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Conspiracy Report: Chris Ballard has, once again, leaked the Indianapolis Colts draft plan

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To the reader:

First, I’d like to start by saying this article is presented as a “conspiracy theory” because by definition that’s what it is. I’ve spent countless hours over the past week doing research, listening to old pressers, and watching every relevant interview I could get my hands on, taking notes on the new information he gave us while going back over my notes from years past. But because reading between the lines and gut intuition don’t count as analysis this is merely a well-researched conspiracy theory.

As I’m writing this letter to you I have no idea what this article is going to say. I don’t have some grand idea I’m writing toward, all I know is that this has become my favorite article to write each and every year. It’s a lot of fun to see what I can gather from the information that has been put out and by the end of the day on Saturday, April 30th, we will all be able to sit back and marvel at how wrong I have most likely been.

So put on your tinfoil hat, pour your favorite drink and settle into a comfortable chair for these next few thousand words, as I read through the lines, follow the money, listen to my gut and draw conclusions (that may or may not actually be there) all the way to exposing the Colts 2022 draft plans. This is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition. This is the dimension of imagination. Welcome to the Twilight Zone.


The History of this Series

For the past three years, I have believed that I could piece together the puzzle that was the Indianapolis Colts 2019, 2020, and the 2021 draft plans. In each of the past three years, I’ve invested a lot of time and effort sifting through the clues to find possible answers to the question: what will the Indianapolis Colts do in the draft?

A question I’ve answered with progressively worse results.

The article in 2020 was challenging to write given the lack of data the team put out leading up to the draft and I believe it impacted my results. I was only able to hit on Michael Pittman Jr. after hitting on Rock Ya-Sin and Ben Banogu in 2019. Even still, I felt pretty good having hit on three guys in two years.

2021 was challenging in its own way. Chris Ballard spoke to the media less but the pre-draft press conference was better to pull from. Despite that fact, I didn’t get a single prediction correct. They didn’t trade back in the first round. They didn’t draft an offensive lineman early. They drafted two edge rushers with early picks, despite me believing they wouldn’t (even though no one thought Kwitty Paye would be available at 21). They didn’t draft any corners and I thought they would.

My “Mostly Unsubstantiated Theories” section were ideas I didn’t feel as strongly about because I felt there was less evidence pointing in their direction. Having said that, I hit on two out of the three but these were common sense predictions based on holes in the roster, something that I’ve keyed in on more this year looking historically at how the team has filled holes with free agency and how it impacts what they do in the draft.

Despite the tremendous failure that was my 2021 predictions I, once again, believe I can piece together Chris Ballard’s plan for the 2022 NFL Draft. Some people are probably rolling their eyes and I get it. What makes some blogger in his mom’s basement think he can predict what the Colts will do?

Let me show you.


Prediction #1

The Indianapolis Colts will be taking a receiver early.

Relax, I know this isn’t some shocking prediction that no one else could ever make, in fact, it’s painfully obvious. It’s what almost every question during this year’s pre-draft press conference was about and Chris Ballard didn’t even try to deny it.

He wasn’t thinking, he was just listening to the question and nodding in agreement. He was reacting in real-time before he could edit his thoughts and give a careful response. A lot of people have been worried that Ballard will ignore the receiver position because of the answer he gave following this question.

I have reason to believe he gave a long-winded, winding answer that was truthful but ultimately contained very little valuable information.

Why am I so sure?

His body language.

The Athletic’s Stephen Holder asked him a question about evaluating the receiver position, Ballard responded right away, directly, confidently like an expert speaking on a topic he’s studied for decades. It’s not an answer that has to be guarded in any way.

This response is different.

The question is asked, “Why do you guys have so much faith in what you have in house right now at the position?”

As soon as the question is asked, Ballard is uncomfortable. He sits up, fidgeting in his seat, scratching his face. He begins looking around the room, eyes shifting up, down, and side to side, like he’s searching for an answer to a question he has to be careful with. Then suddenly, he finds his answer:

“Everybody’s scared of the unknown.”

