Free agency will test Colts GM Chris Ballard’s ‘fiscal responsibility’


Colts GM Chris Ballard

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – So far, Chris Ballard has kept true to his word: the Indianapolis Colts general manager is re-investing in his own.

Adam Vinatieri, Mark Glowinski, Ross Travis and Margus Hunt have signed extensions, keeping them off the NFL’s veteran free agent market which opens March 13.

We’re expecting a few more deals in the coming days. Dontrelle Inman seems to be, to borrow a phrase from Hunt after he signed his two-year, $9 million deal Tuesday, a “no-brainer.’’ Maybe Clayton Geathers, if a contract can be worked out that reflects the veteran safety’s on-field value but also takes into account him missing 22 games the last three seasons.

Ballard also might extend linebacker/locker room presence Najee Goode, wideout Chester Rogers, safety Matthias Farley and center Evan Boehm.

Soon, Ballard’s attention will shift from retaining his own to pursuing other teams’ discards, er, free agents. Contact with agents for free agents is allowed March 11 and deals can be consummated two days later.

Might he go off script and dive into the deep-end of the pool? Might he do more than simply kick the tires – do his due diligence – with safety Landon Collins (Giants), defensive end Trey Flowers (Patriots), defensive end Za’Darius Smith (Ravens) or wideout Tyrell Williams (Chargers)? Might he consider trading for one of the Chiefs’ pass rushers, Dee Ford or Justin Houston?

To add high-end talent will require a high-end contract. It’s been floated Collins might command a five-year deal worth as much as $60 million that includes nearly $20 million in guarantees. He’s a rare commodity on the open market: he just turned 25, is a three-time Pro Bowl selection and considered a supreme leader with no red flags.

“If we think it’s the best thing for our team, we will always try to do the right thing,’’ Ballard said last week. “So if we see a player, even if we have a good player at the position, but we think, ‘Hey, this guys is the one to put us over the top,’ we’ll make the move.’’

The Colts have resisted making that type of move during Ballard’s first two years as GM. That in part was because the roster wasn’t ready to challenge for anything other than a return to respectability.

Now, it’s hardly a stretch to argue they’re a player or three away – a pass rusher, a wideout, secondary help – from being a legitimate contender for something more than an AFC wild-card berth. They’ve got a healthy Andrew Luck, a four-time Pro Bowl wideout in T.Y. Hilton, one of the NFL’s premier offensive lines and a young, improved defense led by NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard.

“Team’s pretty good,’’ Ballard said. “Are we where we need to be yet from a talent perspective? No, we’re not. I’m not going to sit here and blow smoke up y’all and make you think we are.

“We still have work to do. But we are better and we are a good football team. I’m pretty confident in our ability to go and find answers.’’

Here’s where we remind you Ballard is sitting on more than $100 million of cap space and works for an owner more than willing to dole out whatever it takes to acquire talent.

But it’s also worth remembering he has strictly adhered to his approach. Ballard and his personnel staff place a specific value on a player and proceed accordingly in negotiations. Frequently, previous regimes targeted a player and did whatever it took – fattening offers – to sign him.

Ballard’s adherence to not overpaying on the free-agent market has been evident in his selective and relatively conservative shopping the last two offseasons. He’s signed at least 18 veteran free agents, including 12 who would start.

Only one was given a contract that included double-digit guaranteed money: nose tackle Johnathan Hankins, whose three-year, $30 million deal included $14.5 million in guarantees. Jabaal Sheard’s three-year, $25.5 million deal included $9.5 million in guarantees.

Ballard’s two biggest investments last offseason – defensive end Denico Autry and tight end Eric Ebron – included modest guarantees: $6.5 million for Autry on a three-year deal and $6 million for Ebron over two years.

Again, Priority 1 always is retaining your own talent. As a coaching and personnel staff, you have a much better grip on your own free-agents-to-be; their strengths and weaknesses, their quirks. Free agency, as enticing as it may be, too often involves too many risks. Players are available for a variety of reasons: age, a history of injury or underperforming, cost, an ill fit in the offensive or defensive system.

“Paying your own guys,’’ Ballard said. “You’re rewarding the guys in the locker room who have done the right things for you.

“It stinks for us if we lose the player, but we place a value on every guy. We do, and we’re gonna be very disciplined in that regard.’’

That fiscal responsibility has been most evident on the free-agent market, and figures to be tested again next week.

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