There has been some talk in recent weeks about Colts GM Chris Ballard and the job he’s done at the helm of the Colts. The specific issues that come up are the struggle of the 2017 Colts draft class and team wins during his time as the general manager.
GM has primarily been a topic for usually internet trolls but some Indy media have delved into the topic on occasion. To be fair, wins are the goal and when the team isn’t winning, it is reasonable to ask some questions. However, win total alone isn’t enough information to base an intelligent opinion on.
On the other hand, the area that has gained some legitimate criticism is Chris Ballard’s 2017 draft class, especially after the Colts chose to decline Malik Hooker’s 5th year option. It is this critique that I’d like to address. We’re going to look at how he molded the Colts roster in his first season, and how his 2017 draft class holds up heading into year 4.
The 2017 Draft
In the 2017 NFL Draft, Chris Ballard stepped up to the plate for the first time as an NFL GM. He did so under strange circumstances. His franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck, was out with a shoulder injury that had required surgery and would end up costing him the entire 2017 season. Additionally, he was saddled with a dreadful coaching staff that would helm one of the most predictable offenses in football and led to being the only team in 20 years to hold a lead entering the 4th quarter in 9 games and win no more than 4 of them. Perhaps most damaging of all, he was without his own scouting department in place ahead of the draft.
The combination of these issues led to some clear hurdles to success. If you don’t have a clear vision forward, how can you draft players accordingly? Chuck Pagano runs an entirely different defense than Chris Ballard envisioned for the Colts. But because owner Jim Irsay decided to give Pagano one more shot, it essentially hamstrung Ballard and required that he pick guys that fit Pagano’s scheme. That kind of dissonance is bound to have an effect on picks.
Those reasons would be enough that you might understand a bad draft. But was Ballard’s draft really bad at all?
While the first instinct of many would be to say yes, and there are certainly some failings, let’s take a look at some numbers from 3 other good teams from the 2017 draft class and see how they compare in terms of the most basic metric for draft pick success: playing time. It isn’t perfect, I know, but whether your draft picks are working their way into meaningful playing time says a lot about them, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story.
The three teams we’ll look at, the Kansas City Chiefs, the New England Patriots, and the Baltimore Ravens, have been regarded as solid organizations who consistently produce winners and know how to bring in the right players for their respective teams. So how are their 2017 draft classes looking?
Kansas City selected six players in the 2017 NFL Draft. Out of that class, the team has gotten 5,043 snaps played over the course of the three seasons since then. Of those six players, just two remain on the roster, and only one is a starter. Granted, when that one is Patrick Mahomes, it hurts less. This is the team that just won a Super Bowl.
For the Patriots, the 2017 class has contributed 1,384 snaps since 2017. Just two of their 4 selections remain with the team. Neither is a starter.
NFL’s Daniel Jeremiah has said that a team getting 3 hits in a draft class is good, getting 4 or more is excellent. The Ravens had an excellent class in 2017, selecting seven players, 4 of which are still with the team currently. Their class has contributed 8,045 snaps in the three seasons since that draft, and of that class, 2 are starters.
So how did the Colts fare? Chris Ballard selected eight players in 2017. As of this moment, 4 of those players remain on the roster. Since 2017, that class has contributed 9,641 snaps. 3 of those 4 are presumed starters for the 2020 season, and the 4th, Grover Stewart, played 61% of snaps last season and will likely start as the nose tackle in 2020.
Quincy Wilson was sent to the Jets by trade ahead of the draft this year for the 211th pick that turned into new CB Isaiah Rodgers. After a season and a half, Tarell Basham was waived by the Colts and picked up by the Jets. Zach Banner was waived by the Colts before the 2017 regular season began and now plays for the Steelers. Nate Hairston was traded to the Jets last August for a conditional 6th round pick. The conditions were not met, and so the ended up getting no compensation for him.
While it is certainly frustrating that the Colts didn’t end up getting Ed Reed 2.0 in Malik Hooker over his first 3 seasons in the league, it really wasn’t realistic to expect that. If Hooker doesn’t realize his potential this season, the Colts could be without their top 4 picks in that class. That would certainly not be ideal, but given what some other very good teams have gotten from their drafts, perhaps it isn’t as critical a failing as it is made out to be.
Undrafted Free Agents and Player Acquisitions
The reality is that the draft isn’t the end-all be-all of being a general manager. Setting the tone for the organization echoes much further than in the draft room. While it starts there, Ballard and his staff truly got to work churning that roster for talent in terms of undrafted free agents. There were several moves he made that are still having ripple effects on the team.
He replaced retired Pro Bowl punter Pat McAfee with an undrafted free agent in the form of Rigoberto Sanchez. Sanchez has been consistently good, particularly as a directional punter. While he isn’t the player Colts fans want to see, he has very admirably replaced McAfee.
Immediately after 2017 cutdowns, Ballard claimed cornerback Kenny Moore off waivers from the Patriots. Moore has gone on to become one of the Colts most impactful defenders and one of the best nickel corners in the NFL. There have been a lot of good acquisitions in Ballard’s time, but the claiming of Kenny Moore might be the best one.
In December of 2017, he added right guard Mark Glowinski after he was waived by the Seahawks, paving the way for the final piece of what was to become the 2018 starting offensive line. Glowinski gets a lot of grief from Colts fans, but is at worst, a league average starter. He has held his own while getting teed off on by defensive coordinators, and the Colts could absolutely have a worse starter at that spot.
In total, Chris Ballard added players in the 2017 season that would make up 7 starters on the current Colts team and he did it in what is inarguably his worst season as the Colts GM.
What he has done since 2017 is well documented. His 2018 draft was incredible and helped net him executive of the year. But despite the comparatively poor draft, Ballard’s 2017 was still overwhelmingly a success.