INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The first major test of Chris Ballard’s flexibility in retooling the Indianapolis Colts’ deficient roster arrives next month.
The NFL’s quick-fix phase – veteran free agency – begins March 9, although teams are allowed to negotiate contracts two days earlier.
Ballard was clear about his preferred method of addressing a roster Jan. 29 when he was introduced as the successor to fired general manager Ryan Grigson.
“You want to raise your own,’’ he said. “We want to be a great drafting team. You have to produce three or four guys that are going to help you every single year.
“Between street free agents, between waiver claims, we’ll get into free agency a little bit, but . . . you can’t buy a locker room and you have to be very careful when you enter into free agency.’’
That draft-and-develop-your-own approach is sound and much safer than throwing millions at other teams’ discards. Teams find ways to keep their most valued free agents-to-be. The available pool often consists of players with age or injury issues, or younger players who have yet to emerge as top-tier talent but are seeking top-tier deals.
One thing always to keep in mind: Free agents are free agents for a reason. And the cost of the top free agents, especially in the first few days, is prohibitive.
However, desperate times call for desperate measures, and the Colts are desperate to bolster a roster that features glaring deficiencies, especially on defense.
“We’ve got some work defensively that we need to do and we’ll get that done,’’ Ballard admitted earlier this week on 1070 The Fan.
As substandard as the defense was last season – 30th in total yards allowed, 25th against the run, 22nd in points – there’s an opportunity for, yes, a quick fix: Veteran free agency.
The projected 2017 salary cap is $168 million and the Colts have approximately $55.5 million in cap space after releasing linebacker D’Qwell Jackson Thursday. That’s the 8th-most cap space in the league, according to overthecap.com.
It would surprise no one if Jackson’s release is just the first addition-by-subtraction tactic by the Colts. Other possibilities include defensive tackle Art Jones (a cap savings of $5.15 million) and cornerback Patrick Robinson ($2.5 million savings).
Ballard’s basic philosophy mirrors that of former GM/president Bill Polian. He constructed a world championship roster that featured a franchise quarterback (Peyton Manning, remember?) and a supporting cast largely of homegrown talent. Polian and his personnel staff hit on most of their draft picks, especially in the early years, and were adept at adding undrafted rookies that developed into solid contributors (Gary Brackett, Dominic Rhodes, Melvin Bullitt, Terrence Wilkins, Ben Utecht, etc.).
However, let’s not forget the state of the Colts when Polian took over in 1998. He used his first draft pick on Manning, the missing piece to an offense that already featured a pair of future Hall of Fame skill players (wideout Marvin Harrison and running back Marshall Faulk), bookend tackles (Tarik Glenn and Adam Meadows) and a formidable tight end tandem (Marcus Pollard and Ken Dilger).
But the defense was a mess. In 1997, it ranked a respectable 10th in yards allowed, but was 26th in points, 26th against the run and 21st in sacks.
Polian’s assessment: the cupboard was bare.
Polian’s remedy: trades and veteran free agency.
In ’98, he signed free-agent cornerback Jeff Burris and traded for cornerback Tyrone Poole and linebacker Andre Royal. He batted 2-for-3; Royal never panned out.
In ’99, he invested heavily in free agency and came away with defensive ends Chad Bratzke and Shawn King, safety Chad Cota and linebacker Cornelius Bennett.
The early influx of veteran talent produced the desired results and served as a bridge to when homegrown players took over. The ’99 Colts defense ranked 15th in yards, 17th in scoring and 18th against the run. Not great, but good enough considering the Manning-led offense ranked 4th in yards and 3rd in scoring.
After that early splurge, Polian felt confident in following his blueprint of drafting, developing and retaining those worth retaining.
It’s tough to argue with the results.
And it might be tough for Ballard to steer clear of taking some shots in veteran free agency.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.