INDIANAPOLIS – At his pre-draft meeting with the media last week, Chris Ballard made it clear there still was work to be done.
“We’re not done yet,’’ he said. “The cement is not dry yet, but it will dry up by next Thursday when we start drafting players.’’
T-minus 1 day.
With Thursday’s NFL draft looming, the cement is as firm as it’s going to get. Ballard and the Indianapolis Colts hold the No. 4 overall pick and eight others as they attempt to move past the disaster that was 2022: 4-12-1, fired coaches, hired ESPN analyst, seven-game losing streak to end the season, historic collapses, etc.
More to the point from an evaluation standpoint, they’re as ready as humanly possible.
“I think you all feel the pressure more than I do sometimes,’’ he said. “When you do the work, the pressure is not as great as what people make it out to be.
“It doesn’t mean you’re always going to be right. But when you put the work in, there’s not a not lot angst within you.’’
Ballard compared that to not preparing for a test in college.
“We didn’t do squat. We didn’t prepare for it,’’ he said with a laugh. “Well damn right, there are beads of sweat. You are trying to BS your way through the test and hope you get a C.
“When you study for the test, you walk in, you do it, and you do really well.’’
The Colts need to do really well during the three-day draft. They’ve already adjusted the roster – Matt Gay for Chase McLaughlin, Gardner Minshew II for Matt Ryan, Samson Ebukam for Yannick Ngakoue – but the draft offers an opportunity to inject youth and hope into the franchise.
Here’s a look at what we consider to be the four biggest areas of need:
Projected starter: Gardner Minshew II.
Depth: Nick Foles, Sam Ehlinger.
Degree of need: Super nova. Stop the merry-go-round. Find a viable prospect in the draft capable of leading the franchise into the future.
Comment: The Colts find themselves falling further behind in the AFC’s escalating arms race. Look around. Aaron Rodgers joins Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen, Justin Herbert, Trevor Lawrence, Lamar Jackson, Tua Tagovailoa and a handful of others.
Notable: We’ve beaten this to death, but it still resonates. The Colts will have a sixth different primary starter in as many seasons and roll out a seventh consecutive different opening-day starter.
Caught in the draft: It appears the Carolina Panthers will make Alabama’s Bryce Young the No. 1 overall pick. Then? Good luck sorting that out. The top non-Young prospects: C.J. Stroud, Ohio State; Will Levis, Kentucky; Anthony Richardson, Florida; Hendon Hooker, Tennessee.
Projected starters: Michael Pittman Jr., Alec Pierce.
Depth: Ashton Dulin, Mike Strachan, Isaiah McKenzie, Malik Turner, Kristian Wilkerson, Ethan Fernea, Vyncint Smith.
Degree of need: High.
Comment: We’ve got no problem with Pittman, Pierce and McKenzie representing the core of the receivers room. But once again, the remaining depth makes us more than a little nervous. Selecting a young quarterback at the top of the draft requires surrounding him with as many skill options as possible. When the Colts drafted Peyton Manning No. 1 overall in 1998, they followed with wideouts Jerome Pathon (round 2) and E.J. Green (round 3). Bill Polian then acquired the first pick in round 4 and added stud guard Steve McKinney. In 2012, Indy hitched its future to No. 1 pick Andrew Luck, and quickly added tight ends Coby Fleener (round 2) and Dwayne Allen (round 3) and wideout T.Y. Hilton (round 3).
Notable: Outside of Pittman, Pierce and McKenzie, no receiver on the roster has had more than 20 catches or 250 yards in a season.
Caught in the draft: Even though this is considered a relatively “down’’ year for the position, as many as four could be selected in round 1. The top prospects: Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Ohio State; Zay Flowers, Boston College; Jordan Addison, USC; Jalin Hyatt, Tennessee; Quentin Johnston, TCU; Josh Downs, North Carolina; Jonathan Mingo, Ole Miss; Cedric Tillman, Tennessee; Tyler Scott, Cincinnati.
Projected starters: Isaiah Rodgers Sr., Dallis Flowers, Kenny Moore II (nickel).
Depth: Tony Brown, Darrell Baker Jr., Kenny Toliver, II, David Vereen.
Degree of need: High.
Comment: Chris Ballard granted Stephon Gilmore’s wish and traded him to Dallas while Brandon Facyson returned to the Las Vegas Raiders in veteran free agency. That stripped the Colts of corners who started 16 and four games in 2022. Gilmore was an undeniable playmaker while Facyson was serviceable, no more.
Notable: This is arguably the weakest area of the roster. Rodgers is the only draft pick among the corners (round 6, 2020), and nine of his 10 career starts came last season. Moore is coming off a down season and seemed an ill fit in Gus Bradley’s system – he failed to come up with an interception for the first time in his six-year career. Flowers was a return specialist as an undrafted rookie in ’22 before injuries forced him to deal with extensive reps at corner. The rest of the group shares two starts since 2019.
Caught in the draft: The Colts aren’t in line to get one of the top prospects. Some mock drafts have six corners being selected in round 1. The question facing Indy: will it get better value at the top of round 2 (No. 35 overall) with a cornerback or receiver? The top cornerbacks: Devon Witherspoon, Illinois; Christian Gonzalez, Oregon; Emmanuel Forbes, Mississippi State; Brian Branch, Alabama; Deonte Banks, Maryland; Joey Porter Jr., Penn State; JuJu Brents (Warren Central H.S.), Kansas State/Warren Central H.S.; Tyrique Stevenson, Miami; D.J. Turner, Michigan; Kelee Ringo, Georgia; Cam Smith, South Carolina.
Projected starters: LT Bernhard Raimann, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Will Fries, RT Braden Smith.
Depth: Danny Pinter, Wesley French, Carter O’Donnell, Arlington Hambright, Dakota Shipley, Jordan Murray.
Degree of need: High.
Comment: One of Ballard’s cornerstone positions requires serious attention. The o-line was at the root of the team’s offensive problems in 2022 – shoddy protection and inconsistent run blocking – and nothing has been done to this point to address the issue. Raimann showed signs of growth at left tackle, but right guard is wide open, and there is no viable option for the swing tackle spot.
Notable: Even if Nelson, Kelly and Smith enjoy bounce-back seasons, Raimann settles in at left tackle and a right guard is uncovered, depth is lacking. And depth is critical along the o-line. The six backups on the roster have combined for 68 appearances and eight starts, with Pinter accounting for 46 games and seven starts.
Caught in the draft: Again, the Colts are in no position to acquire one of the top-level tackle prospects. That group includes Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski, Ohio State’s Paris Johnson Jr. and Dawand Jones (Ben Davis H.S.), Georgia’s Broderick Jones and Tennessee’s Darnell Wright. Others expected to draw early attention: G O’Cyrus Torrence, Florida, G Steve Avila, TCU; T Cody Mauch, North Dakota State; C John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota; C Joe Tippman, Wisconsin; T Anton Harrison, Oklahoma; T Matthew Bergeron, Syracuse; G Emil Ekiyor, Alabama (Cathedral H.S.).
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