One of my favorite and most successful series with Stampede Blue is back for another run in 2021. 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 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 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 the Colts’ pass coverage as we look at the safety position. Which safeties in this class fit the Ballard mold?
Past Drafted Players
During Ballard’s tenure in Indianapolis and Kansas City, his organizations have drafted four safeties in seven drafts. Ballard seems to throw very little draft capital at this position, however he has taken more shots with the Colts than he did with the Chiefs. Two of the four draft picks used on safeties were with draft picks in the first two days of the draft.
We will examine all four players that he has drafted to get an accurate mold of what Ballard likes at this position.
Sanders Commings, SAF, Georgia (2013)— 5th Round
6’0” 216 pounds with 32 inch arms
40 Time: 4.41 seconds / Bench Press: N/A / Vertical Jump: 34.5 inches / Broad Jump: N/A / 3-Cone: 7.1 seconds
154 total tackles, 6 tackles for a loss, and 8 interceptions
Overview of Pick:
Commings was a productive cornerback out of Georgia that the Chiefs transitioned to safety. Matt Stein of Bleacher Report noted that Commings has “great hands and the ability to extend from his frame to make a play on the ball.” He had off the field concerns coming out of college and also had some issues with his lateral quickness and agility.
Commings was out of the league quickly and most recently was cut from the Atlanta Braves minor league system in 2017.
Malik Hooker, SAF, Ohio State (2017)— 1st Round
6’1” 206 pounds with 32 inch arms
84 total tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, 7 interceptions, 4 pass deflections, and 3 defensive touchdowns.
Overview of Pick:
Malik Hooker was a risky prospect with sky high potential in the 2017 NFL Draft. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com noted that Hooker’s “instincts and ball skills are rare. Once the ball is in the air, Hooker takes it to the next level.” His biggest concerns were his injury history and his inconsistency as a tackler.
Hooker, unfortunately =, struggled with injuries in his time with the Colts. He is currently a free agent after the Colts opted not to re-sign the once highly touted safety.
Khari Willis, SAF, Michigan State (2019)— 4th Round
5’10” 213 pounds with 31 inch arms
40 Time: 4.56 seconds / Bench Press: 22 / Vertical Jump: 34.5 inches / Broad Jump: 118 / 3-Cone: 7.15 seconds
189 total tackles, 7 tackles for a loss, 3 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 13 pass deflections.
Overview of Pick:
Khari Willis was a rock solid safety prospect out of Michigan State in the 2019 NFL Draft. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com noted that Willis plays “reliable and under control” and “sees the entire field from the deep safety position.” The main knocks in Willis’ game where his average athleticism and top speed.
Willis has turned out to be a gem for the Colts. He is a solid deep safety in their cover two scheme and has improved every single year of his career.
Julian Blackmon, SAF, Utah (2020)— 3rd Round
5’11” 187 pounds with 31 inch arms
N/A (ACL Injury Recovery)
158 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, 9 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 20 pass deflections.
Overview of Pick:
Julian Blackmon was a talented prospect out of Utah in the 2020 NFL Draft. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com noted that Blackmon is “quick to close distance and an aggressive hitter in run support” and “plays with a rugged demeanor when it’s time.” His biggest concerns coming out were his recent ACL injury and smaller frame and size.
Blackmon was incredible as a rookie for the Colts, as he stepped in at free safety and provided an instant impact.
While this is a smaller sample size than most positional groups, I think we have a good mold based mostly off of Willis and Blackmon (the two surefire Ballard picks):
- Reliable tackler/participant in the run game (Hooker miss emphasized this)
- Play-maker in college. Minimum of five turnovers forced in college.
- Strengths: Reliable, High IQ, Ball Skills, Physical/Willing in the Run Game
- Weaknesses: Average Athlete, Injury Concerns (may just be a coincidence though)
- Special Teams Experience
- Ballard Trademark: Team Captain/Senior Bowl selection
Players Who Fit
1.) Divine Deablo, SAF, Virginia Tech
6’3” 226 pounds with 33 inch arms
40 Time: 4.45 seconds / Bench Press: 19 / Vertical Jump: 34 inches / Broad Jump: 126 / 3-Cone: 7.01 seconds
206 total tackles, 12.5 tackles for a loss, 6 interceptions, 3 forced fumbles, and 11 pass deflections.
