For Colts’ GM Chris Ballard, ‘best player’ drives NFL draft approach

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It’s the overriding acronym as the NFL Draft looms: BPA.

Best Player Available.

Should a general manager use his coveted first-round pick, or subsequent selections for that matter, to address a glaring positional need?

Best player available.

What if the BPA is at a position already stocked with talent?

Best player available.

The Indianapolis Colts, who hold seven picks in the April 27-29 draft including the 15th overall, have spent the offseason addressing what has been an eyesore of a defense. Of the 11 veteran free agents signed, seven are defensive talent.

Colts General Manager Chris Ballard.

Will that impact how the Colts attack the draft? Might they shift course and provide Andrew Luck with a new toy?

Best player available.

Listen to Chris Ballard, who’s on the verge of overseeing his first draft as the Colts’ first-year general manager.

“I think teams make big mistakes in the draft and Lord knows I haven’t been perfect on the teams I’ve been on,’’ he said Wednesday. “We all make mistakes.

“But I don’t ever want to pass up a really good player that I think has a long career in this league that fits our criteria of what we want. If there’s a player in a round we identify and say, ‘OK, this is a guy we think’s going to be a good Colt, he fits our criteria,’ we won’t pass that guy up.’’

So, talent trumps need?

“Best talent, yes. Absolutely,’’ Ballard insisted. “Now if it’s even, we’ll go with need. One thing we will not do: if there’s a player in a round, even if we’re loaded at the position, we’ll still take the player.’’

To reinforce his conviction, Ballard shared a draft-day experience from his time with Kansas City. In 2014, the Chiefs held the 23rd overall pick and most outsiders believed the last thing they needed was another pass rusher. Justin Houston and Tamba Hali each had been selected to the Pro Bowl in 2012-13. They formed one of the NFL’s most feared pass-rush tandems.

The Chiefs’ choice: Dee Ford, a pass rusher out of Auburn.

“We saw a player we liked,’’ Ballard said.

Ford has emerged as a legit pass-rush threat in a league that’s evolved into a pass-happy venture.

That’s why everyone should heed Ballard’s pre-draft message. No one can legitimately argue against the need to add a blue-chip pass rusher to the mix. Or a cornerback.

However, if the Colts’ ranking of players points them in another direction when they’re on the clock with the 15th overall pick or in subsequent rounds, they’ll trust and follow their research.

That does come with a caveat. While Ballard made it clear it’s never a good idea to reach for a player to address a need, he has a comfort level if that situation presents itself. If two players are within “5 to 10 slots’’ of each other in his evaluation, need probably overrides sheer talent.

“I don’t see enough spread there unless there’s a huge separation in the talent to say you don’t take the need,’’ he said.

When time has allowed in the evening, Ballard buries himself in “The Cubs Way,’’ a book chronicling the rise to world champions under general manager Theo Epstein and manager Joe Madden.

A favorite quote from Madden as it pertains to directing his first draft: “Don’t let the pressure exceed the pleasure of the job.”

“I thought that said it all,’’ Ballard said. “This is what I’ve done 16 years, really even going back to (Texas) A&I when I was in Kingsville bringing in players.

“It’s what I have done. It’s what I know.’’

A few other takeaways from Ballard’s meeting with the local media:

Injured prospects: 

The Colts will take a long-term view on a player who might not offer immediate help on the field. Washington cornerback Sidney Jones, for instance, is a first-round talent who tore an Achilles while working out for scouts on his pro day.

“If we say he can have a long-term career and we think the upside of the player is what we want and think it’s high, then we’ll take a shot on the player,’’ Ballard said. “It’ll be difficult for us in the first few months as we take the daggers for doing it, but . . . you’ve got to have a long-term vision.

“It can’t be short-sighted, one-month thinking. That gets you in trouble.’’

Character issues:

Ballard was part of the Chiefs’ willingness to gamble on players with baggage. After doing their due diligence last season, the Chiefs selected wide receiver Tyreek Hill in round 5. In 2015, they used their first-round pick on cornerback Marcus Peters. Among the more controversial prospects next week is Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon, who was involved in a 2014 abuse situation where video showed him punching a female.

“Look, guys make mistakes,’’ Ballard said, “so it’s our job as an organization (to do) our work internally and make sure we exhaust it with the players to know what we’re getting with him when he enters the building. And then how he’s going to be in the community. It’s a case-by-case basis.

“If we’re not comfortable at the end of the day, they won’t be on the board.’’

Have the Colts taken Mixon or any other player off their board?

“We still haven’t gotten there yet,’’ Ballard said.

Strength of draft: 

The timing might be right for the Colts to further upgrade their roster. The strength of the draft – edge pass rusher, cornerback, safety, tight end, running back – coincides their many weaknesses.

Ballard noted safety and tight are positions “that are about as deep as I’ve seen in 16 years of doing this. Outstanding players at every level of the draft.’’

The draft, he added, “excites me because it is a good defensive draft and we do want to add some players defensively. But saying that, there’s some good offensive players, too.

“I don’t want to ignore the fact those guys are going to play and start and be good players in the league also. If there’s an offensive player at a position that can really help us and make a difference, we’ll take him.’’

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