Colts GM Chris Ballard prepares for NFL Draft

Colts GM Chris Ballard

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The challenge stares Chris Ballard and his expansive personnel staff right smack dab in the face.

Sure, you guys had a boffo draft in 2018, led by a pair of first-team All-Pros in Quenton Nelson and Darius Leonard, the first such rookie tandem since Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus in 1965. Nine of your 11 selections started at least two games for a team that earned a wild-card playoff spot and won a first-round game.

It rivaled the 2012 draft (Andrew Luck, T.Y. Hilton, Coby Fleener, Dwayne Allen, Vick Ballard, etc.) and the 1998 draft (Peyton Manning, Steve McKinney, etc.) as the most influential in the Colts’ Indianapolis era.

Now, do it again.

Whatcha got for an encore?

More of the same.

“I think we just stay consistent with the things that we believe in,’’ Ballard said Monday afternoon in his pre-draft meeting with the media. “The athletic traits that we’re looking for in players, the character that we’re looking in players, players who love to play football. I think we just stay down the same path that we went.

“It’s only happened once before where you get two All-Pro players in the draft, so what we did, what our team did, was outstanding work. We’ll try to do it again.’’

They’ll do so once again loaded with picks and options.

As the seven-round, 254-selection NFL Draft unfolds Thursday through Saturday, the Colts are primed and ready with nine selections, including three of the top 59 and four in the first three rounds.

The evaluation process began last August and has involved more than 1,700 hours of meeting, sharing, debating and arguing before finally reaching a consensus on this player or that player.

Ballard’s final board probably will consist of 160-180 draft-worthy prospects and feature a handful that likely will be available when the Colts are on the clock with the 26th overall pick of the first round.

“You want to filter out the guys you know just don’t fit,’’ he said. “Whether it’s from a schematic standpoint, athletic standpoint, character standpoint, let’s filter them out. And it takes discipline on draft day.’’

Using a broad brush, Ballard believes this year’s draft lacks the top-end, top-tier talent of the 2018 edition. Get to the middle of round 1, he said, and one team might have a prospect ranked No. 17 on its board while another team might have that same player slotted at No. 70.

“I think it’s a matter of flavor and who you like and who you want,’’ he said.

Twelve months ago, Ballard headed into the draft with the 6th overall pick following a trade with the New York Jets. He was comforted by the knowledge the Colts would come away with one of the elite players, which turned out to be Nelson, a generational guard out of Notre Dame.

There’s no such clarity with the No. 26 slot, but that hasn’t diminished Ballard’s optimism.

“Yeah, we’ve got a cluster,’’ he said. “There are about eight players that we currently have that are clustered in that we will consider. Some of them will be gone. You hope all eight aren’t gone, but if that happens we will be ready for it.

“But we are pretty confident one will be there.’’

An edge pass rusher? A safety or cornerback? A receiver to ease T.Y. Hilton’s load? An offensive lineman? More help for the defensive line? A tight end?

Ballard wasn’t in a sharing mood when asked about the Colts’ perceived needs, but revealed free-agent acquisitions – defensive end Justin Houston and wideout Devin Funchess – addressed two areas the team wanted to upgrade heading into the offseason.

“I think that takes a little pressure off of you in the draft,’’ he said, “where you’re not just forced to take a position.’’

However the draft unfolds, Ballard and his staff will steadfastly follow another tenet: when it comes to taking the best player or addressing a need, take the best player. Period.

“You can’t force anything, OK?’’ he said. “And I think that’s where teams make mistakes. If you have a need and two players are equal on he board, absolutely you’re going to take the need.

“But if there’s a spread – if you have one rated at 10 and the other rated at 35 – you’re going to take the higher ranked player. We’re pretty confident in our ability of the things we’re looking for in each position and in each player.’’

The caveat regarding anyone the Colts consider drafting? Character.

A significant part of the evaluation process is determining whether a player brings any off-field baggage with him, and if he does, should that eliminate him from consideration altogether, diminish when to take him or have no impact?

“There’s guys that have some character risks that we have on the board, but we’re comfortable with them,’’ Ballard said. “They wouldn’t be on the board if we weren’t comfortable with them.

“We might know them and move them down, but we filtered it out enough to where our board is pretty clean from our standpoint. Anybody that’s up there, we’re willing to take.’’

About Anthony Castonzo

Ballard was asked whether the status of left tackle Anthony Castonzo – he’s entering in the final year of his contract – might impact the Colts’ draft strategy. Might they be in the market for his eventual successor?

“We like Anthony Castonzo,’’ Ballard said. “Without question we like Anthony Castonzo. I think you go on a year-to-year basis on that. It comes down to not forcing anything.’’

If an intriguing tackle is available to the Colts, no one should be surprised if the Colts take him.

“Will we be against taking a tackle? No,’’ Ballard said. “I think y’all know my thoughts on the o-line. Those aren’t changing. You can’t have enough good offensive linemen and I think we all know the importance of the position to win in this league.’’

Tipping hand with meetings

In the weeks leading up to the draft, this player has been linked to that team because of a specific team showing a certain level of interest in that player.

“Anybody we draft,’’ Ballard said, “we’ve talked to them. Saying that, are we reaching out to them right now? Probably not.

“We are trying to keep the cards as close as we can to the vest.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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