Colts GM Chris Ballard takes Bill Polian-like approach to building roster

Colts GM Chris Ballard

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – At the risk of over-simplifying the situation, the Chris Ballard-led Indianapolis Colts are in the midst of Bill Polian 2.0.

Deal with it.

That means whenever the NFL’s free agent market rolls around, the team basically stands around and admires the scenery while everyone else ponies up mega dollars for what appears to be attractive talent.

For the most part, Polian did precisely that.

And Ballard is following suit.

Again, complain and throw chairs if it makes you feel better.

But deal with it ‘cause Ballard, like Polian before him, isn’t likely to undergo a philosophical about-face it comes to constructing a roster.

The new league year began Wednesday and seismic ripples from free-agent signings and trades were felt from Pittsburgh to Oakland. The names were top of the line: Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell, Landon Collins, Odell Beckham Jr., Earl Thomas, Nick Foles, Joe Flacco, C.J. Mosley, Trey Flowers.

The guaranteed money was staggering. The New York Jets funneled nearly $88 million in guarantees to Bell and Mosley. The Oakland Raiders committed almost $90 million in guarantees for Brown, offensive tackle Trent Brown and wideout Tyrell Williams. Collins is getting $45 million from Washington regardless how he plays, and Foles $50 million from Jacksonville.

The Colts? Their only sampling on the free-agent market has been Devin Funchess, the former Carolina wideout who relocated to Indy with a one-year contract that could max out at $13 million.

That’s it.

But it’s not.

As Polian was fond of saying, the Colts have been active in free agency. They’ve been busy re-signing their own. Among the more significant players retained have been cornerback Pierre Desir (three years, $25 million), placekicker Adam Vinatieri (one year, $3.825 million), guard Mark Glowinski (three years, $18 million) and defensive lineman Margus Hunt (two years, $9 million).

Check out social media and you’ll quickly notice a portion of the fan base isn’t enthralled with what the Colts have done – or not done – this week.

But Ballard has made his roster-building thoughts clear – crystal clear – since the first day he sat in the GM’s chair. He’s bullish on building from within. Be strong in the draft. Develop your own. Re-sign your own. Be selective and sensible in free agency and use it to fill in specific positional holes.

Nothing has changed even though Ballard entered the offseason with more than $100 million in cap space, most in the league, and an owner more than willing to spend to acquire talent.

We’re not saying we’re in lockstep with that approach. The draft must be the backbone of the roster. But in many instances, it takes a bold – and expensive – move in free agency to acquire what’s missing from the Colts’ roster, and that’s a difference-maker or two. A pass rusher. A proven No. 2 receiver.

But again, that wasn’t Polian. And it’s not Ballard.

For those in need of a refresher course on the Polian-led Colts, the franchise’s ultra-successful run in the 2000s was a byproduct of impeccable drafting (until that tailed off late), those early picks developing into Pro Bowlers in many instances and management reinvesting in its own. Free agency was a fallback when a glaring need arose.

Homegrown talent that was rewarded with second (and sometimes third) contracts included Peyton Manning, Marvin Harrison, Reggie Wayne, Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Gary Brackett, Dallas Clark, Ken Dilger, Marcus Pollard, Tarik Glenn, Adam Meadows, Bob Sanders, Kelvin Hayden and Antoine Bethea. Jeff Saturday wasn’t homegrown, but at one point the Colts made him one of the NFL’s highest-paid centers.

Polian used free agency in 1999 to restock an awful defense. He made Chad Bratzke one of the league’s highest-paid defensive players (a six-year, $30 million contract with a $9 million signing bonus) and added linebacker Cornelius Bennett, safety Chad Cota and end Shawn King.

After that, significant free-agent signings were rare: Qadry Ismail (2002), Montae Reagor (2003), Brandon Stokley (2003), Vinatieri (2006).

One overriding aspect of Ballard’s approach demands patience from the fan base, and that’s his commitment to reinvesting in his own. In two-plus offseasons, he’s re-signed Jack Doyle, Darius Butler, Glowinski, Hunt, Vinatieri (twice) and Desir (twice).

Patience is required because of what’s on the horizon. The Colts must prepare for several players whose contracts expire at the end of next season: Anthony Castonzo, Eric Ebron, Doyle, Jabaal Sheard, Vinatieri, Rigoberto Sanchez, Funchess, Kenny Moore, Joe Haeg and Jacoby Brissett. Center Ryan Kelly’s four-year rookie deal expires after 2019, but the Colts more than likely will exercise the fifth-year option and keep him through 2020 before dealing with a multi-year extension.

The bottom line: We’re not defending Ballard’s approach, simply explaining it.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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