Instantly he starts to fight against the smile because he knows the answer he just found is silly, he looks at the reporter who asked the question, almost like he’s checking to see if the guy is buying it. Then it’s a rambling mess that is only loosely related to the question.

This answer caused a stir on Colts Twitter, but you’re not fooling me, Chris Ballard.

The Colts have a massive need at the position and outside of this one.... creative, answer Ballard has acknowledged the Colts' need for more playmakers on offense. Further, even that answer didn’t say they wouldn’t be drafting anyone, it just gave reasons of why they like who they have on the roster as if the guy giving the answer wasn’t the guy responsible for them all being on the roster.

This is the team’s most glaring need and no one, not even Chris Ballard is denying it.


Prediction #2

The Indianapolis Colts are drafting offensive line help.

Back in 2019, Chris Ballard told us all that the offensive and defensive lines will always be a priority. But it wasn’t just in 2019, he has said this repeatedly.

It’s a core tenant of his philosophy.

So where are the supporting arguments that show his intent this season? Well, I don’t have much in the way of Ballard actually answering any questions about it. The guy has constantly been asked about the receiver position and no one bothered to question the other gaping holes on offense, specifically along the offensive line.

So this theory has less to do with what Ballard has said and far more to do with who he is and what he has done. What has he done that brought me here?

Last year Ballard didn’t draft anyone along the offensive line until the seventh round but he added Sam Tevi and Julian Davenport before the draft and they brought in Chris Reed and Matt Pryor before the season.

This offseason the Colts let both Reed and Mark Glowinski leave via free agency and all reports indicate that starting left tackle, Eric Fisher, won’t be brought back either. These three men accounted for 35 starts along the offensive line a year ago. They let both Tevi and Davenport leave as well. So far the Colts' front office has replaced them with Shon Coleman, Brandon Kemp, and Jordan Murray. Of those three only Coleman was drafted and has experience starting.

We know the team likes what they have in Danny Pinter and Will Fries but Chris Ballard cannot be happy with a 30-year-old swing tackle who hasn’t played since 2017 (Coleman), a second-year, former seventh-rounder as the only viable backup at either guard position (Fries) and a handful of former UDFA’s behind those two. If Jack Doyle came out of retirement and gained 30 pounds he would be the team's seventh or eighth best offensive lineman.

All of these things lead me to believe that the Indianapolis Colts will absolutely add offensive line help in this draft.


Prediction #3

Chris Ballard will draft a Tight End

Unless the guys they want are picked before Indy is on the board, the Colts are going to draft a Jack Doyle replacement.

The first question was about how hard it is for rookie tight ends to have production. But the follow-up question and Ballard’s response are interesting.

He was asked a question about having two “y” tight ends, Ballard starts to answer and starts and stops three times before telling how hard it is to find good blocking tight ends. He sings Jack Doyle’s praises and goes through his history with the position as GM before finishing with “when you have two Y’s your run game looks a little different.”

In 2018 and ‘19 the team went with Eric Ebron, Jack Doyle, and Mo Alie-Cox as their main contributors. When Ebron left the team replaced him with Trey Burton. When Burton left they replaced him with Kylen Granson. Now that Doyle has retired the Colts are going to look to replace him and Chris Ballard’s comments suggest they’ll try to find a blocking tight end to fill the Y role.


Prediction #4

The Colts will add to the defensive line

They have lost Taylor Stallworth, Antwaun Woods, Kemoko Turay, Isaac Rochell, Robert Windsor, and Al-Quadin Muhammad. They’ve only brought in Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue is the best pass rusher the Colts have had for years but he can’t fill all of the holes left by the departure of those six players.

I do believe the Colts feel good about this position as a whole, as they should, it’s a solid group but they will need to add depth behind their best four to five, to be able to keep guys fresh throughout the game.

Because of the strength of the position, this might come late on day three or they may look to add to this group via UDFA’s. So this prediction might not come to fruition until sometime next week if it happens at all.


