Chris Ballard: If Colts opt for QB in draft, they won’t force it

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN – FEBRUARY 13: General manager Chris Ballard of the Indianapolis Colts addresses the media following a press conference introducing head coach Frank Reich at Lucas Oil Stadium on February 13, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A draft like none before it looms: one of the NFL’s signature, fan-fueled events will unfold next week remotely as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

So does a question that hasn’t been a front-burner issue for the Indianapolis Colts since the Andrew Luck-or-Robert Griffin III discussion in 2012: must the franchise find their quarterback of the future with one of their early picks?

During a Zoom video conference call Friday, Chris Ballard prefaced his pre-draft discussion by addressing the “unprecedented time’’ the country finds itself in and thanking the “heroic’’ health care workers and first responders.

Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb has extended his stay-at-home order through May 1, which Ballard wholeheartedly endorsed.

“It’s been an inconvenience for everybody,’’ he said, “but it’s been the right thing to do. I always say there’s always light in the darkness . . . you’ve just got to find it.’’

Once Ballard began fielding draft-related questions, more than a few dealt with the Colts’ quarterback situation.

Did the addition of Philip Rivers with a one-year, $25 million contract impact whether the team might be in the market for its QB of the future next week?

The Colts hold seven overall picks, including two in round 2 (Nos. 34 and 44 overall) and one in round 3 (No. 75). What’s worth noting is as it now stands, the team has zero QBs under contract in 2021. Rivers and Jacoby Brissett will be unrestricted free agents at the end of the season. Chad Kelly will be restricted.

“We’ll make decisions when they need to be made and we’ll always have our eye on that position,’’ Ballard said. “I wish I had a crystal ball in front of me to be able to rub it and tell you what we’re going to look like a year from now.

“I’m just trying to get through the next week here, to get through the draft.’’

It’s conceivable Ballard, Frank Reich and their personnel staff have targeted a quarterback with one of their higher picks. The plan would be to have that prospect – Jordan Love, Jacob Eason, Jake Fromm, Jalen Hurts, somebody – sit and watch a year or two behind Rivers before assuming control of the offense.

If that’s the case, rest assured Ballard will be unequivocally sold on that QB. He won’t be drafting and hoping.

“I think I’ve talked about this numerous times,’’ he said. “You can’t force that. You can’t force the quarterback position, especially in the draft. I think history has shown that.’’

The examples seem endless: Blake Bortles, Jake Locker, Blaine Gabbert, etc.

“It’s got to be the right guy, the right fit for us and our staff and for our organization,’’ Ballard said. “So I don’t know when that’s going to happen. Maybe this year, maybe next year, maybe two years from now. 

“I’m not going to force it, much to everyone’s dismay. And it might drive everybody nuts, but I’m not going to force that issue. When it’s time to take one up that we think is going to be the future guy of this franchise, we’ve got to be right.’’

Ballard obviously lessened the urgency of finding the future guy when he put the franchise’s present in the hands of the 38-year old Rivers. He did so with a one-year contract, but it’s entirely possible Rivers re-ups for 2021 if things go as planned this season.

“I don’t want to discount Jacoby Brissett,’’ Ballard said. “Jacoby Brissett’s still a good player. This is a unique situation with Philip. You have a potential Hall of Fame quarterback hit the market that has history with both our head coach and our offensive coordinator.

“For now, we feel pretty good about the position.’’

A few other tidbits from Ballard’s pre-draft conference call:

Looking at the wideouts: Ballard has been busy during the offseason, but none of his additions has addressed Rivers’ supporting cast in the passing game. The receivers room features T.Y. Hilton, Parris Campbell, Zack Pascal and Reece Fountain, but help is needed.

“Getting T.Y. Hilton back healthy again, getting Parris Campbell healthy again, having Zach Pascal . . . it’s not like it’s a complete void at the position,’’ Ballard said. “We do think we have some talented guys there.’’

However, the draft is ridiculously deep at wideout. No one should be surprised if Ballard snatches one in round 2.

“There is a lot of depth at wideout,’’ he said. “We feel very good about that, at every level, from guys we think can start to guys that we think can play significant roles.

“We’re not going to force a pick. You make your biggest mistakes when you force things. We’re always going to take the best player.’’

Taking the best player: Ballard was asked if he ever made a mistake by reaching for a player because that player addressed a specific need, even though he wasn’t the “best player’’ available.

His mind quickly flashed to 2018. After trading the 3rd overall pick to the New York Jets, Ballard held the 6th overall selection. He went against conventional wisdom by selecting Quenton Nelson. The last time the Colts selected a guard in round 1? Ron Solt in 1984. The last time a true collegiate guard was taken with a top-6 pick in the NFL? New Orleans’ Jim Dombrowski in ’86.

“Everybody said you can’t take a guard at 6,’’ Ballard said. “I heard it in a lot of different spots. (But) you take the best player, man. You take the best player.

“Quenton Nelson was the best freaking player at that point in the draft. I’m not sure if he wasn’t the best player in the entire draft. That to me solidified it. You know what? I don’t care what position he’s at, take the best player.

“I think we know the impact that kid’s had.’’

Nelson is the first player in team history and the first offensive lineman since 1970 to be named first-team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons.

About that first-round pick: What many believed to be a stunning move by Ballard – sending the 13th overall pick in the draft to San Francisco for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner – was “easy.’’

“I thought it was very easy,’’ he said. “He’s a 26-year old . . . he’s got everything we stand for . . . he’s a producer. All you’ve got to do is put on the Super Bowl game. The great players produce in big games. I mean that guy played his ass off and he was disruptive the entire game.

“He plays a premium position in this defense. It was an easy decision. I know the 13th pick is a high price, but we haven’t made a lot of big moves like this. I thought it was a no-brainer.

“Look, premium players cost a premium price. At the end of the day, the 13th pick versus DeForest was a no-brainer.’’

Football in September?: The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the vast majority of the country to hit the pause button. The NFL has attempted to go about its business although that has required doing so remotely. The league is expected to release the 2020 schedule around May 9, but it’s anyone’s guess whether the 16-game schedule will unfold with fans in the stands, in empty stadiums or in some condensed form.

“I don’t know, I really don’t. That’s just being honest,’’ Ballard said. “We’ll follow what the league has us to. They’ll have a plan. I know this: they’ll do what’s best for the safety of all – for the safety of our fans, for the safety of our players, safety of our staff.

“I’m always going to prepare, plan for the best. We will prepare as though we’re starting up and ready to go when training camp starts, if that’s when it is. Hopefully sooner. You never know.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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