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A little perspective: Chris Ballard’s aggressive and uncharacteristic approach to free agency

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NFL Combine - Day 2

What a week!

The Indianapolis Colts shocked the NFL world with a trade that they had been cultivating for months when they sent the 13th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft to the San Francisco 49ers for DeForest Buckner. This organization and the 49ers organization did an incredible job of letting no one know the deal was even on the table until it was finally announced. A rare thing in this media environment.

Less shockingly, the Colts addressed the quarterback position.

Jacoby Brissett is one of the most well-liked and respected players in the Indianapolis Colts locker room but he showed something very important in his 2019 NFL season. He showed that the problems he put on tape in 2017 were largely still problems today.

Two off-seasons in the same offensive scheme, countless training camp and practice reps under his belt, considerable opportunity to establish on-field chemistry with his offensive weapons, and yet he still failed to throw to receivers as they were coming out of their breaks and instead waited until someone was wide open. He still locked onto a single target or a single side of the field and failed to move through progressions to find the open man. He still avoided risk-taking to a fault and to the detriment of his team’s ability to win games — and put a ridiculous amount of pressure on the defense to not give up a big play or it could essentially end the ball game.

Let me say this, I believe the Colts did themselves and Brissett a disservice by allowing him to return to the field after he suffered a knee injury. The injury he suffered was a 100 percent guarantee that he wouldn’t be close to normal physically and made it all but certain that his throwing mechanics would change and his delivery would be off. Given the circumstances — franchise QB retires a couple of weeks before the season and your solid backup is thrust into a starting role (ready or not) — I think fans would have understood.

Brissett’s play at the end of the season did nothing to help any mechanical issues he needed to work on and nothing to build up his confidence to take risks. From a franchise perspective, the back half of the season hurt his trade value and has left the Colts to either hold onto an expensive insurance policy who will inevitably leave in a year or to find some team willing to pay his high backup quarterback contract for what is likely a mid to late round pick.

No matter. Facts are facts and the Colts and Ballard had to deal with the cards that were on the table.


WHY DEFOREST BUCKNER?

If anything has become clear over the last two seasons, it’s that the Colts defense appears to be a unit on the rise. There are areas that deserve some attention and even spots that could reasonably be upgraded, along with plenty of missing depth. However, if fans were to point to a side of the ball that is closest to being “ready” it would have to be the defense.

On the other hand, the offense is lacking in skill position players. Well, the running backs are actually pretty deep and, behind this line, are fully capable of producing. However, the group of pass-catchers is either inadequate or unproven.

At tight end, Jack Doyle and Mo Alie-Cox — a converted basketball player who flashed in 2018 and saw his 2019 derailed by injuries — are the only “known” quantities on the roster at the moment. I say “known” because that could be generous in the case of Alie-Cox.

At wide receiver, the Colts appear to be in a perpetual loop. T.Y. Hilton remains the only proven NFL receiving weapon on the roster and may be showing signs that his body cannot stand up to the rigors of a full NFL season. It doesn’t help that he is asked to “do it all” when he is healthy so finding another weapon to take attention away from him and could extend his career.

Behind Hilton is a young but promising 2019 second round pick in Parris Campbell, who suffered an injury to what seems like every part of his body in his rookie season. He will need to find a way to stay healthy if he plans on making a name for himself at the next level. Zach Pascal is a formerly undrafted player who had the best statistical season of any receiver on the roster in 2019. In an ideal world, he’d be a top backup and a Swiss army knife on special teams.

There is literally no other wide receiver on the roster who has proven anything in the NFL to date.

So, why DeForest Buckner? Why spend your first round pick on a defensive tackle when you have clear and glaring needs on the offensive side of the ball — including the most important position on the team? Quarterback if you weren’t sure.

In part, the answer might be because of my earlier observation: the defense is the closest unit to being “ready” on the team. The biggest defensive needs remaining were arguably to find a way to generate more consistent pass rush and to shore up the interior of the defensive line. Doing those two things could essentially “make” the defense into a feared unit.

Ballard addressed both of those needs with one pick. Buckner has done nothing in Indianapolis yet so we’ll fall well short of adorning him with a crown yet, but it’s important that fan base who credits Ryan Grigson with Trent Richardson as a first round pick do the same with Buckner. If Buckner continues to be a dominant and productive force, something he’s done since entering the league, Ballard should get credit for adding another All-Pro with a middle first round pick.

Also, can you imagine a Nelson vs. Buckner showdown in training camp and practice all year. People write books about these things.

Ballard locked up this All Pro defensive line talent with a deal that gives the team an option to retain him through the 2024 season, and likely through the majority or all of his prime. After two seasons, the Colts have no dead cap to keep them from moving on if the experiment fails. Don’t misunderstand, the money Ballard paid was certainly high (it always is when you try to sign All Pro free agents) but in three or four years it won’t look that way and Ballard will be holding the keys due to the structure of the contract.

Inserting Buckner into the defensive line will likely mean an absolutely different defensive animal. Justin Houston and Kemoko Turay, at minimum, are players who can terrorize quarterbacks off of the edge. The trouble for Turay is that his greatest gift is speed and his biggest challenge is missing his mark wide when quarterbacks step up into the pocket. Houston suffers much of the same but is also capable of a nasty bull rush.

