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Remarkable Rebuild: How Chris Ballard’s 3-year plan turned the Colts from pretenders into contenders

NFL: Indianapolis Colts-Head Coach Frank Reich Press Conference Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The year was 2016 and after finishing 11-5 just two seasons prior, the Colts, who at the time held a league-average 8-8 record, were set to miss the playoffs for the second straight season. Aside from then-franchise quarterback Andrew Luck, along with star wideout T.Y. Hilton, the rest of the team was in complete disarray.

The Ryan Grigson and Chuck Pagano era — which for the better part of its time was less about team structure and primarily put on the right shoulder of Luck — slowly began collapsing right before the team’s very eyes. It was, without question, time for a much-needed change.

Enter former Kansas City’s Director of Football Operations, Chris Ballard. And as the ‘new kid in town,’ so to speak, Ballard had quite the task on his hands: Turn one of the NFL’s most obsolete rosters into a roster that relied more on its overall structure and capabilities, rather than just a couple of star players.

During his introductory press conference, Ballard made his plan abundantly clear.

“My vision for the Colts is simple: We’re going to work together as an organization to build a winning culture that is competing for championships year in and year out,” Ballard said that night.

As confident as Ballard was, he understood that redefining the culture for the Colts was going to take time, and he was completely fine with that.

“The locker room is very important, and you can’t win without a strong one,” Ballard said. “You can’t buy a locker room. That has to be developed over time,” he added.

And time it would take. Three years, to be exact. With the weight of the entire franchise on the newcomers’ shoulders, Ballard got to work. His plan required patience, as he opted to reconstruct his team through the NFL Draft, rather than through free agency.

That’s not to say that Ballard never threw his hat into the ring. He was just mostly outbid for a lot of quality players because, to him, each player, regardless of past successes, had to be the right fit for the both team and locker room.

While the general manager was able to acquire a handful of quality players through free agency (Jabaal Sheard, Justin Houston, Xavier Rhodes, and of course, recently acquired defensive tackle DeForest Buckner [via trade], Ballard really made his mark through the NFL Draft.

From 2017-2020, Ballard had quite the overhaul, as he was able to reconstruct a once pitiful roster into one of the NFL’s foremost. What was even more impressive, though, was how quickly his plan was able to come into full effect.

In just his first two drafts alone, Ballard was able to acquire several star players in running back Marlon Mack, guard Quenton Nelson, linebacker Darius Leonard, and tackle Braden Smith. I haven’t even included the other quality draft picks, like defensive end Kemoko Turay, linebacker Anthony Walker Jr., running back Nyheim Hines, and safety Malik Hooker.

Did I also mention that Nelson and Leonard were both First-Team All-Pros in their rookie seasons? Pretty impressive, right? No, extremely impressive.

Those eight players, all of whom have been profound contributors since they were drafted, were just the tip of the iceberg for what could possibly be considered one of the NFL’s greatest and most unique rebuilds.

His next two drafts (2019 and 2020), were just as astounding. After completely remolding his offensive line into one of the league’s finest units, Ballard’s hot streak of drafting continued, as he acquired even more talent both offensively and defensively. Cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, safety Khari Willis, linebacker Bobby Okereke, and wideout Paris Campbell were the four most notable selections, while other players such as safety/corner Marvell Tell III and defensive end Ben Banogu provided some much-needed depth in both the secondary and defensive line respectfully.

Following the overhaul of some major needs on both sides of the ball, during this past April’s draft, Ballard managed to snag two potential offensive stars in running back Jonathan Taylor and wideout Michael Pittman Jr. Safety Julian Blackmon, quarterback Jacob Eason, and cornerback Isaiah Rogers are among the other notable draft picks with whom the Colts have high hopes for.

Even after hitting some obscure obstacles along the way, including losing his star quarterback to early retirement, Ballard and his exceptional scouting department never flinched. The plan was put into motion the minute he walked out of his introductory press conference. Not just “the” plan, though. His plan. Ballard’s plan. A plan that required the patience of both the fans and the organization for the last four years.

This plan turned out exceedingly better than even Ballard probably thought it would. Four years later, in 2020, it goes without saying that Chris Ballard was the right man for the job.

Chris Ballard, the general manager who turned his words into actions, and the Colts from pretenders into contenders.

At the end of the day, Chris Ballard wasn’t just a man with some plan, but a man with a vision. A vision that not only came to fruition, but completely reshaped the entire culture of the Indianapolis Colts for years to come.