Mostly Unsubstantiated Theory

The team would like to add players at the following positions:

  • Running back
  • Linebacker

Neither of these jumps out as big needs as the Colts have All-Pro players at each spot, but depth might be an issue. Nyheim Hines is a good back but the Colts may want to add another player whose style is more similar to Taylor, should the young superstar need a break or (God forbid) miss time with an injury.

This year the team let linebacker and special teams ace Matthew Adams leave in free agency after letting Anthony Walker leave in free agency in 2021. The only addition the team has made at that position was signing Malik Jefferson who they waived on January fourth of this year. So it might be time to add to the ‘backer group in 2022.

Spoiler alert: there’s a guy in this draft who might be able to fill in at RB, LB, and on special teams.

One reason they wouldn’t add anyone to these groups during the draft is due to a lack of picks, as of now they only have six selections. If Ballard and co. believe they have a chance to sign undrafted players who could contribute, they may skip selecting someone and work on signing these positions once things wrap up on Saturday. Either way, I expect them to add competition before camp starts, one way or another.


Trades

Will the Colts trade any picks this year?

History tells us, yes. Absolutely.

That said, I am completely done trying to make predictions about trading up or down. There are just too many moving parts, I’m never right and I’m convinced unless you’re the person who monitors the fax machine at the league office, there’s absolutely no reliable way to predict what draft trades are happening before they are announced to the public.


Other Things We Know:

  • Chris Ballard greatly values college all-star games, like the Senior Bowl.
  • Offensive Coordinator Marcus Brady was the head coach of the West Team during the East-West Shrine Game. Joining him from the Colts staff were TE coach Klayton Adams and offensive quality control coach Jerrod Johnson.
  • The Colts' version of “Best Player Available” factors in team need:
  • Character concerns aren’t always a deal-breaker. But we haven’t seen many guys with concerns brought in since he’s been in Indy.
  • Ballard and his staff obviously value length, placing an emphasis on long-armed defenders.
  • Most Colts draft picks have had high Relative Athletic Scores. The Colts don’t use RAS in their evaluation but it’s clear they value players with specific athletic profiles that appear to most often align with high RAS scores.
  • They value high football character. Team captains are held in high regard.
  • The Colts have “reached” on players like Darius Leonard and Julian Blackmon on day two of the draft. They don’t care when you think a player should be drafted.
  • Chris Ballard loves day three wide receivers having selected four such players since 2018.
  • Ballard wants to take players with high-end traits:
  • Ballard’s first three drafts included players from Ohio State. He hasn’t taken anyone from the school in two years. It might not mean anything but it’s interesting.

Casting A Wide Net

Like last season I am going to give you a position by position breakdown listing players at each position that, I believe, fit what the Colts will be looking for come draft day, before giving you my definitive list. I’m giving you both lists because frankly, it’s really hard to take 400+ players and whittle them down to the 12 most likely to fit what the Colts want and then predict who might, possibly, be available when the Colts make their selections. So I’m giving both lists, not as a way to increase my own ability to hit on a name, but it allows for additional analysis of each position that we already know the Colts want to add.

I won’t give myself credit for hitting on the players that don’t make my final list because I am giving you A LOT of names. That said, I’m not just throwing these names out, I have reason to believe each name on this mostly untrimmed list is there for a good reason.


Wide Receiver

This might be the easiest list of names for anyone to come up with, just go to ras.football sort by 2022 receivers, and find guys over six feet tall with high RAS scores. By and large, this is what Chris Ballard has shown that he likes at the receiver position. Of the players who may be available when the Colts will be on the board, these are the most likely options on day two:

Christian Watson, NDSU- 9.96 RAS and was a Senior Bowl standout after receiving a late invitation. It’s been noted that he might have issues with drops but Ballard and Reich have both talked in the past about being able to live with some drops.

Alec Pierce, Cincinnati- 9.82 RAS and was a Senior Bowl standout.

Kevin Austin, Notre Dame- 9.94 RAS at 6’2” he is an elite athlete and a noted blocker. Chris Ballard no doubt likes what Austin can offer. As a bonus, Austin might be available in the third round.

