INDIANAPOLIS – Chris Ballard never has disguised his roster-building approach.
It starts with the NFL draft. Always.
Listen to the man.
“I’m stubborn in this now. I mean, I am,’’ the Indianapolis Colts general manager said. “I really believe that the majority of your team needs to be built through your own guys.
“Am I against free agency? No, I’m not. But we want to be able to get a core group of young players that really make up the locker room and really define what we stand for, how we play, how we work.’’
That was one of his bullet points during a recent pre-draft press conference.
And this from any number of roster conversations: “You can’t buy a locker room.’’
This refresher isn’t necessarily to explain what has been another quiet free-agent signing period. While the New England Patriots, New York Jets, San Francisco 49ers and a few others have invested heavily in high-profile (i.e. expensive) talent, Ballard has offered one-year contracts to a handful of players likely to provide depth and not necessarily challenge for a starting spot (Sam Tevi, Julien Davenport, Chris Reed, Isaac Rochell, Sean Davis).
Instead of investing too much in other team’s castoffs, he’s re-signed his own (T.Y. Hilton, Xavier Rhodes, Marlon Mack, Al-Quadin Muhammad) and extended one-year restricted tenders to Zach Pascal, Mo Alie-Cox and George Odum.
Once again, Ballard and his personnel staff have bided time and focused on, that’s right, the draft. Everything comes to a head April 29-May 1 in Cleveland.
The Colts hold six overall picks, including the 21st overall. They shipped their third-rounder to the Philadelphia Eagles as part of the trade for quarterback Carson Wentz.
Before diving into how the Colts plan on approaching the draft – a left tackle, an edge pass rusher, a tight end, a corner, a wideout? – it’s worth looking back at Ballard’s first four drafts, which consists of 38 overall selections.
At the end of 2020, there were 61 players under contract (active roster, injured reserve, Covid opt-out). Thirty-nine (64%) were draft picks or undrafted rookies signed shortly after the draft.
Of the 38 draft picks, 27 are still around. Twenty-five of Ballard’s draft picks started at least one game and 15 started at least 10.
Several are heading into make-it-or-break-it seasons (Parris Campbell, Ben Banogu, Rock Ya-Sin, perhaps Kemoko Turay). A few already have established themselves as cornerstones (Quenton Nelson, Darius Leonard, Braden Smith, Grover Stewart, perhaps Nyheim Hines). A few more could join the latter group (Jonathan Taylor, Michael Pittman Jr., Khari Willis, Bobby Okereke, Julian Blackmon).
There clearly were exceptions to the homegrown approach, and significant ones: quarterback Philip Rivers (free agent signing), defensive tackle DeForest Buckner (trade), nickel corner Kenny Moore II (waivers), guard Mark Glowinski (waivers), defensive ends Justin Houston (free agent) and Denico Autry (free agent) and tight end Jack Doyle (waivers).
But the draft has shaped the roster and will continue to do so.
- The class: S Malik Hooker (R1), CB Quincy Wilson (R2), DE Tarell Basham (R3), OT Zach Banner (R4), RB Marlon Mack (R4), DT Grover Stewart (R4), CB Nate Hairston (R5), LB Anthony Walker (R6).
- The good: It took production from the bottom half of the draft to compensate for misfortune and mistakes at the top. Mack was the Colts’ leading rusher in 2018-19 before suffering an Achilles injury in the ’20 opener. Walker established himself as a defensive leader in four seasons before signing with Cleveland last month. Stewart has developed into an interior presence and was rewarded in November with a three-year, $30.75 million extension.
- The bad: Hooker lived up to the hype until injuries began piling up and the Colts shifted to Matt Eberflus’ defensive scheme. He tore his Achilles in week 2 of last season and remains unsigned. Wilson’s inconsistencies led to a trade to the Jets after his third season while the team decided Basham wasn’t the answer to its pass-rush issues just one month into his second season. He’s now with his third team (Dallas) in five years. Banner didn’t make it to the season opener.
- The class: G Quenton Nelson (R1), LB Darius Leonard (R2), OT Braden Smith (R2), DE Kemoko Turay (R2), DL Tyquan Lewis (R2), RB Nyheim Hines (R4), WR Reece Fountain (R5), RB Jordan Wilkins (R5), WR Deon Cain (R6), LB Matthew Adams (R7), LB Zaire Franklin (R7).
- The good: Two first-team All-Pros (Nelson, Leonard), a long-term answer at right tackle (Smith), a versatile, playmaking running back (Hines), reliable depth at running back (Wilkins) and a pair of linebackers who have been valuable special teams contributors (Adams, Franklin). The ’18 draft is one of the team’s most influential since the ’12 edition delivered Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen and Vick Ballard to the roster.
- The bad: We’re still waiting for Turay to emerge as a viable pass-threat. He’s shown flashes, but injuries keep impeding his progress. He’s missed 23 of 48 regular-season games. He needs to stay on the field and be the force Ballard anticipated when he made him the draft’s 52nd overall pick.
- The class: CB Rock Ya-Sin (R2), DE Ben Banogu (R2), WR Parris Campbell (R2), LB Bobby Okereke (R3), S Khari Willis (R4), CB Marvell Tell III (R5), LB E.J. Speed (R5), DE/LB Gerri Green, OL Jackson Barton (R7), OL Javon Patterson (R7).
- The good: The biggest hits have been Okereke and Willis. Okereke’s rapid development essentially made Walker expendable. Willis has settled in as a back-end enforcer with 153 tackles, two interceptions and seven passes defensed in 23 starts.
- The bad: Maybe we should list this as “The incomplete.’’ Ya-Sin has been wildly inconsistent and leads the team in one dubious category: penalties. Campell’s playmaking skills have been evident when he’s been on the field, but injuries have limited him to nine games and 24 receptions in two seasons. Banogu has been a non-factor with 15 tackles and 2.5 sacks in 25 games. Tell showed promise as a rookie before opting out of 2020 with COVID-19 concerns.
- The class: WR Michael Pittman Jr. (R2), RB Jonathan Taylor (R2), S Julian Blackmon (R3), QB Jacob Eason (R4), OL Danny Pinter (R5), DT Rob Windsor (R6), CB Isaiah Rodgers (R6), WR Dezmon Patmon (R6), LB Jordan Glasgow (R7).
- The good: There’s so much to like from this group. After a slow start, Taylor emerged as one of the NFL’s top backs. He finished third in rushing with 1,169 yards – 3rd-most by a Colts’ rookie – and set a single-game record with 253 yards against Jacksonville in week 17. Similarly, Pittman’s rookie season was slowed by an early, serious leg injury, but he finished strong. Blackmon pared nicely with Willis and Rodgers gave special teams a major boost. He had a 101-yard kickoff return for a TD against Cleveland and his 212 return yards are the 3rd-most in a game in franchise history.
- The bad: No complaints to this point. The only negative from last season was Eason’s progress being stunted by the lack of preseason games.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.