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Chris Ballard: Colts will ‘stay the course’ in approach to free agency

Colts GM Chris Ballard

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The names will be out there. Interesting names. Household names. Names that we’d argue would fill a pressing need for a team that rekindled its fan base, won a playoff game and indicated it’s not that far away from being a legitimate championship contender.

The roll call when the NFL’s veteran free agent market opens in March might include Demarcus Lawrence, Jadeveon Clowney, Le’Veon Bell, Randall Cobb, Dee Ford, Golden Tate and John Brown. It appears the Pittsburgh Steelers are willing to move on from Antonio Brown.

Before everyone lathers up at the prospect of some of those elite names relocating, keep in mind the pool of potential free agents – most notably those at the top of the list – will diminish as teams keep them off the market with multi-year contracts or by utilizing the franchise tag.

However it shakes out, there always are high-profile names viewed as quick fixes, especially for teams that view themselves as being a player or two away from being something truly special.

That brings us to the Indianapolis Colts, clearly one of those franchises on the cusp of returning to prominence.

When it comes to reinforcing the roster through free agency, general manager Chris Ballard has everything – absolutely everything – at his disposal.

First, he possesses approximately $122 million in cap space, according to overthecap.com. The New York Jets are a distant second ($99 million), followed by the Buffalo Bills ($87 million) and Cleveland Browns ($84 million).

Second, owner Jim Irsay generally follows the advice of his GM in personnel matters and pays whatever it takes to bring in talent, even when that means overpaying for it.

Ballard, though, made it abundantly clear earlier this week he won’t deviate from what has been an active, but selective approach to shopping on the free-agent market.

“We will stay the course,’’ he said. “In every other spot I have been in we have participated in free agency, too. I just think it’s got to be the right fit. (There are) a lot of circumstances. First, the player (and) we’ve got to want each other. That’s part of it. He’s got to want to be here and then we’ve got to be willing to pay the amount he wants and then he’s got to fit in the locker room.’’

Listen to Ballard long enough and you’ll realize the importance he places in fit, character and chemistry when building a roster.

Despite the bloated cap space, the franchise will keep its fiscal sanity as it keeps an eye on the future.

“Just look at the roster and look at the contracts that are going to be coming up over the next two-to-three-year period,’’ Ballard said.

The dominoes will fall hard and heavy.

Left tackle Anthony Castonzo’s contract is up after next season, as is center Ryan Kelly’s, although the Colts hold a fifth-year option on Kelly. Eric Ebron, who earned his first Pro Bowl berth and caught a career-high 14 touchdowns this season, is a free agent after ’19. Four-time Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton is signed through 2020. Andrew Luck is under contract through 2021.

We’re talking enormous re-investments for each, if Ballard intends on keeping them.

“Eventually what you would like to happen is you are paying your own guys,’’ he said.

Anyone uncertain about Ballard’s blueprint for building the roster hasn’t been paying attention.

It’s maximizing the draft. Sixteen of his 19 picks were on the playoff roster and a 17th, wideout Deon Cain, was on injured reserve. Six draft picks started against Kansas City. He has nine picks in the upcoming April draft, including four of top 90.

It’s re-signing your own when it makes sense. In his first season as GM, Ballard retained Jack Doyle, Robert Turbin and Darius Butler. Last offseason, he kept Adam Vinatieri and Pierre Desir off the open market. In the coming weeks, he’s likely to re-sign Vinatieri and, if common ground can be negotiated, Clayton Geathers, Mark Glowinski, Dontrelle Inman and a few other of the 14 pending free agents.

Free agency has been a complementary tool.

“We are going to continue to explore every avenue to acquire players,’’ Ballard said. “I guess I disagree sometimes when everybody says we are not aggressive in free agency.’’

Over the last two offseasons, the Colts haven’t made massive waves in the early and expensive days of free agency, but neither have they sat on their hands. They got what they wanted and needed in the first month of free agency, and usually at their price.

In 2017, the additions included Johnathan Hankins, Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Margus Hunt and Al Woods. Last offseason, it was Eric Ebron, Denico Autry, Matt Slauson, Ryan Grant and Najee Good.

The heaviest investments were for Hankins ($14.5 million guaranteed on a three-year deal that lasted barely 12 months), Sheard (a three-year, $25.5 million deal with $9.5 million guaranteed), Autry (three years, $17.8 million, $6.5 guaranteed) and Ebron (two years, a maximum of $15 million with $6 million guaranteed).

The bottom line is Ballard, Frank Reich and the personnel staff will be busy in free agency, but probably not on the higher-priced aisles.

“We put a value on a player and when it gets out of our reach, I just think we are comfortable enough to sleep at night saying we are going to find an answer,’’ Ballard said. “Sometimes it might not be the household name that everybody wants us to sign, and that’s okay. I get it.

“But we are going to find an answer, whether it’s in that first window of free agency, maybe it’s the second window, maybe it’s the draft, maybe it’s after the draft, maybe it’s at the cut-down day.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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