One of my favorite and most successful series with Stampede Blue is back for another run in 2020. Yes, it’s the return of the “Build-A-Ballard” series, where we look at common themes and traits in past Chris Ballard draft picks and see which players for the upcoming NFL Draft fit the mold for the Colts.
The goal is to use Ballard’s time in Kansas City— where he was the the Director of Player Personnel or Director of Football Operations from 2013 to 2016— and his time in Indy to figure out who he may covet come draft time.
We already know Ballard loves athleticism and leadership, both on and off the field, but this series hopes to shed more light on traits he is looking for and help to uncover some of the players he may target in the draft.
The focus today will be on Ballard’s favorite position to draft, linebacker. While the Colts may not need one in this class, I wouldn’t put it past Chris Ballard to draft yet another linebacker in 2020.
Notable Past Drafted Players
During Ballard’s tenure in Indianapolis and in Kansas City, his organization has drafted nine linebackers in seven drafts. Six of those selections came in the three years that he has been in charge of the Colts, as improving that position has been a core focus of his time in Indy. The top pick used to address the position over that time-frame was a second-round selection in 2018.
We will examine five of the nine prospects to find common traits.
Anthony Walker, LB, Northwestern— 6th Round Pick (2017)
6’0” 238 pounds with 30.375” arm length
40 Time: 4.65 seconds / Bench Press: 23 reps / Vertical Jump: 30.5 inches / Broad Jump: 116 inches / 3-Cone: 7.23 seconds
276 total tackles, 38 tackles for a loss, 7.5 sacks, 4 interceptions, and 8 forced fumbles
Overview of Pick:
Anthony Walker was a sixth-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft. A highly productive college player, Walker slipped to the later parts of the draft in 2017. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com noted how Walker “flashes burst gear to close out on runners” and was a “smart player with an excellent work ethic.” The main flaws coming out were that he was a bit overweight in college, which hurt his overall athleticism, and that he needed to be a more sure tackler at the next level. Walker has been a steal for the Colts so far, as he has been a valuable piece of their defense for the last three years.
Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State— 2nd Round Pick (2018)
6’2” 234 pounds with 34.375” arm length
40 Time: 4.7 seconds / Bench Press: 20 reps / Vertical Jump: 38 inches / Broad Jump: 130 inches / 3-Cone: 7.37 seconds
393 total tackles, 42 tackles for a loss, 22 sacks, 6 interceptions, and 7 forced fumbles
Overview of Pick:
Darius Leonard was a second-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft. NA surprising pick for many as Leonard was projected by many outlets to go much later than the second round. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com noted how Leonard had “excellent reactive athleticism” and was a “twitchy long strider with rare closing speed.” His biggest question marks were around his below-average combine performance and his trouble getting off blocks at a high level. He has been an absolute home run in the NFL as he has earned two All-Pro selections in two years and is one of the league’s best linebackers.
Matthew Adams, LB, Houston— 7th Round Pick (2018)
6’0” 229 pounds with 31.25” arm length
40 Time: 4.63 seconds / Bench Press: 30 reps / Vertical Jump: 33.5 inches / Broad Jump: 122 inches / 3-Cone: 7.05 seconds
256 total tackles, 21 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, and 4 forced fumbles
Overview of Pick:
Matthew Adams was a seventh-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft. Not really on many scouts and analysts’ radar prior to the draft, Adams was able to sneak into the seventh round. While I couldn’t find any scouting reports on Adams on NFL.com or any other major sites, from what I saw, his biggest strengths were his power as a linebacker, his athleticism, and overall physicality coming downhill. He needed to work on his lateral athleticism and his instincts as an off-ball linebacker. Adams so far has been worth the draft pick as he has been a valuable spot starter and special teamer for the Colts since 2018.
Zaire Franklin, LB, Syracuse— 7th Round Pick (2018)
6’0” 239 pounds with 31.75” arm length
40 Time: 4.62 seconds / Bench Press: 30 reps / Vertical Jump: 38 inches / Broad Jump: 122 inches / 3-Cone: 6.97 seconds
310 total tackles, 31.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, 2 interceptions, and 5 forced fumbles
Overview of Pick:
Zaire Franklin was a seventh-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2018 NFL Draft. An athletic specimen, Franklin fell to the Colts late in the seventh round. Matt Miller of Bleacher Report noted how Franklin was a “Fast linebacker seen running down top speed back Nyheim Hines in the open field” and had “Athletic hips and feet.” The main flaws coming out were that he struggled to get off blocks in run defense and that he was late reading plays. Franklin has mostly been a special teamer for the Colt, and has served as the backup WILL backer the last two seasons.
Bobby Okereke, LB, Stanford— 3rd Round Pick (2019)
6’1” 239 pounds with 34.5” arm length
40 Time: 4.58 seconds / Bench Press: 16 reps / Vertical Jump: 33.5 inches / Broad Jump: 122 inches / 3-Cone: 7.02 seconds
227 total tackles, 20 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks, 1 interception and 3 forced fumbles
Overview of Pick:
Bobby Okereke was a third-round pick for the Indianapolis Colts in the 2019 NFL Draft. A big name in college football during his Senior season, Okereke fell to the Colts in the third round. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com noted how Okereke had “Long, loose slides when scraping to the football” and how he was “Rangy with sideline-to-sideline speed.” His biggest flaws in college were disengaging from blockers and being a more consistent tackler. He was a major bright spot on the Colts’ defense as a rookie as he played key snaps down the stretch for the team.
