Colts GM avoiding 'fool's gold,' opting to draft a 'young core'
INDIANAPOLIS -– “Why aren’t the Colts signing any of the marquee free agents with all their salary-cap space?”
“Does Chris Ballard know what he’s doing as a general manager?”
“Ballard is wasting Andrew Luck’s career by not signing any players.”
Ballard, the Indianapolis Colts’ second-year general manager, has heard it all when it comes to his lack of free-agent movement. The Colts are a team that has some of the most glaring holes in the NFL on their roster. But they’ve been one of the quietest teams when it comes to roster moves this offseason.
Free agency is three weeks old and the biggest move Ballard has made is to re-sign 45-year-old kicker Adam Vinatieri. Tight end Eric Ebron, who likely won’t be the top player at his position on the roster, has been the most significant of the five newcomers Ballard has signed. Owner Jim Irsay told reporters during the NFL owners meetings last week that free agency is “fool’s gold. It’s Barnum & Bailey [Circus].”
That’s where the impatience of the fan base toward Ballard and Irsay comes from. The Colts, despite not coming out and saying so, are in rebuilding mode at a time when their franchise quarterback, Andrew Luck will turn 29 early next season and when the organization has missed the playoffs in each of the past three years.
Ballard is emphasizing patience. What he’s doing is no secret. It’s scripted to the point that the general manager has all but climbed on top of the tallest building in downtown Indianapolis and screamed, We’re going to build through the draft.
He has said it over and over again since he was given the job in January 2017.
“We have to get a young core of young talent that are going to be Colts for a long time,” Ballard told reporters during the recent NFL owners meetings. “Financial discipline in this league, you don’t see that like you used to. I think it’s a good thing to have. Because what happens is these guys are re-tooling the roster every two years. You are signing all these free agents and then two years from now, you are seeing them all get cut and then they are back on the street again.
“We have to get some roster continuity with 10 to 12 players that are going to be Colts for a long time. Then you feel better about dipping into free agency and getting a guy. Not just good players, they need to be able to influence the locker room with their character. A culture needs to be built. A coach can do so much, but the players in that locker room build the culture that you want, with their work ethic, with the standards that they set. We have to get more players like that in our locker room.”
Ballard showed how serious he was about the draft when he traded away the No. 3 pick in this month’s draft to the New York Jets for the No. 6 pick, an additional second-round pick this year and another second-round pick in next year’s draft. His approach sounds good and all, but he has to have success in the draft. That means he can’t waste another fourth-round pick by cutting him during roster trim down like he did last year with offensive lineman Zach Banner.
The approach Ballard is taking is not foreign. Those are some of the traits he learned in becoming a general manager while in Kansas City. That’s also the method former general manager Bill Polian used during his 14 seasons in Indianapolis.
“First of all, you start with the premise that everything in free agency is over-priced,” Polian said. “The premise is you’re paying A prices for B players because the A players like Andrew Luck never make it to free agency. It’s not a good economic system if you’re trying to build a team under the salary cap. It’s always tough to be patient. No one wants to be patient, but it took the Colts five years to get where they are. You’re not going to change overnight even with Andrew coming back.”
Former Colts general manager Ryan Grigson’s desire to deviate by trying to have quick fixes through free agency with older players has put the organization in its current position. Since 2012 — Luck’s first season — the Colts have finished 25th or worse in the NFL when it comes to having players they drafted on their roster, according to Elias Sports Bureau. They were 29th or worse in five of those six seasons. Indianapolis doesn’t have any players on its roster from the 2013 draft and only one player — offensive lineman Jack Mewhort — from the 2014 draft.
The Colts got away with it from 2012 to 2014, making the playoffs in each of those seasons because they had a healthy Luck on the field. The lack of developing the roster through the draft caught up to the Colts in 2015, the same year Luck’s body started breaking down due to a number of injuries. Luck has missed 26 games over the past three seasons, and it’s no coincidence that Indianapolis has missed the playoffs in each of those seasons.
That’s another reason Ballard and new coach Frank Reich have preached it’s not about just one player on the roster. The Colts want to eventually be in the top half of the league when it comes to having “homegrown” players on their roster. Pittsburgh, Green Bay and New England, teams all with All-Pro quarterbacks who are often in the mix to make a deep run in the playoffs, have all or had at least two of those teams ranked in the top 10 with having their drafted players on the roster since 2012, according to Elias.
That’s the same road Ballard wants to take with the Colts and with Luck at quarterback.
“The best way to do it, the most sensible way to do it, is to get your core players, game-changers through the draft and then use free agency and pro scouting very, very judicially to add depth,” Polian said. “And then when you’re completely built, which the Colts are far from being, you can add a free agent that might make a difference. And even then, that’s only at the at end of the process.”