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Conspiracy Report: Ballard leaks draft plan, AGAIN!

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NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

To the reader:

First, I’d like to start by saying this article is presented as a “conspiracy theory” because by definition that’s what it is. I’ve spent more than a dozen hours over the past week doing research, listening to old pressers and watching every relevant interview I could get my hands on, taking more than 1,200 words worth of notes in the process. But because reading between the lines and gut intuition don’t count as analysis this is merely a well researched conspiracy theory.

As I’m writing this letter to you I have no idea what this article is going to say. I don’t have some grand idea I’m writing toward, all I know is that on Thursday April 23rd, 2020 the NFL draft will begin and through all of the smoke screens and carefully worded answers given up to this point, well, there’s truth to be found. At the end of the day all of this could be wrong, but if I remain logical I feel good about my chances to figure out who our Colts are targeting.

So put on your tinfoil hat, pour your favorite drink and settle into a comfortable chair for these next few thousand words, as I read through the lines, follow the money, listen to my gut and draw conclusions (that may or may not actually be there) all the way to exposing the Colts 2020 draft plans. This is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. This is the dimension of imagination. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.


Last year I believed that I had pieced together the puzzle that was the Indianapolis Colts 2019 NFL Draft plan. I studied hours worth of interviews and press conferences from the four months leading up to the 2019 draft. At the end of the article I’ve linked above, I listed 8 prospects that I believed would be in play for our Colts early in the 2019 draft. On my list of 8 were Rock Ya-Sin and Ben Banogu, who just so happened to be the Colts first two selections of 2019.

It seemed worthwhile to repeat the process for 2020.

This year has been challenging given that press conferences and interviews have been held to a minimum but I believe given what Chris Ballard has said in the few interviews he and his staff have given, combined with what he’s said in the past, I can decode his 2020 draft plan.


The Entire Reason for this article: Chris Ballard doesn’t lie about the draft.

Proof:

In the audio above Chris Ballard talks about how much depth there was on the defensive side of the ball in 2019 and he talked about needing to add players to the secondary and the offensive and defensive lines. As a result the Colts first two picks were in the secondary and on the defensive line. He also talked about the offensive line depth but mentioned some things regarding taking the best player available that we’ll get into later.

More Proof:

Here, Ballard talks about adding to the front seven and the offensive line. He went on to add two offensive linemen and three guys along the front seven with his first five picks, if you’re not keeping track at home that’s 100% of his first five picks. He told us exactly what he was going to do and then he did it.

I said it last year and I’ll say it again this year, I don’t believe Chris Ballard is a liar. He is a lot of things but I do not believe he will overtly lie when asked a question. Will he dance around them? Absolutely. Will he avoid them completely? You betcha. Will he change the subject using his Texas drawl while stopping and starting a single sentence a dozen times while saying “Look” more than anyone in the history of the English language ever has? You better believe it. Are there lies of omission? Absolutely, that’s 75% of the job, but it’s never overt. I just believe it’s part of who he is and I believe it’s a big part of why he’s so highly respected around the league. It’s also why I believe this is a valuable exercise.


Quarterbacks

A lot of ink has been spilled in the past few years about the Colts quarterback position and a few years ago I would have assumed that it would have all been good. That said the Colts find themselves in a better position than many teams around the league and they feel good about the position going forward, he said so during his pre-draft press conference.

As always I’ve seen a lot of speculation from fans about the positions so lets answer some questions.

Question: Are the Colts going to trade Jacoby Brissett on draft night?

Answer: No.

Proof:

  1. (From the linked press conference) “...Look I don’t wanna discount Jacoby Brissett, Jacoby Brissett’s still a good player, this was a unique opportunity with Philip. You have a potential hall of fame quarterback hit the market that has history with both our head coach and our offensive coordinator so we’re fortunate to have both these guys on the roster at the same time and as we go forward we’ll figure out what we need to do at the position but for now we feel pretty good about the position” -Chris Ballard
  2. At the end of Frank Reich’s recent conference call, he talked about how he and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni have discussed ways to get Jacoby Brissett on the field in 2020 even though Philip Rivers is the unquestioned starter.

Summary: Chris Ballard believes he can win games with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback. He went on later in the interview to talk about Kyle Orton (I’ll get to it, don’t worry) in a positive light. Chris Ballard knows that Brissett isn’t a franchise QB but he also knows it could be much worse, he also mentioned Rex Grossman. They signed a 38 year old statue of a quarterback. If they trade Brissett they’re one ACL tear away from finding out if their new draft pick is the next Rex Grossman. Further, if you’re trading the guy who started at QB for you last year, you’re going to run that by your head coach and he’s not going to work with the OC on ways to get him in the game. This one seems pretty clear, all things considered.

