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Is it time for Chris Ballard to finally change his approach to free agency?

NFL: Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

You all know my philosophy on free agency. You cannot buy a championship. You cannot buy a locker room. We will continue to go down the same road we’ve been going down.”

Two offseasons ago, I started an article with the exact same quote from Chris Ballard, and at the time I have to say I thought his approach was intelligent. After several years of Ryan Grigson splashing away at the big fish in free agency, with little to no results, while blowing away the cap space, it was refreshing watching the Colts take a more conservative approach and save the money to re-sign their own homegrown talent. Building a team entirely through free agency is just impossible. There is no way to do that, which is why rebuilding teams with little to no talent like the Jaguars, Texans, Lions, and Jets should focus mainly on the Draft. Now the Colts are not a rebuilding team, and they certainly have plenty of talent, with 7 Pro Bowl players on the rosters, so free agency is an enticing option to round out an already solid roster.

For this article, I will stay away from analyzing the quarterback position, as there is just too much white noise, and whatever move the Colts eventually decide to make at the position could render the entire article useless. Instead, I am going to focus on the rest of the roster, as the Colts have plenty of holes there. Whatever the Colts decide to do at quarterback will have the most impact on the course of the team for the following year, and probably the next decade. Indy is once again entering an offseason with uncertainty at the quarterback position.

I believe the argument that “Look at what the Rams did! They went all in and won a title! Draft picks are useless!” is dumb. The Rams managed to trade for a top 5 quarterback, had the best defensive player of all time on their team, along with one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, had an impressive stable of weapons in the offense, and had already traded away most of their draft capital. Even so, they were just one or two plays away from once again losing the big game, and leaving the season empty-handed while severely handcuffing their future, but Aaron Donald made the play, and the Rams are now champions. What the Rams did is in no way a surefire way to win a title, they took a risk, and it paid off, but their situation was much better suited to take such risk.

After analyzing past offseasons and the spending of different teams the results are evident, teams that spend big in free agency not only consistently fail to make improvements the following season, but they also end up either failing to re-sign their own talent or having to cut solid players because of a lack of cap space. However, there are several outliers to the norm, and these outliers are quite similar among each other.

Since 2013, of the top 6 spenders each offseason, only 31.5% of the teams (17/54) made the playoffs the following year. Of course, there are a lot more variables to explain why a team made or not the playoffs than free agency spending, but the simple story is that teams that spend big in free agency don’t usually make the playoffs the next season.

Top 6 FA spending teams that made playoffs following year

Year Team
Year Team
2013 Colts
2014 Broncos
2015 Chiefs
2016 Giants
2017 Saints
2018 Saints
2019 Packers
2020 Browns
2021 Patriots

First and most important, all 17 teams had the same starting quarterback as they had last season, and it seems like Carson Wentz is on his way out of Indy. Then, the other important aspect, is that these are all teams that were already successful the season before, not teams trying to reach the playoffs after not making it the year before.

So basically, taking into account the two most common denominators in teams that made the playoffs after spending big in free agency, the Colts will probably not have their starting quarterback returning for another year, and they did not make the playoffs the season before, so for this offseason, past history would suggest that it would be much wiser not to be among the biggest spenders in free agency.

However, the Colts should definitely be way more active this offseason. Ballard fumbled the ball horrendously in free agency last season, not only by signing an injured Eric Fisher, that failed to perform even when healthy, over Charles Leno Jr., but also by not addressing several positions where it was evident that the Colts were lacking depth, like edge rusher, safety, and wide receiver. CB probably noted the areas where the Colts are desperately needing help, and with limited draft capital, should definitely dip his toes into the free agency pool more this offseason.