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How to get value in free-agency: A class given by Chris Ballard

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Ballard has been gaining praise among his peers because of his amazing ability at finding great value in free-agency, a talent required to build great teams without sacrificing long term stability.

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

Free agents signed by Chris Ballard

2017 Years Total Salary Guaranteed Money Average Salary
2017 Years Total Salary Guaranteed Money Average Salary
Johnathan Hankins 3 $27,000,000 $10,000,000 $9,000,000
Jabaal Sheard 3 $25,500,000 $9,500,000 $8,500,000
John Simon 3 $13,500,000 $5,500,000 $4,500,000
Margus Hunt 2 $4,100,000 $500,000 $2,050,000
Al Woods 2 $4,000,000 $1,250,000 $2,000,000
2018 Years Total Salary Guaranteed Money Average Salary
Denico Autry 3 $17,800,000 $6,500,000 $5,933,333
Eric Ebron 2 $13,000,000 $6,500,000 $6,500,000
Ryan Grant 1 $5,000,000 $5,000,000 $5,000,000
Austin Howard 1 $3,750,000 $1,300,000 $3,750,000
Matt Slauson 1 $2,500,000 $750,000 $2,500,000
2019 Years Total Salary Guaranteed Money Average Salary
Justin Houston 2 $24,000,000 $18,500,000 $12,000,000
Pierre Desir (RS) 3 $22,500,000 $9,000,000 $7,500,000
Mark Glowinski (RS) 3 $16,200,000 $4,200,000 $5,400,000
Devin Funchess 1 $10,000,000 $7,000,000 $10,000,000
Clayton Geathers (RS) 1 $2,750,000 $1,250,000 $2,750,000

Chris Ballard might be the best GM to have in free-agency in the NFL. Not only does he avoid handing out big-time contracts that handcuff the franchise’s future, but he also seems to find great value in the second tier of free-agency, the period after all the blue-chip players have signed. After watching players that would have helped the Colts tremendously, like Trey Flowers, Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith, Tyrell Williams, or Le’Veon Bell sign elsewhere, all while the Colts had the most cap space in the NFL by a mile, many fans were questioning whether Ballard had made the right decision avoiding to splurge on the big free-agent targets.

Looking at his past track record, and the players he was able to sign relatively cheap in the second wave of free-agency, the answer is simply yes. Super Bowl winners are (avoiding some exceptions) simply not built through free-agency. All these so called “off-season winners” are being labeled as the next sensation teams in the NFL, while the Colts, flying under-the-radar, had an excellent free-agency, maybe even perfect if they manage to re-sign Inman for cheap. While mediocre teams like the Lions, Jets, Raiders, and Jaguars were giving out guaranteed money and long-term contracts like the Texans O-Line gives up sacks, the Colts sat quietly and waited for solid players to fall through the cracks.

On his first off-season as the Colts general manager, Ballard invested heavily on the defensive line, with mixed results. Nose tackle Johnathan Hankins was the big name for the Colts. After a solid first season, he was cut mainly due to scheme fit. Because of how his contract was structured, (another great facet of Ballard) there was little to no dead money. Edge defender Jabaal Sheard has been solid in his two seasons with the Colts, being an average run defender and pass-rusher and perhaps the most consistent Colts player on the defensive line. With Houston drawing attention for him, he could explode for double digit sacks this year. Opposite edge defender John Simon looked like the Colts defensive MVP in the first 6 games of the 2017 season, but after going down with a neck injury, he was never the same and was later released, yet again, with nearly no dead money. Al Woods and Margus Hunt have been serviceable rotation pieces. Woods was not re-signed, as he is an extremely one-dimensional player and was getting old, and Hunt was resigned this off-season to a 2 year/$9 million deal with no guaranteed money after this season.

For his sophomore season, Ballard truly knocked the ball out of the park. Last years Colts’ free-agency was one of the best in recent memory, considering how little the Colts gave out and the return they got. Denico Autry was signed from Oakland and had a remarkable season. He lead the team with 9 sacks and his versatility on the defensive line was very important down the line. Next is Eric Ebron, who has to be one of the best free-agent signings over the last decade. After struggling to start his career with the Lions, Ebron was signed on a cheap, two-year contract. Ebron exploded into the scene and asserted himself as a top 4 tight-end in the NFL. He recorded 66 receptions, 750 yards and an astounding 14 total touchdowns, good for 5th in the League and tied with players such as Melvin Gordon or Tyreek Hill. Ryan Grant and Austin Howard did not pan out, but because they were signed on one-year contracts, there were no long-term ramifications. Matt Slauson had a solid start to the season, but then was put on IR and served as a mentor through the rest of the year.

Entering his third off-season as the Colts GM, and after a playoff victory, many expected Ballard to shell out the big bucks and go guns blazing into free-agency, instead, he stayed true to his M.O and waited out the first frenzy, looking for the best value. He got it in the form of pass-rusher Justin Houston. A generational talent that can help the Colts right away. Even though he is 30, Houston is still a game-changer on defense with the potential to rack up double-digit sacks. Ballard also did an impeccable job at resigning talent already on the roster. Starting right guard Mark Glowinski had a fine season stepping up for injured Matt Slauson and was rewarded with a 3 year contract. In comparison, guard Rodger Saffold II received $44 million ($19M guaranteed) from the Titans. Pierre Desir was resigned for a cheap $7.5M a year, specially after his shutdown performance on DeAndre Hopkins in the playoffs. Clayton Geathers was also resigned on a one-year deal. The one odd signing Ballard made was giving wide receiver Devin Funchess a one-year $10M deal, as Funchess is a young, unpolished player who never really took off in the League.

Overall, it is worth noting that Ballard never gave out a contract longer than 4 years or worth more than $20M in guaranteed money. With some big name players set to hit the open market, Ballard will be forced to hand out some important extensions in the next two years, so the cap space will be imperative for the Colts to help maintain their homegrown talent in Indy.

All in all, Ballard is one of the best GMs in football for a reason, and his approach to free-agency should be copied by every team in the rest of the League. He has proven he won’t overpay for players that are asking for more than what the Colts consider they are worth, and he is also amazing at finding high-ceiling, talented players, without jeopardizing the team’s financial security.