‘We’ll continue to build this team the way we believe’: Colts’ GM Chris Ballard sticks to his blueprint
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – In the NFL’s formative offseason, it’s been said a team either is getting better or getting worse.
Status quo seldom is an acceptable option.
That in mind, what should we make of the fact the current Indianapolis Colts are virtually identical to the bunch that finished last season by winning 10 of 11 games, including a first-round playoff meeting with the Texans in Houston? And were overwhelmed in the second round of the postseason at Kansas City?
We’re at that point in the offseason – less than two weeks in, it must be noted – when knee-jerk reactions are commonplace, and often misguided.
But we’re also getting further evidence Chris Ballard is going to do things his way. Period.
While so many franchises have once again invested millions in guarantees to high-profile free agents, Ballard and his staff have kicked a few tires, deemed Player A or Player B didn’t merit a $20-30-40 million contract and pulled back.
“We thought there were some good players on the market and dabbled in to see if we could get something done,” he said during a Thursday appearance on 1070 The Fan. “Just couldn’t get a price point where we felt comfortable with what the player was going to give us.”
The Colts’ only free-agent addition: wide receiver Devin Funchess on a one-year deal with a maximum value of $13 million.
Rather than spend too much time – and Jim Irsay’s money – on other team’s discards, Ballard has made it a point to re-sign many of his own: Adam Vinatieri, Pierre Desir, Clayton Geathers, Mark Glowinski, Margus Hunt, Chester Rogers, Ross Travis, Matthias Farley, Evan Boehm, Luke Rhodes, Marcus Johnson, Chris Milton.
“When it’s your player who’s played for you and you know exactly what he is, we feel more comfortable paying for our own players,” Ballard said. “Is that to say we don’t want to sign a player in free agency? No.
“But it’s got to be at a price point we think is beneficial for both parties.”
And it’s got to supplement Ballard’s roster-building blueprint, not dominate it.
“Everybody has a different way of team building,” he said, “and I don’t know if you can sit here and say any way is right or wrong. This is what we believe in and this is the path we’re going to go.
“We’ll continue to build this team the way we believe.”
Nine of the starters at Kansas City are Ballard draft picks still operating under their rookie contracts. This remains a young team and the overriding objective is – always will be – cultivating and re-signing homegrown talent when it makes sense.
“People need to realize that a lot of these guys are not at their ceilings yet,” Ballard said. “Just take the offensive line. Do you think Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith are as good as they’re going to be after a year of (facing) bullets as a rookie? No difference with any of our young players.”
Are you attempting to build the roster to the point it’s able to match up with the Kansas City Chiefs, the Los Angeles Rams or New England Patriots?
“We’re not building a team to match up with other people,” Ballard replied. “We’re building a team for them to match up with us.”
That in mind, the makeup of the roster shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s remarkably similar – again, nearly identical – to the one that finished last season. Of the 53 players on the active roster for the playoffs, only seven players no longer are under contract. And that could change if Ballard opts to re-sign wideout Dontrelle Inman – “We’re still working through some details with that,” he said – or Najee Goode.
More to the point, 21 of the 22 players who started against the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium return. The only exception is J.J. Wilcox, who stepped in at free safety for injured Malik Hooker.
The only noticeable difference between then and now is Funchess replacing Inman in the receivers’ room.
However, the roster undoubtedly will morph in the coming weeks. Ballard still is looking for a viable free agent or two – the Colts have had visits with running back Jay Ajayi and defensive end Aaron Lynch – and has nine picks in the April 25-27 draft, including four in the top 89.
What fans see now isn’t what they’ll see when training camp opens in late July at Grand Park in Westfield.
Here’s a look at how the early phase of the offseason has impacted the AFC South:
- 2018: 10-6, wild-card berth; first-round win at Houston, second-round loss at Kansas City.
- Key players re-signed: PK Adam Vinatieri, CB Pierre Desir, S Clayton Geathers, G Mark Glowinski, WR Chester Rogers, DL Margus Hunt, S Matthias Farley, TE Ross Travis.
- Key additions: WR Devin Funchess.
- Key losses: WR Dontrelle Inman (unrestricted free agent), Matt Slauson (retired).
- Comment: As long as Andrew Luck is under center, the Colts are a contender. Period. In the four seasons he hasn’t dealt with right-shoulder issues, they’re 11-5, 11-5, 11-5 and 10-6, reached the postseason four times and won at least one playoff game three times. Ballard’s challenge is sufficiently upgrading the roster around his franchise QB.
- 2018: 11-5, AFC South champion; first-round loss to Colts.
- Players re-signed: DE/LB Jadeveon Clowney (franchise tag).
- Key additions: S Tashaun Gipson, CB Bradley Roby, CB Briean Baddy-Calhoun, TE Darren Fells.
- Key losses: S Tyrann Mathiew (Chiefs), CB Kareem Jackson (Bills), CB Kevin Johnson.
- Comment: It was a no-brainer to tag Clowney. Can you imagine the bounty he would have commanded on the open market? The Texans have remade their secondary, losing Mathieu, Jackson and Johnson in free agency and replacing them with Gipson (Jacksonville), Roby (Denver) and Baddy-Calhoun (Cleveland).
- 2018: 5-11.
- Players re-signed: G A.J.Cann.
- Key free-agent signings: QB Nick Foles, WR Chris Conley, OL Cedric Oghuehi, LB Jake Ryan.
- Key losses: QB Blake Bortles, WR Donte Moncrief, Malik Jackson.
- Comment: The Bortles era is over, which has to be a good thing for the Jaguars. They reached the 2017 AFC title game but regressed last year. It would be piling on to blame Bortles for what was an organizational meltdown, but it’s impossible not to mention his career record (24-49), the 75 interceptions and 59.3 completion rate. Welcome to Jacksonville, Mr. Foles. You can begin earning your $88 million contract immediately.
- 2018: 9-7.
- Players re-signed: S Kenny Vaccaro.
- Key additions: QB Ryan Tannehill (trade), WR Adam Humphries, OT Rodger Saffold, DE Cameron Wake.
- Key losses: G Josh Kline.
- Comment: The Titans have been busy adding interesting pieces – how much does Wake have left in the tank? – and the most noticeable addition was Tannehill. The trade with Miami brought in the latest insurance policy for Marcus Mariota, who has been inconsistent and injury-prone. Tannehill possesses a modest resume – 42-46 record as a starter, 123 touchdowns, 75 interceptions, an 87.0 passer rating – but clearly is an upgrade over previous Titans backup QBs. The list: Blaine Gabbert, Matt Cassel and Zach Mettenberger. That trio combined for a 3-6 record in the starter’s role.