If the Colts double up and select multiple receivers these are the names to watch on day three:

Dareke Young, Lenoir Rhyne- 9.93 RAS and was on Marcus Brady’s Shrine Bowl roster and is reported to have had a great week of practice there.

Velus Jones Jr, Tennessee- 7.16 RAS. I believe the only way they draft Jones is if he is available on day three due to his elite speed (4.31 second 40 time, that matches the tape) and his ability and effort on special teams. The only reason he made this list is that it was reported that he had an official pre-draft visit in Indy. Will be a 25-year-old rookie.

Honorable Mention: George Pickens, Georgia- 9.37 RAS he might not be available at 42, anyway. Originally I included him with the other options for the 42nd pick and then I read this article from the Athletics, Bruce Feldman. In the article, he asked groups of scouts and coaches to anonymously talk about the upcoming draft. When asked about the most boom or bust receiver prospect here’s what the group said:

Red flags don’t remove guys from Chris Ballard’s draft board instantly. But this isn’t a red flag in the same way a 21-year-old who gets arrested for fighting outside of a bar is a red flag. Neither is good but one of those was a dumb but very correctable moment, Pickens’ red flags are at the very core of who he is. For this reason, I no longer believe he is a viable option at 42.


Offensive Line

Predicting who Chris Ballard will draft on the offensive line is difficult. Outside of 2018, he just hasn’t taken anyone upfront, early. His late-day three picks have all been elite athletes while his 2017 selection of Zach Banner, an absolutely massive but very poor athlete, throws quite the wrench in the gears. Especially when you consider the trade he made to bring in Matt Pryor, another massive tackle. So the targets seem to be somewhere between the absolute behemoth and freak show athlete.

Quenton Nelson’s selection doesn’t tell us much due to the fact that he was a nearly perfect prospect, Ballard took him and never looked back. Braden Smith’s selection doesn’t tell us that much because they drafted him to play guard. Only later did he show that he was fully capable of being a really good tackle in the NFL.

The only thing we know for sure is the team generally wants their offensive linemen to measure at 6’4” or over, based on the fact that Danny Pinter (6’4”) is the shortest OL selection of the Ballard era and my gut tells me he was only willing to draft Pinter due to his elite athletic testing. We can also assume they will value players who can run block at a high level after the team started Eric Fisher at left tackle over Matt Pryor. Fisher was great in the ground game but Pryor was probably the better pass blocker between the two.

This position group feels very difficult to predict so when in doubt, I’ll pick the best athletes.

Tackle

Bernhard Raimann, Central Michigan- 9.87 RAS, Raimann might be the perfect prospect to compete with and learn from Matt Pryor. Having only played left tackle for two seasons after playing tight end earlier in his collegiate career, Raimann has a lot to learn and will likely need time to develop but he has the raw physical ability to grow into a high-end left tackle. Raimann may not be available at 42, but once again I’m going to list all of the guys who have even a slight chance and who fit the profile.

Kellen Diesch, Arizona State- 9.75 RAS, Diesch is an elite athlete and played under Marcus Brady at the Shrine Bowl. He should be available on day three.

Ryan Van Demark, UConn- 9.44 RAS, Van Demark is another elite athlete and his 35.5” arms firmly move him into the freak-show territory.

Honorable Mention: Obinna Eze, TCU- a big, long-armed prospect with just a 5.36 RAS but, once again, he was coached by Marcus Brady in the Shrine Bowl and it’s difficult to overstate how important these personal interactions can be.

Guard

Chris Paul, Tulsa- 9.45 RAS. I really like the fit for Chris Paul with this Colts team as a late-day-three option. Paul is universally heralded as being a great guy to have in a locker room, a good person, and a strong leader. His athletic profile is elite and taking a chance on someone with such high character and elite movement traits, seems like something Chris Ballard would love to do.

Nick Zakelj, Fordham- 9.83 RAS. Zakelj is seen by some as a developmental tackle and that may be where he ends up, but some see him as a guard at the next level. Either way, he is an elite athlete and exactly the kind of guy Ballard and co. have taken late swings on before.

