Finding right fit is key for Colts’ GM Chris Ballard as he considers veteran free agency

Indianapolis Colts

Colts GM Chris Ballard

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Chris Ballard has the means and motive to be one of the more active shoppers on the NFL’s veteran free-agent market.

The overriding question: How active will the Indianapolis Colts’ first-year general manager actually be?

Stay tuned.

The NFL’s annual right of a handful of players hitting the lottery, a slew of changing teams, and too many teams spending too much money while searching for a quick fix begins Thursday–the start of the new league year. Teams can open negotiations with free agents at noon Tuesday although contracts cannot be finalized until 4 p.m. Thursday.

Ballard’s approach of choice in building a better Colts roster is through the draft. Find quality players. Develop them and re-sign them when their rookie contracts expire.

But he also realizes veteran free agency is part of the process.

As we mentioned, Ballard has the means. With the retirement of offensive lineman Joe Reitz, the Colts are about $55 million under their $173.6 million salary cap limit. That number would grow if they release additional veterans, such as defensive tackle Art Jones ($5.15 million savings).

And as we mentioned, Ballard has motivation. The Colts’ roster isn’t up to snuff. The defense requires serious attention through free agency and the draft on April 27 – 29.

Ballard addressed free agency when he met with the media during the NFL Scouting Combine.

“Alright, I’ll give you my thoughts because I don’t want to create the misconception that we are never going to hit free agency,’’ he said. “That’s not right.

“What I am going to say, though, is when we do dip into free agency and sign other players, we have to be right on the player we sign.’’

That’s in part because the price of doing business on the free-agent market is exorbitant. The Colts have been a hit-and-miss bunch in free agency the past five seasons.

The notable hits: Running back Frank Gore (three-year, $12 million contract), linebackers D’Qwell Jackson (four years, $22 million) and Erik Walden (four years, $16 million), defensive ends Cory Redding (three years, $10.5 million) and Kendall Langford (four years, $17.2 million) and quarterback Matt Hasselbeck (two years, $7.25 million).

The unforgettable misses: Safety LaRon Landry (four years, $24 million), wide receiver Andre Johnson (3 years, $21 million), defensive tackle Art Jones (five years, $33 million), guards Donald Thomas (four years, $14 million) and Todd Herremans (one year, $2.225 million). There are more, but you get the idea.

Ballard made it clear it’s imperative to invest in the total package. Talent is paramount, but so is fit in the locker room. No one ever accused Landry of being a veteran presence in the locker room, and he opted to spend his offseasons training away from the team.

By contrast, Redding, Jackson and Gore were leaders on and off the field.

“You pay a guy a lot of money and you plug him into the locker room,’’ Ballard explained. “The locker room is watching. In my mind that guy has to be a good teammate. He has to earn it. He has to earn that money and earn that right.

“And he has to be a fit. He has to be a fit for what you are doing offensively and defensively. That’s where my fear of free agency comes in. Is he a good fit? Is he the type of person that is going to come in and the other players are not going to resent him because he is making an amount of money?

“If he is a worker and a good teammate and he is going to help us win, then they will buy in and he will be a good player for us.’’

It’s not hyperbole to suggest the Colts’ quick return to relevancy will be greatly accelerated by how they fare on the free-agent market. They have holes to fill, and the cap space to address that.

“Are we going to be 100 percent right?’’ Ballard asked. “No. I wish I was. I will end up where Mr. (Bill) Polian was if I was, but I am realistic.’’

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