With Colts, character matters in the pre-draft evaluation process

Chris Ballard on 4-22-2019

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Determining the measurables is the easy part, relatively speaking.

We’re talking size, weight, time in the 40-yard dash, short-term burst and explosiveness, athleticism, agility and overall health.

But once Chris Ballard and his vast scouting department have compiled a player’s quantifiable attributes, they must do a much deeper dive into someone they might add to the Indianapolis Colts locker room.

Ballard’s final board probably will include no more than 180 draft-worthy prospects when the NFL Draft commences Thursday evening in Nashville, Tenn. It’s been pared down from the 10,000-plus candidates the scouts began scrutinizing in their attempt at reinforcing the roster with the next wave of young talent.

That’s a critical step in the evaluation process, and a multi-faceted one.

“You want to filter out the guys you know just don’t fit,’’ Ballard said. “Whether it’s from a schematic standpoint, athletic standpoint, character standpoint, let’s filter them out.’’

The importance of the character issue can’t be overstated. Occasionally, a team’s tolerance for a player’s off-field issues is impacted by that player’s talent level. The better the player, the more willingness to deal with whatever baggage he might bring to the roster.

In his first draft as Colts general manager in 2017, Ballard took Joe Mixon off his board. There were too many red flags for off-field issues to consider the talented Oklahoma running back.

At the time, Ballard had no interest in inserting an at-risk talent into what would be a young locker room.

That locker room has matured and is much more stable, but Ballard’s approach hasn’t changed.

“No, and it won’t change,’’ he said. “Y’all have heard me talk about this enough man. The locker room is important to us. I only think you can go as far as your locker room wants to take you. You’ve got to have enough talent in that locker room, but you also got to have guys that are willing to work, willing to struggle, willing to do things it takes to win and willing to do it together.

“I think you have to stay consistent because the first time . . . look, the first time you think, ‘Oh man, we are this close. Man, let’s just go take a bite of the apple.’ Well, then it burns you. We are pretty strict on what gets in.’’

The Colts reportedly had some level of interest in Seattle defensive end Frank Clark, who was on the trading block. He’s 25 and had a career-high 14 sacks in 2018. But his past also includes a domestic violence/assault incident while he was at Michigan.

The Seahawks pulled the trigger on a trade with Kansas City this week and it was immense. The Chiefs gave up their first-round pick in Thursday’s draft (29th overall) and a 2020 second-rounder, then signed Clark to a five-year, $105 million contract that includes roughly $63 million in guarantees.

Was that way too much for the Colts to pursue such a trade? Or, after initially kicking the tires, was Clark’s baggage a non-starter?

Among the intriguing prospects in this year’s draft is Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons. Many draft analysts consider him a top-5 talent. However, he suffered a torn ACL while training in February that will limit his availability as a rookie, if not keep him off the field altogether.

Also, Simmons’ past includes assaulting a woman following his senior year at high school and before he enrolled at Mississippi State. By all accounts, it was a one-time incident and Simmons has been exemplary since.

The task facing scouts, with Simmons and others: was it a one-time mistake, or is there a risk of a second?

“It’s our job, it’s our scouts’ jobs to get to the core of what we think these players are as human beings and how they are going to be in the building and how they are going to represent the Colts,’’ Ballard said. “It’s our job to get it right.

“Are we going to be 100 percent perfect? No. And that’s even the clean ones. Even the ones you think there are no issues, you still have to dig. You can’t do enough digging on each and every guy in this draft.’’

Ballard’s confidence in his scouting staff is unwavering, and he demands much of it.

“We make it hard on our scouts,’’ he said. “They spend a lot of hours talking to these guys, talking to friends, family and people around them, trying to get to know them and who they are.

“And it’s not an easy thing to do because look, when they are entering the draft everybody wants them to do well. They do. People want them to do well. I get it. But finding people that will tell you the truth, really tell you the truth (is difficult).

“I think the more time you spend with somebody, you find out who they are at their core and we task our scouts to do that. So whether they’re bad and they’ve made mistakes or whether they’re good, we are still digging.’’

The Colts have done that over the past several months, and their draft board still includes players who have some type of issue that merited notation.

“There are guys that have some characteristics that we have on the board,’’ Ballard said, “but we are comfortable with them and they wouldn’t be on the board if we weren’t comfortable with them.

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

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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