With Buckner, the pocket will likely move back a yard or two. It will place quarterbacks right into the line of fire for Houston and Turay — or others. Buckner should not just get his own sacks, but he’ll increase the sack numbers for other players on the roster. His addition to the team will speed up opposing quarterbacks and at times force them to make bad throws.

Matt Eberflus’ has a defensive scheme that is created to thrive on these mistakes on the backend. Off-man, zone defense allows defensive backs and coverage linebackers to read a quarterback’s eyes and make plays on the ball. Zones can only stretch so far, meaning that pass rush is incredibly important because the longer a play goes, the more zones breakdown. The more zones breakdown, the more big plays you give up.

Adding Buckner just made the Colts secondary better too.

This isn’t even to mention how ludicrous this could be for Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, and Bobby Okereke. The linebackers thrive on speed and flowing to the ball. They’re in position to rack up tackles in this defense and will be at their best when the defensive line is drawing the attention of the front five. Buckner will require double-teams on almost every down.

The linebackers should feast.

If any part of these changes actually occur, it will take immense pressure off of the offense. The Patriots didn’t have a great offense in 2019 but were one of the most dangerous teams in the league. The Buffalo Bills weren’t a great offensive team but they also earned an AFC playoff berth. The Titans were essentially a smash mouth running team and they beat the Patriots in the playoffs. The Vikings were much the same, dependent to a great deal on getting the running game going due to injuries or other issues with many of their receiving weapons. The 49ers made it to the Super Bowl but it was primarily on the back of a stifling defense.

The starting quarterbacks for those teams include an aging Tom Brady who has been on decline the last two seasons, Ryan Tannehill who couldn’t stick with the Dolphins, second-year quarterback Josh Allen, Kirk Cousins, and Jimmy Garoppolo.

The point is, if the Colts can lock down the defensive side of the football, there is considerably less pressure to have a Patrick Mahomes or Lamar Jackson on the team.

As a result, if Ballard is confident he can create a better situation for his next franchise quarterback that includes a stout defense and one of the best offensive lines in all of football, he has a hell of a foundation to build from. He could swing for the fences at 13 and hope he grabs whatever is left of the top quarterbacks in the upcoming draft. He could try to buy a wide receiver in free agency (and there were only a small handful of options to choose from) or he could make the most of what he knows he has with the resources available.


Why Philip Rivers?

Remember that list of playoff quarterbacks? Rivers behind a decent offensive line might well be better than all of them. Yes, even at his current age.

Adding Rivers makes every part of the offense better. He is comfortable communicating with the offensive line on protections — making the offensive line better. He is comfortable throwing receivers open, making the current receivers better. He is a veteran offensive leader who is beloved by those who played with him in the locker room, who is familiar with Frank Reich and his system, and who give the Colts a legitimate chance to regain control of the AFC South.

Barring an injury to Rivers, the Colts may immediately be a playoff team. Depending on the draft, they could be an AFC contended this year.

Ballard signed a proven veteran free agent like Rivers not only because it is his job to make sure he puts the most competitive group on the field as he possibly can, but also because he could do so without mortgaging his team’s future. Both Rivers and Brissett are on expiring contracts. If this doesn’t pan out, the Colts still need to address the quarterback position. If it does, Rivers could be signed for another season.

In terms of quarterback prospects in this draft, Ballard has a choice to mortgage his team’s future by packaging valuable draft picks to move up and grab one of the best players at the position in the top 3-4 picks. He had a choice to grasp at straws and potentially throw away his 13th overall pick on a project quarterback who may not pan out. He also had a choice to get value out of that pick in the Buckner trade and acknowledge that he has two second round picks as ammunition to move up into the first round if he really feels strongly about a QB prospect.

One of prospects Ballard and Reich like may fall. Jordan Love, Jake Fromm, Jacob Eason, Jalen Hurts, Anthony Gordon, James Morgan and Jake Luton are all players who could present nice project options. You can bet that a couple of those players will be available when the Colts pick in the third round or later. Perhaps all of them will be available in the second round.

Arguably more import, the strength of this draft class is the receiver position. Ballard can add multiple players at wide receiver who represent incredible value relative to most draft classes. Justin Jefferson, Denzel Mims, K.J. Hill, Jalen Reagor, Tee Higgins, Laviska Shenault Jr., Chase Claypool, Antonio Gandy-Golden, Brandon Aiyuk, Devin Duvnay and James Proche are names that stick out as players who may be available when the Colts select in the second round or later.

The team needs to not get older at receiver. It needs young, fresh weapons to pair with whoever becomes the new franchise guy at quarterback. This draft class is telling Ballard that he can do some work on that front without paying a veteran a multi-year blockbuster deal.

All of this is to say that Ballard, if desperate, could throw everything at the offensive side of the ball with questions still left at quarterback. He could desperately try to force a quarterback to be available at 13 or he could desperately package a ton of picks and mortgage the teams future on the hopes that one of the to prospects pans out, or can stay healthy. He could do those things.

He could also be smart with what he has on the roster. Make the most out of his draft picks and accept that the quarterback situation will likely not be solved overnight. He can acknowledge that he has a talented football team with players who want to win and a window to capitalize on the prime years of players like Leonard, Moore, Nelson, Mack, and others. They deserve, the Colts fan base deserves, to have a General Manager and owner who are intent on putting a winning football team on the field.

In my book, what Ballard has done so far this off-season shows he gets it. In time, this fan base will likely get it too.