INDIANAPOLIS – Chris Ballard’s roster-building approach could leave some people scratching their heads. Some might even think the Indianapolis Colts' general manager is stubborn to the point of wanting to scream, “What are you doing?”
But Ballard has proved in his 27 months on the job that he doesn’t care what anybody outside of organization thinks as he tries to improve the Colts.
Ballard is doing things his own way.
That became even more evident amid the Colts' approach to free agency this spring. Indy entered the signing period with an NFL-high $106 million in salary-cap space. As the calendar turns to May, the lone outside free agents the Colts have signed so far are defensive end Justin Houston and receiver Devin Funchess.
Some GMs might have gotten greedy if they had a team that was coming off a playoff season with a healthy quarterback who could be an MVP candidate and more cap space than any other team in the league.
He’s not going to let the hard work he and his staff have done in the past two years -- breaking down and rebuilding the roster -- be torn apart by sliding all their chips into the middle of the table for a run at the Super Bowl.
It’s not worth it to him. Ballard thinks long term.
His blueprint for making the Colts a title-contending team was laid out on the afternoon of his introductory news conference in February 2017.
Ballard wanted to build the foundation of the team through the draft, plug remaining holes through free agency and then re-sign the players he believes fit their core. After a 4-12 first season, sans quarterback Andrew Luck, in 2017, the Colts had a stellar draft in 2018, went 10-6 behind a healthy Luck and returned to the playoffs in Ballard’s second season.
Things are going so well again for the Colts that owner Jim Irsay made a "promise" that his organization would win another Super Bowl. Ballard’s command also has allowed Irsay to take a little step back so that the general manager could be the franchise’s spokesman.
“Chris Ballard has done an incredible job, as usual,” Irsay said after last week's draft. “You can see it in every fiber of his body that he knows these guys. He knows what he’s doing. He’s not overconfident, but he is extremely talented, almost to the level of a savant in the draft room. ... It’s good when I can be an observer from a distance without having to get involved. Him and [coach] Frank [Reich] make it a lot easier for an owner to step back and watch the process unfold without having to intervene anywhere. I think quietly behind the scene you get involved.”
The turnaround seems quick, considering it took just two years to go from being one of the worst teams in the NFL to a playoff team. But it wasn't really that fast.
Ballard had to clean house, getting rid of older players and replacing them with younger ones on shorter contracts in 2017. The process was sped up by the return of a healthy Luck and a 2018 draft class that featured two All-Pros in offensive lineman Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard. Seven other rookies were part of the playing rotation at different points last season.
Ballard showed his faith in his youthful roster when he traded away the team’s first-round selection (No. 26) in last week’s draft to add more picks.
“It doesn’t matter where you pick them; it is how they play and if they play at the levels we think they are going to play at, they are going to help us ascend,” Ballard said. “I just look back to 2017, where we were at from a roster-composition standpoint, and now being able to add high-level athletes with character, on top of what we have, that creates -- remember I always talked about competition, man, there is nothing that makes you better than having people compete for spots, and we are starting to get that.”
The Colts' 2019 offense was essentially set before the draft, outside of adding another receiver. The draft focus was clear: The Colts wanted to upgrade their defense with fast, athletic players who fit coordinator Matt Eberflus’ scheme. The Colts used seven of their 10 picks on defensive players.
To put into perspective how things have changed, the Colts didn’t address the offensive line, which had routinely been the weak link of the team, until the seventh round. The Colts were the only team in the league to receive a solid A grade on ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper Jr.’s post-draft report.
“Add speed, competition on defense -- plain and simple,” Ballard said. “We wanted to get athletic, fast players that fit our mold from a talent perspective, but also have the makeup that we want in our locker room. You don’t want to upset the apple cart in terms of who you bring into the building. They have to stand for the same things you stand for.”
The Colts want to bring in players like Nelson, who, according to Irsay, asked for the phone numbers of each of the team’s draft picks so he could reach out and tell them what it’s like to play for the “horseshoe.”
“We have to win this battle away from the TV cameras one link of the chain at the time,” Irsay said. “You have to have players that are engaged to be great. They have to keep clean. Leaders lead and great players look after the whole football team. ... I remember talking to [former Colts general manager] Bill Polian and [former Colts coach] Tony Dungy when we had great success, I know we were here, I know how hard we worked, I know it seems impossible, but we have to work harder. We have to get past another barrier to be better and we can only do it at every link of the chain.
“That means assistant coaches, scouts, obviously general manager, head coach, top players. Chris is so occupied with so many tasks that he has to oversee. He doesn’t have time to be overzealous. And I think that, quite frankly, he is always super aware. It’s a little nerve-racking because he wants to make sure that he doesn’t get caught up in the hype. It’s about hard work. ... We have to demand from everyone in this organization and we can’t have any weak links. Period. End of story. If there are, we have to make changes and iron them out and go forward.”