Zach Thomas, San Diego State- 9.00 RAS. Thomas is yet another high-level athlete that should be available late on day three. He, like the other guards on this list, will need time to develop but falls in line with other day three picks from Ballard’s staff like Will Fries (9.13 RAS) and Danny Pinter (9.59 RAS).

Honorable Mention: Tanner Owen, Northwest Missouri State- 9.88 RAS. A transfer from Missouri, Owen has long enough arms (34”) to play tackle but grades out as an elite athlete at guard. Here is his head-to-head comparison to Danny Pinter.


Tight End

Outside of Kylen Granson a year ago, Chris Ballard has relied on the players already on the roster and free agency to fill his holes at the position. Granson is decidedly an “F” tight end, a bigger, less glorified receiver (this is a super simplistic explanation to quickly provide context, just go with it). Following Jack Doyle’s retirement, the team is in the market for another Y tight end and there might be a few good options available in this draft.

Jelani Woods, Virginia- 10.0 RAS. Woods is a traditional “Y” blocking tight end, the kind that Chris Ballard told us was so hard to find. His usage as a receiving threat was limited in college but his RAS score was the highest ever by a tight end. Woods became quite the sensation after his combine performance but his tape may not match and it will be interesting to see if he was just a media sensation or if he rose up NFL team draft boards as well. It is very important to point out he was coached by Marcus Brady and Colts tight ends coach Klayton Adams at the Shrine Bowl.

Daniel Bellinger, San Diego State- 9.66 RAS. Bellinger is another Y tight end that Ballard covets, who just so happens to grade out as an elite athlete.

If they wait until late on day three:

Jake Ferguson, Wisconsin- RAS 6.75. The only reason Ferguson is here is that he might be a Jack Doyle clone. He’s not a great athlete, he’s never going to win matchups downfield but he’s a very good blocker who can be used as a check-down option. Also, Chris Ballard was pretty happy when he drafted Jonathan Taylor from his alma mater, Wisconsin- I don’t think that will push any decisions over the top, but it is another thing to note.

Honorable Mention: Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State- Ruckert very well could be in the mix for the Colts at tight end. He wasn’t used as a receiver much at Ohio State due to the overwhelming amount of talent the Buckeyes had on offense. I like Ruckert and I think the Colts will too but I believe a team will take him earlier than the Colts would like, betting on his untapped potential as a receiver.


Defensive Line

Chris Ballard likes his defenders long and athletic and his interior defensive linemen are no exception. That said he has only drafted two dedicated interior defensive linemen in Indy, Grover Stewart and Robert Windsor. Both men have 33+ inch arms but Stewart was a 1-tech and Windsor a 3-tech so their athletic expectations were different. Even still Stewart’s 7.78 and Windsor’s 8.67 show that both men are very good athletes for the position.

Other players drafted up font include Dayo Odeyingbo (35.25” arms) who was unable to participate in any pre-draft workouts due to a torn Achilles. And Tyquan Lewis with nearly 34” arms and a 9.54 RAS. Both men will move around the line, sometimes out wide, sometimes on the interior. One last point to make is that it seems that Chris Ballard doesn’t mind sub-300-pound defensive linemen as Grover Stewart is the only draftee over that mark.

So let’s look at who fits:

Thomas Booker, DT Stanford- 9.88 RAS. Booker is slightly undersized at 6’3” 301. But he does have 33.25” arms to go along with his elite tested speed and agility. Not to mention his 31 reps of 225. Most importantly Booker was a team captain and was nominated for the 2021 William V. Campbell Award, (the academic Heisman) and the Senior CLASS Award for excellence on and off the field. High character guy with very high-level athleticism.

Jordan Jackson, DT Air Force- 9.14 RAS. Jackson is another undersized guy with 33.75” arms and high-level speed and agility numbers. He plays with great effort has played at both DT and DE and finished 2021 with 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. He is someone who should be available late on day three.

Eric Johnson II, DT Missouri State- 9.15 RAS. At 6’4” with 34” arms, Chris Ballard has already raised an eyebrow. Throw in the elite speed and explosion times and you have his attention. Coming from a division two school Johnson will need plenty of time to develop, adding strength (only 11 reps of 225, yikes) and working on his technique but he has the kind of raw tools that you just can’t teach.