Question: Will the Colts draft a quarterback this year?

Answer: Unknown.

Resources:

  1. Chris Ballard from the pre-draft presser: “I think I’ve talked about this numerous times, you can’t force that. You can’t force the quarterback position, especially in the draft. So I don’t know when that’s going to happen. Maybe this year, maybe next year, maybe two years from now, I don’t know... I’m not gonna force it and it might drive everybody nuts but I’m not gonna force that issue, when we decide to take one up that we thinks gonna be the future guy of the franchise, you gotta be right.”
  2. Ballard when asked about not having a QB under contract beyond 2020: “...look we’ll make decisions when they need to be made and we’ll always have our eye on that position... I wish I had a crystal ball in front of me to be able to rub it and tell ya what we’re gonna look like a year from now, I’m just tryin’ to get through the next week here, to get through the draft. But it’s one that we’ll always keep our eye on.”
  3. Ballard when asked about finding a good developmental QB after the first round: “(With a big smile) It’s tough... I think just getting the opportunity to play and prove it.” (editors note: early playing time is not what “developmental quarterback” typically means) Paraphrasing- (In Chicago) we took Rex Grossman and the next year we took Kyle Orton. Next thing you know Kyle Orton as a rookie, Grossman gets hurt, Kyle Orton ends up being the starter and we end up winning the division. I think a lot of times it’s just opportunity, getting the reps in live games. “You look at the traits you want in your quarterbacks, things that you’re lookin’ for. Then you hope you’ve got them ready enough to when they’ve got the opportunity they’re gonna preform.”
  4. Reich when asked about trying to win now and build for the future: There are underlying principals. We’re always lookin’ hard at the QB’s. Always take the long road. Every situation is case by case. No situation is one size fits all. You identify 1-2-3 guys who you think fit but there’s no guarantee you get him because there’s 32 teams.
  5. That answer from Reich doesn’t mean much by itself but we can pull some meaning out of it when you look at this answer he gave just a couple moments later when answering a question about the Buckner trade: ...knowing what we had in the works with Philip (Rivers), I was 100% behind it... the 13th pick is a great pick, for sure, but there’s no guarantees what we were going to get there and the amount it would take to move up from there to think about all those other options and all those other scenarios and we talked about all of those...

Summary: There’s a lot to unpack here, which makes sense, this is the first time in 20 years Indianapolis Colts fans and reporters have gone in to a draft where a former number one overall pick wasn’t viewed as the long term leader of the franchise. From Ballard’s first answer, it’s clear he’s not going to draft a quarterback just to fill the position, he’s going to wait, possibly suffering through a lot of bad QB play. Ballard’s second answer, specifically at the end, makes me think there’s a possibility they will draft someone this year.

Ballard’s third answer is gold. It tells us a lot about how he thinks of the quarterback position. Chris Ballard doesn’t care when he finds a quarterback and I don’t think he likes the term “developmental quarterback” at least the big smile on his face and his body language when he answered the question, more so than what he said, lead me to believe there was some aspect of the question he didn’t like. He then goes on to say that they’re going to find a guy with the traits and then “hope you have them ready enough” AKA: find a guy and then it’s Frank’s job to make him play well.

When you consider Reich’s answers it seems that this draft has at least one (and maybe more) quarterbacks available that fit their profile but given the fact that he knew that Philip Rivers was on his way to town and the uncertainty of the draft, he was happy to trade the pick. Reich talked about being unsure they would be able to get a QB they liked due to other teams selecting them first and he talked about how much it would cost to move up the board to go get one of the guys they like.

At the end of the day, Chris Ballard is dedicated to taking a quarterback with traits and allowing his coaches to do their jobs regardless of where a player was drafted, but he’s not in a hurry. Frank Reich has told us there are QB’s they like in this class. They’ve both told us they’re happy with Philip Rivers and Jacoby Brissett.

Another note: the Colts will always carry 4 QB’s into training camp per Chris Ballard from the 2018 owners meetings. There are only three currently under contract for next season, at some point this off season they will add a fourth quarterback.


Wide Receivers

If you want your smoking gun, this is it. This is the section to pay attention to.

Question: Will the Colts draft multiple receivers?

Answer: Yes.

