playmaker. Ballard is nothing if not patient, which he proved after he’d already taken fatherhood of the New York Jets as he traded back out of the No. 3 overall slot for a few second-round picks. Everyone wanted another haul from an additional trade-back to acquire even more capital. Everyone except Ballard, that is, who wasn’t coming off of Quenton Nelson.
And, he didn’t draft a cornerback despite that being atop many ‘needs’ lists pre-draft. Ballard made a comparison to Nathan Vasher on his very first question at the NFL Combine in 2017 that really goes at this for me. Ballard said “If they’re deficient in one area, they’ve got to be really special in another,” and when adding what he saw in Vasher, he has seen in some of the Colts guys in the secondary.
Ballard stated that Vasher ran a 4.69 or thereabouts in the 40-yard dash, but that he had a great time in the short shuttle — 3.92 Ballard referenced. Maybe this is Ballard’s type of defensive back? In the 2017 Combine Wilson ran a 4.02 20-yard shuttle. That was third among cornerbacks that year, and would have put him in the top-5 of the 2018 grouping.
“We do take the measurables into consideration.”
Kenny Moore had some impressive numbers as well, and would have compared big time against those who performed at the Combine. He ran a 4.47 40-yard dash (top-15), had a 6.86 3-cone (top-10), an 11.51 long shuttle (7th) and posted a 40.5-inch vertical leap that would have tied him for the best at the Combine.
Though Moore is only 5-foot-9, you may forget that he was primarily a safety at Valdosta State, keep in mind that the above comparisons are to cornerbacks. Another guy that nobody’s talking about is Henre Tolliver. Yes, the UDFA Henre Tolliver. He tied for 9th in the short shuttle (4.15), was 5th in the 60-yard shuttle (11.39), but ran a 4.63 fourty time. Interesting.
Why did the Colts draft ‘tweeners’ in the second round?
Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis are both coming in throughout a noticeable transition in which they, too, will be facing a positional transition. Turay was a 3-4 OLB at Rutgers and Lewis was used more on the edge, but also was flashy rushing from the interior versus slower offensive linemen.
Turay will be used as a DE primarily in his rookie year, as Ballard has stated multiple times that he cannot wait to see him in a three-point stance. Lewis, on the other hand, appears to be set for a true utility role along the defensive line.
“They’ve got to be able to do enough in coverage, they’ve got to be able to hold the point (of attack), they gotta to be able to rush the passer.”
This is exactly what Ballard saw from these two on their college tape. They could both do all three, and with the stressing of ‘speed and effort’ these two fit that bill to a tee. Darius Leonard falls into that mold as well. With 13.5 sacks over his last 3 years at South Carolina, 4 interceptions and 42 tackles for loss.
His patience as a tackler mixed with the speed to pursue through the trash and his confirmed ability to cover, control the point and rush the passer is well documented. While some remain skeptical, Ballard loves what he did in this draft.
“I know we all want instant coffee right now, but that’s not reality. Reality is that it takes time to build a team. It takes time to build a locker room, and those guys gotta grow together and come together. It’s hard to just throw people in a locker room, and expect a winner. It just doesn’t work that way.”
One thing we can’t know — outside of it being divulged by the player — when teams are negotiating with players is how much they really wanted that player. Most of the time money sends the right message to a player, but things get messy in free agency. Players ask different teams for different contracts based on their own interest level at the time, teams aren’t always sold on a player’s fit into their locker room or scheme, and sometimes teams simply don’t agree on a player’s skillset.
“We’re always going to be digging, looking for talent.”
More than anything, the part about “grow together and come together” that Ballard speaks about leads into a real focus on the players coming up together. Drafted players, UDFAs who make the team from the year previous, and the best of the remaining youth seem to be those Ballard most wants to see form that bond of being linked through time.
“You’ve got to draft and develop your own guys.”
This doesn’t leave much space for guys cutting in near to their second contract, that is, with the exception of a top-tier talent who fits into the direction of the team, and could be a game changer.
Who will the Colts extend during the season?
There’s only a few who need to be dealt with at this point. Mainly because almost none of Ryan Grigson’s draft picks ever made it to their second contract. Interestingly enough, Ryan Grant and Austin Howard will ultimately be fighting for a second contract all season as recent free agent signings.
Those two will be interesting simply because we are still at a point where we know virtually nothing about how much they’ll impact the team. But, there are a few important guys in the following year.
Anthony Castonzo is coming up in 2020 and as long as he doesn’t have any injury hiccups, he’s getting an extension. He may be the only one who gets even a sniff of talk about his deal throughout the season or soon after in the immediate offseason.
Castonzo takes a lot of flak, but the offensive line would be truly attempting to grow from the dirt without him over the past several years. Jabaal Sheard’s contract is also due in ‘20. While he was one of the defense’s largest contributors in 2017, I don’t look for him to be getting a second deal with the Colts. If he does, something has gone horribly wrong with draft picks.
“You’d like to go to ‘em (soon to be free agents) early and then extending them, to where they never hit free agency. If you let them get to free agency, then you’ve got to let the market play out.”
One that will be interesting to keep an eye on in this 2020 free agency will be Jack Doyle. Typically teams work during the player’s final season under contract if a mutual interest is obvious. This deal won’t be something that comes about this year, but he is one who the Colts picked up early and has spent his entire active career with the team.
He will be pushing 30 at that point, and we don’t know how the tight end group shakes out between now and then.
How diverse will the Colts defense be?
Ballard hired Matt Eberflus while in waiting for that one thing that happened before Frank Reich was hired..... Ballard knew he wanted a change to a 4-man front for the 2018 season from the get go. Eberflus has designed the bulk of his system from many Dallas Cowboys’ greats.
Something that I’d forgotten, though, was that Ballard dropped Rod Maranelli’s name when discussing some advice the great defensive mind offered him in the past. And now, a defensive coordinator with a heavy Maranelli influence will be running the young group with few expectations.
Maranelli’s system was an ever evolving one that he constantly tweeked to remain unpredictable. Looking back, this reference of Maranelli is interesting as Eberflus was hired before Reich was and the base scheme is something that Ballard is used to from his days in Chicago.
In closing, we really just need to listen to Ballard when he’s talking — myself included. He’s been very upfront, attempts to leave hyperbole by the wayside, and isn’t in to allowing any problems to linger.
There are naturally going to be more questions as the season approaches, but we’ll also be armed with much more information from training camp by then.
The light at the end of the tunnel is close folks.