For the past few seasons, I have always defended Ballard’s frugal approach to free agency. He brilliantly waited out the first wave of record-setting signings, before swooping in and grabbing productive guys on cheap contracts that did not handicap the team in the near future. That approach certainly worked to rebuild a depleted roster in the aftermath of the Grigson regime that had no elite talent at that time not named “Andrew Luck”, but now that the narrative has changed, and the Colts have one of the best all-around rosters in the NFL (after 4 years with Ballard at the helm), his MO in free agency should also change.
The argument that teams are not built through free agency is entirely valid, and I stand by it. I think that the Patriots had one of the worst off-seasons in the NFL, and I always laughed at how the Jaguars and Jets just threw gigantic contracts at every big-name free agent, not taking into account fit, injury history, or off-the-field issues. If you look at the biggest 6 spenders since the 2015 offseason, there is a clear trend where teams that try to build a contender from the ground up via free agency end up failing drastically:
If you look at teams like the Jets, Raiders, or Jaguars, who always try to construct their roster by signing big-name free agents and always fail, then Ballard’s approach of staying away from these massive contracts seems smart. However, when one takes a deeper look at what teams in situations more similar to that of the Colts were able to do in free agency, doubts will start to rise as to whether Ballard is making the right decisions.
First of all, the Colts have drastic needs at very specific positions: Edge rusher, left offensive tackle, cornerback, and wide receiver. These are all important positions, especially edge rusher, where Indy has just lost Denico Autry to the Titans, and Justin Houston is also a free agent. The Colts only have Kemoko Turay, Ben Banogu, and Tyquan Lewis under contract, and none of those options are really promising. Yannick Ngakoue, a guy we Colts fans remember from his time with the Jags, signed a 2-year $26M deal with the Raiders, Carl Lawson signed a 3-year $45M contract with the Jets, and Romeo Okwara was re-signed by the Lions on a 3-year $39M deal. These are all guys that would have turned the Colts defense from great to elite. The pass rush last season was frustratingly incosistent, completely disappearing at times, and an elite pass rush would also help hide the Colts’ thin, inexperienced cornerback room.
Anthony Castonzo’s retirement left a glaring hole at left tackle, but after watching Trent Williams’ absurd extension with the 49ers, and considering how deep this draft class is at tackle, I am not too mad about that. Other than Williams, there are some decent options, like Riley Reiff, that could add more depth, or perhaps function as a bridge tackle while the rookie develops, but I like Ballard’s wait and see approach at this particular position.
As for receiver and cornerback, I think Ballard could have done a lot more. Receiver John Brown just signed a one-year $5M deal with the Raiders, while the Jaguars signed Marvin Jones to a 2-year $14M contract. For that cheap, I would have definitely taken both of these receivers, especially considering how thin the Colts were last season at this position. On the cornerback front, the Jags seemed to overpay for Shaquill Griffin in my opinion, but the Seahawks got a great deal for Ahkello Witherspoon, as he was signed to a one-year, $4M contract. It’s the small, one-year deals for players that make me think “Why not us?”. The Colts are a much more promising team than the Seahawks or the Raiders, so it is not like players would not be tempted to come join this roster.
Teams like the Bills, Packers, Chiefs, Titans, Buccaneers, Rams, or Dolphins all made moves in free agency to help take their roster to the next level, and I think the Colts are missing out on that. Why not use the enormous amount of cap space we have to grab at least two blue-chip players that we already know can come in and start right away, making the team better while also allowing the Colts to either trade back or draft without taking need into consideration and having the luxury of going best player available? Sure, the Colts will need a lot of their current cap space to re-sign star players like Leonard, Smith, and Quenton Nelson, but there is always a way around the salary cap, just look at what Kansas City was able to do because of some shrewd restructuring of contracts.
Ballard has definitely earned the benefit of the doubt over the past seasons, and he will most likely make some moves once the initial free-agency frenzy wears off, but having such a talented roster brings expectations, and the team will have to start delivering on them.