Proof:

  1. When asked about the receiver class Chris Ballard had this to say: “There is a lot of depth at wideout in the draft, we feel good about that. At every level, from guys we think can start to guys we think can play significant roles. Ya gotta let the draft play out. It’s hard to predict it before, it’s even hard to predict it when you’re going through it. You gotta be patient... We’re not gonna force a pick, I think you make your biggest mistakes when you force things... (the current roster is) not completely bare, we do feel like we’ve got some talent at the position.”
  2. Let’s take a look at what he said about the depth of the 2019 draft: “It’s a really good defensive draft and I think across all three levels. I think there’s certain positions where the high level talent drops off a little bit sooner, but there’s some good depth at every position on defense.” The Colts then went on to draft an NFL high, seven defenders.

Summary: With the bulk of free agency well in the rear view mirror, the Colts currently have 10 receivers under contract. Of those 10 only two have made meaningful contributions in T.Y. Hilton and Zach Pascal and second year pro Parris Campbell looks poised to have a healthy and much more productive sophomore season. Beyond these three players only recently re-signed Marcus Johnson seems like a player anyone would be happy to have on the roster.

Given what Ballard has said about the depth of the position in the draft combined with obvious lack of not only talent, but depth currently on the roster, it stands to reason that receiver will be targeted early and often. - I realize this isn’t exactly a difficult conclusion to draw, but it’s vital to figuring out what his plan is.


Trades

The draft comes with so many possibilities, moving up and down manipulating the board to accomplish your goals. Let’s examine if the Colts will move up or down, or at all, in the 2020 draft.

Question: Will the Colts move back into the first round?

Answer: Possibly, but unlikely.

Resources:

  1. When I talked to Frank Reich at the Senior Bowl I asked him about that process this was his answer: “...there’s a lot of factors, there’s just so many factors that go into that, because you make a move one way and it pulls, it has tension five other places or ten other places, so those are all the factors you have to consider. Now is just the time to get as much information as we can on these players, you know, as far as pullin’ together what moves to make, and when, and how strong do ya go. Those are things that kinda, they become clearer as the information on the players becomes clearer.”
  2. “I like them picks!” -Chris Ballard leading up to the 2019 draft.

Summary: Reich’s statement is long and winding and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of what he’s saying but the take away is that the decision to move up in the draft isn’t an easy one but if there’s a guy who is falling that they feel very strongly about they will have discussed those possibilities and at some point there is a move that they would be comfortable with, believing the juice is worth the squeeze. On the other hand is Chris Ballard’s love of having as many picks as possible. If someone unexpectedly falls on Thursday night it’s possible the Colts will make a move to go get their guy, with that said, it’s very unlikely.

Question: Will the Colts trade back with one of their second round picks?

Answer: Likely.

Resources:

  1. History. Chris Ballard has traded back in all three drafts he’s been in charge of.
  2. When asked about how being at home has changed their process Ballard gave this answer: “Our process hasn’t changed that much... To be honest, I’d like more picks. I feel very confident, I’d like more picks. We’ll see if that happens or not. We feel confident in our group, I feel confident in our work and what we’ve done and we think we’re gonna acquire good players.”

Summary: When Ballard gave that answer he really got on a roll after he said they hadn’t changed their process and for a fraction of a second after he said “I’d like more picks” his facial expression made me believe he was more open than he would have liked to have been. By telling the world he wants more picks, he naturally loses some leverage, how much he stands to lose is unknown but I believe he was upset that he gave up that piece of information.

Question: Will the Colts trade a veteran for additional picks?

Answer: It’s possible.

Resources:

In the past week rumors have begun to swirl around both Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson and their potential availability via trade. Twice, Ballard has traded players for picks. In 2018 and 2019 trading away Henry Anderson and Hassan Ridgeway, respectively, both for seventh round picks.

From my perspective it’s extremely unlikely they trade Hooker at all. He didn’t have a great year in 2019 but there aren’t many free safeties available in this draft who are ready to start right away. Wilson is another story. If the Colts can get some value for him, they might feel now is a good time to move on from the fourth year pro who has failed to put it all together so far. If Wilson is traded on draft day it won’t be for more than a very late day three pick.


Other Holes in the Roster

The Colts, like 31 other NFL teams, aren’t complete. Figuring out weaknesses on the roster will help to clear up the draft plan further.

Question: What other positions will the Colts definitely try to target.

Answer: Cornerback and Offensive Line

Resources:

TJ. Carrie, Xaiver Rhodes, Marvell Tell, Rock Ya-Sin, Kenny Moore II and Quincy Wilson are the only Colts corners with NFL game experience. Carrie is a depth player, Rhodes is 29 and his best days are behind him, Tell was up and down in his rookie year and is far from proven, Ya-Sin appears to be an entrenched starter on the outside, Moore is arguably the Colts best defender in the slot and we just talked about possibly moving on from Wilson. All in all there’s talent in this group but it needs to be upgraded. If they don’t select a corner, it will be due to the draft falling in an unfortunate way more than by plan.