Honorable Mention: Matt Henningsen, DT Wisconsin- 9.34 RAS. His arms are a little shorter than what the Colts have typically taken with Ballard calling the shots but his elite explosion and agility grades might be enough for the Colts to think they can develop the former Badger. He ends up on the honorable mention list due to his lack of traditional size and length.


Special Teamers

This is a fun section. Pretty much anything goes down here, the only thing I’m looking for are late-round prospects with elite athletic testing, or unique traits and abilities. Not much else matters.

Marcel Dabo, Safety, European League of Football- 9.91 RAS. Dabo has good size, 6’ 210 pounds, putting up 21 reps of 225. To go along with elite explosion and speed numbers. He was last season's defensive MVP while playing in Germany. But most importantly he’s already on the Colts' radar as they hosted him on a top-30 visit during the pre-draft process. This one is super interesting.

Tony Adams, CB, Illinois- 9.75 RAS. Tony probably isn’t getting drafted but man he’s explosive.

Abram Smith, RB, Baylor- 6.62 RAS. If you’re not familiar with Smith he played linebacker for four of his five years at Baylor before changing positions and rushing for 1,601 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2021. Smith didn’t test well but would be a really interesting player who could provide a ton of value on special teams, though his production (and lack of wear and tear at the position) may lead to him being taken too early for Indy to snag him.

Devin Harper, LB, Oklahoma State- 9.51 RAS. If Harper were only a couple of inches taller he likely wouldn’t be getting overlooked the way he has during the pre-draft process. Standing at 6’ even with nearly 32” arms, he isn’t the typical defender the Colts draft... except they hosted the undersized, elite athlete for a top-30 visit.

Dallis Flowers, CB, Pittsburg State- 9.53 RAS. Flowers has a wild sports background and will be 25 years old during his rookie season but he has great length at 6’1” with 32” arms and he is a talented returner. I could see the Colts taking a swing on him in the seventh round.

No honorable mention here. I’m cutting myself off at five, just know I took Damone Clark off of this list and I could have spent the next several days combing through the RAS website looking for elite athletes who are day three or UDFA guys and I would have enjoyed that but for the sake of keeping this article around 5000 words, I’m calling the special teams section, good.


THE List

Going into the draft the Indianapolis Colts currently have six picks. With that in mind, I am going to give myself 12 chances, two per pick, to hit on a name. I’m not listing them in any order, I think that the 12th name on this list is just as likely to be drafted by the Colts as the first.

Without further ado, here it is, the list of 12 names that this article will forever be judged on:

  1. Jelani Woods, TE, Virginia
  2. Alec Pierce, WR, Cincinnati
  3. Christian Watson, WR, North Dakota State
  4. Daniel Bellinger, TE, San Diego State
  5. Thomas Booker, DT, Stanford
  6. Chris Paul, G, Tulsa
  7. Bernhard Raimann, T, Central Michigan
  8. Kellen Diesch, T, Arizona State
  9. Ryan Van Demark, T, UConn
  10. Kevin Austin, WR, Notre Dame
  11. Velus Jones Jr, WR, Tennessee
  12. Dareke Young, WR, Lenoir Rhyne
  13. Eric Johnson, DT, Missouri State
  14. Jake Ferguson, TE, Wisconsin

EDIT

It has been brought to my attention that the Colts have 7 total picks, I forgot they had two fifths. Because of that I am going to add two names to the above list. The 13th and 14th names were added 4/28/22 at 2:30 EST.

Disclaimer: In case you miss the entire point of this article, this isn’t my wish list for the Colts. These aren’t my “top 12” prospects, these are the 12 prospects that fit what the Colts typically look for, at positions I believe the team has indirectly told us they’re interested in drafting, who might be available for them to take at different points in the draft. I went heavy on names at receiver and OL as they are big positions of need (for different reasons) and the name of the game of this article is to hit on a name.


Chris Ballard tells a joke:

If this happens, I’ll incite the riot, guys.