Why He Fits:
Deablo is the perfect fit at safety for the Colts in this draft. With the need they have being at third safety, grabbing a player like Deablo makes perfect sense for his versatility and special teams ability. A former receiver as a freshman, he transitioned over to defense and the ball skills remained. He is a willing and physical tackler in the run game and was a Senior Bowl participant (also a Team Captain in college). On top of all that, he was a notable special teams player for the Hokies, something he took pride in throughout his career. If the Colts want a perfect third safety on their roster, Deablo is the player.
Divine Deablo will be a legitimate player in the NFL — S/LB it really doesn’t matter. pic.twitter.com/IxItQulkyx— #FieldsAt3 (@GrahamTSFN) February 13, 2021
2.) Tyree Gillespie, Missouri
5’11” 207 pounds with 31.25 inch arms
40 Time: 4.43 seconds / Bench Press: 15 / Vertical Jump: 35.5 inches / Broad Jump: 108 / 3-Cone: 7.06 seconds
146 total tackles, 6 tackles for a loss, 0 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, and 12 pass deflections.
Why He Fits:
While Gillespie may not seem like a fit on the surface, he is a player who would fit perfectly in the Colts’ scheme. He is a rangy player who is one of the better safeties in the class at running the alley and closing ground. He is a willing and explosive run defender from the deep safety position. In the pass game, he needs to work on his eye discipline a bit but there are things to like. He made quite a few plays over the middle with physicality that were reminiscent of Julian Blackmon last year for the Colts. He was also a Senior Bowl player that I’m told the Colts like a lot in this class.
I'm going to call my shot (pure speculation, likely won't happen). The Colts will draft Missouri Safety Tyree Gillespie on day three of this draft. Senior Bowl guy with top athleticism. Flashes are among the best in the class. Would complement Willis and Blackmon so well pic.twitter.com/UkxrS5G59a— Zach Hicks (@ZachHicks2) April 12, 2021
3.) James Wiggins, Cincinnati
5’11” 209 pounds with 29 inch arms
40 Time: 4.41 seconds / Bench Press: 22 / Vertical Jump: 38 inches / Broad Jump: 127 / 3-Cone: N/A
87 total tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, 5 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, and 11 pass deflections.
Why He Fits:
Wiggins is one of the most athletically gifted safeties in this draft class. On film, he is a strong free safety who can come up and hit ball carriers with excellent pop in his pads. He showcased his play-making ability as a sophomore in 2018, as he came up with four interceptions. He was also a Senior Bowl player this offseason. To add on top of all this, he did suffer a major injury in 2019 that caused him to miss the entire season. So, if that is an actual trend and not just a coincidence, Wiggins checks that box as well.
James Wiggins is a spark plug at safety... Athletic and fearless!— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) March 2, 2021
Tough ACL injury in 2019, but he’s put on 25lbs since being this skinny 180lb CB from Miami/South Dade
Freak List 2x: 4.40 40, 37” Vertical, 11”0 Broad, 18 reps of 225 pic.twitter.com/KQFVOp2IT5
- Darrick Forrest, Cincinnati: Rangy safety who isn’t afraid to come up in run support. Also tested as an elite athlete at his Pro Day.
- JaCoby Stevens, LSU: High character player who can play linebacker or safety. Maybe more of a linebacker in the NFL but he’s going to be a star wherever he ends up.
- Jordyn Peters, Auburn: Explosive athlete who blocked five kicks in his college career. Could be an interesting special teamer in the league.
- Tyler Coyle, Purdue: Insanely athletic local safety who had a good offseason. Could be a late round steal for a team.
It is hard to be super confident about this position since there is very little data to go off of. The best guess I can make at the moment is that the cerebral, reliable molds of Julian Blackmon and Khari Willis seem to be what he values at the position. Obviously, that could all change up after this draft but with the data we have now, this is my best assumption at the safety position.
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 safety position. For all I know, Ballard could take an injury prone, poor tackler 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.