The current depth on the offensive line includes Le’Raven Clark and a bunch of guys you probably don’t realize are on the roster. Further, Anthony Castonzo seriously considered retirement this off season, the Colts need to address the position in some way.

Summary: The Colts may target players at different positions early in the draft if they feel the value of the individual is too much to pass up. Defensive line and safety are two positions that could have also made this list but both positions have entrenched starters with enough depth to compete. With that said, both positions could see depth added and once again, if the value is there, it may happen earlier than Colts fans expect.


Other Things We Know:

  • Chris Ballard greatly values college all star games, like the Senior Bowl.
  • The Colts version of “Best Player Available” factors in team need. To what degree is unknown.
  • Character concerns aren’t always a deal breaker.
  • Ballard and his staff obviously value length, placing an emphasis on long armed defenders thus far.
  • Most Colts draft picks have had high Relative Athletic Scores. The Colts obviously don’t use RAS in their evaluation but it’s clear they value players with specific athletic profiles that appear to most often align with high RAS scores.
  • They value high football character. Team captains are held in high regard.

Putting it all Together:

  • Time and time again Chris Ballard has talked about the depth of the receiver class, mentioning that there are starters and contributors all over this class.
  • They’re not going to force the quarterback position, but there are guys they like in this class.
  • Everyone is preparing for Jacoby Brissett to be QB2 in 2020.
  • Draft day trades are likely. Trading up into the first round is unlikely, but possible, trading down with a second round pick is likely but not absolute.
  • Quincy Wilson may be traded. Malik Hooker will not be traded (unless the return is absolutely insane).
  • Cornerback and offensive line are areas that will almost certainly be addressed early.
  • Depth along the defensive line and at the safety position could stand an upgrade and may be addressed if the right player is available.
  • Senior Bowl standouts and team leaders are valued highly.
  • Players who grade out well using RAS are sought after.
  • BPA isn’t all that’s guiding the pick.
  • Character concerns aren’t always a deal breaker.
  • Measurables matter, specifically arm length.

Prediction Time

Last year I created a list of 8 prospects who I believed fit what the Colts were telling us. This year I’m going to do the same but I want to expand it to day one, day two and day three targets.

Day 1: Extremely Unlikely to Happen

  1. Jordan Love, QB, Utah State- fits exactly what Ballard said about finding someone with traits. If he falls the Colts could feel the need to move up at some point, that said Ballard isn’t going to force or rush the selection of a quarterback.
  2. Any other unexpected draft fall-er. I won’t give myself credit if this happens but it’s impossible to predict who might fall. Any of the top four receivers or top four or five cornerbacks who fall might be someone Ballard wants to trade up for but once again, it’s highly unlikely.

Day 2: The Meat and Potatoes of This Prediction

  1. Brandon Aiyuk, WR, Arizona State
  2. Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor
  3. Donovan Peoples-Jones, WR, Michigan
  4. Reggie Robinson II, CB, Tulsa
  5. Noah Igbinoghene, CB, Auburn
  6. Jeremy Chinn, Safety, Southern Illinois
  7. Michael Pittman Jr., WR, USC
  8. Austin Jackson, T, USC

Day 3: Throwing Darts

  1. Tyrie Cleveland, WR, Cleveland
  2. Isaiah Hodgins, WR, Oregon State
  3. Kendrick Rogers, WR, Texas A&M
  4. Michael Ojemudia, CB, Iowa
  5. Stanley Thomas-Oliver, CB, FIU
  6. Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
  7. Matthew Peart, T, Connecticut
  8. Jack Driscoll, T, Auburn

Final Thoughts

I realize I’ve expanded my strike zone by breaking it up by day one, two and three. With that said last year my focus was on the first round (it ended up being more about the early picks, but the point stands) but I wanted to expand my theory to day three. Obviously these projections are based, in part, on the idea that each of those prospects will be available on the days I have listed them.

There’s a very real chance Austin Jackson won’t be available in the second round. Hall, Ojemudia an Peart have a real chance to go on day two. And there’s a chance most people have missed on their evaluation of Jordan Love and he falls all the way to the second round.

The team will obviously take players that aren’t WR’s, DB’s and T’s but based on what we know (medicals and personality evaluations are huge unknowns) I believe those players are the most likely to be targeted based on what Chris Ballard has said and done leading up to the 2020 NFL Draft.

No matter what happens in the next three days, I hope you enjoy what will be a welcome distraction for most. Draft day is upon us, enjoy it!