Here are the common traits that can help us build a rough mold of what Ballard might look for in rookie linebackers:
- Athletic, Rangy linebacker with good combine scores
- Long arms, especially for Mike linebackers. His biggest hits had 34+ inch arm length.
- Strengths: Elite athletes, rangy, great work ethic, “dog mentality”, Team captain, good in coverage, quick to read offensive plays
- Weaknesses: Over-aggressive in run defense, struggles to shed blocks from lineman,
- Leadership/Team Captaincy/Senior Bowl (a Ballard trademark with the Colts)
2020 Draft Players Who Fit
Given this rough outline, who might Ballard target in the 2019 NFL Draft?
1.) Davion Taylor, Colorado
6’0” 228 pounds with 32.125” arm length
40 Time: 4.53 seconds / Bench Press: 21 reps / Vertical Jump: 35 inches / Broad Jump: 127 inches
129 tackles, 18 tackles for a loss, 2 sacks, and 6 pass deflections.
Why He Fits:
Davion Taylor checks off so many boxes that Ballard likes in his linebackers. A gifted athlete, Taylor is rangy and makes a ton of plays all over the football field. He is good in coverage as well, looking very natural when dropping into zone or turning and running with pass catchers. He was also a Captain for the team for over half the season, played in the Senior Bowl, and has experience on special teams. Taylor checks so many boxes that I would fully expect Taylor to be a Colts’ draft pick on day three if they didn’t already have so many linebackers. If Ballard still sees a need there, I expect Taylor to be an option early on day three.
Davion Taylor running down CJ Verdell 70 yards pic.twitter.com/XTiwf3Zi4U— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) February 17, 2020
2.) Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State
6’1” 224 pounds with 31.125” arm length
N/A (Foot Surgery)
201 tackles, 24 tackles for a loss, 6.5 sacks, 1 interception, and 15 pass deflections.
Why He Fits:
While he may not be as lengthy as Taylor, ADG checks off so many boxes for the Colts. He is an athletic hybrid who came to App State as a safety originally. He has that “dog” mentality and is a physical player despite his smaller size. He is very similar to Bobby Okereke as a prospect, in that he is not scared of contact with lead blockers and runners. Davis-Gaither is also very rangy and instinctual in coverage as he effortlessly reads the opposing quarterback with great eyes. He was a Team Captain, a Senior Bowl participant, and super productive in college. If he drops at all in this draft due to his foot injury, I fully expect Ballard to grab this talented playmaker.
Akeem Davis-Gaither - #24 - easily one of my favorite guys to watch in the draft class. Athletic, rangy coverage LB that plays a lot stronger than he'll weigh at the point of contact.— Matt Lane (@ChiefinCarolina) January 13, 2020
210, 215, 220lbs It doesn't matter; keep outside shoulder clean & violent hands to disengage pic.twitter.com/JmgZ4g9CRn
3.) Cameron Brown, Penn State
6’5” 233 pounds with 34” arm length
40 Time: 4.72 seconds / Bench Press: 16 reps / Vertical Jump: 35.5 inches / Broad Jump: 123 inches
198 tackles, 14.5 tackles for a loss, 4.5 sacks, 4 forced fumbles, and 11 pass deflections.
Why He Fits:
Cameron Brown is an intriguing player in this class. He is an excellent athlete and has the elite arm length that Ballard loves in his linebackers. He also has absurd height, standing at 6’5”. He looks like a praying mantis as he tracks down players in the open field. He has some developing to do, but I think Ballard will be intrigued on day three with a guy with Brown’s size and physicality. Brown was also a standout at this year’s Senior Bowl, so add that to the equation here as well.
While we're on commercial, take a second look at the first Penn State sack of the season, courtesy of Cam Brown. pic.twitter.com/miwvwN99T8— Roar Lions Roar (@RLRblog) September 1, 2018
- Chapelle Russell, Temple: Athletic linebacker who comes from a program that Ballard loves to draft from.
- Jacob Phillips, LSU: Explosive, lengthy linebacker who doesn’t get enough credit with Patrick Queen’s rise. Tons of athletic upside with Phillips.
- Jordyn Brooks, Texas Tech: A bit of a project as his read and react is a bit slow, but once he sees the ball, he’s insanely explosive and fast to close.
- Kamal Martin, Minnesota: 34” arms and a good athlete. Good production in college as well as he flies around the field.
- Malik Harrison, Ohio State: Another player from a school Ballard loves. He’s also a great athlete who has that “dog” mentality. He could be as high as the third linebacker taken in this draft class.
- Willie Gay Jr, Mississippi State: Incredibly gifted athlete, but has had some off the field maturity concerns. Well worth the risk on day three in my opinion.
- Troy Dye, Oregon: Lengthy Senior Bowl linebacker who has pretty good tape in coverage. Good player who could be had on day three.
With GM Chris Ballard’s track record for drafting linebackers, these are the prospects who might stand out for him during the draft. He tends to like uber-athletes who are rangy and have that tough mentality. They may not be the biggest players or surest tacklers but who am I to argue when he drafted a two time All-Pro in the second round, a 100 tackle player in the sixth, and the early makings of a really good player in the third round last year? This position is obviously Ballard’s strength.
It is important to note that this analysis could be entirely wrong as it relies heavily on his time in Kansas City. It is entirely possible that Ballard disagreed with much of the decisions made during his time with the Chiefs’ organization at the receiver position. For all I know, Ballard could take a big-bodied thumper in round one. Who knows? However, this series should give some kind of insight into who Chris Ballard may want to target based on his past.