INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The next wave of talent is on full display at Lucas Oil Stadium. Joe Burrow, Chase Young, Tua Tagovailoa, Isaiah Simmons, Jerry Jeudy, Derrick Brown and more than 330 others are in the process of making a lasting impression.
But the April 23-25 NFL Draft can wait.
The next phase of the NFL’s talent search comes in mid-March. That’s when the veteran free-agent market opens for business and, as is always the case, business will be boomin’.
The question once again: to what extent will Chris Ballard dig into his owner’s deep pockets and address a few of the Indianapolis Colts’ needs with veteran talent?
For context, the Colts are expected to have more than $125 million in salary cap space, which reflects approximately $41 million in rollover from 2019. For the uninformed, that means Ballard has the wherewithal to do pretty much whatever he wants.
“That would seem logical,’’ Frank Reich said earlier this week, “but Chris is really disciplined and he is really patient, and I’ve come to appreciate that.’’
Translation: don’t expect Ballard to throw silly money at some high-profile player. He hasn’t in his first three offseasons as general manager, and there’s no reason to believe he’ll deviate now.
“Look, we are going to stay the course of how we believe in team building,’’ he said.
That apparently won’t change even though an argument can be made the Colts could have benefitted last season had they been more active on the free-agent market. The only additions were Justin Houston and Devin Funchess, and a shoulder injury ended Funchess’ season after three quarters of the opener.
Another argument can be made the Colts aren’t that far away from returning to prominence. If, that is, Ballard is able to add a few impactful free agents to the roster. And, of course, solve the team’s quarterback dilemma.
“Things don’t always go the way you want them to go,’’ Ballard said, “but we have a philosophy of how we are going to build. We want to be able to acquire young players and develop them as Colts.
“I’m not saying that we won’t enter into free agency because we have. But it won’t be our main source of player acquisition. We will continue to build this thing the way we see fit and the way we think you can win football games.’’
Speculation continues to grow linking the Colts with Philip Rivers. The Los Angeles Chargers and their 38-year old quarterback are going their separate ways after 16 seasons, and so many have connected the dots. Rivers has ties with Reich and Colts offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni.
And let’s not forget, the Colts have serious QB issues.
“Philip is a free agent,’’ Ballard said. “I’m not going to comment on those guys.’’
If he decides to pursue Rivers, he’ll need to bring Irsay’s checkbook. Rivers undoubtedly will command at least $20 million per year, perhaps $30 million.
But here’s one factor to keep in mind whether we’re talking about Philip Rivers, defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, defensive tackle Chris Jones (who’s likely to be franchise-tagged by Kansas City) or a big-play wideout: it’s very likely Irsay will sign off on any move Ballard wants to make.
“You guys know I’ve never been shy in spending,’’ Irsay said. “Our biggest problem is going to be how do we put the guys under the cap, not how much room we have.
“We’ll see what happens this year. I’m in it to win. It’s not that I love winning so much. I just hate losing. I just hate it. I’m hopelessly competitive.’’
The Irsay-Ballard dynamic always has seemed to be an odd one, but one that works. Irsay has been willing to overspend to bring in veteran talent. Ballard has shown unusual restraint. He and his personnel staff affix a price tag to a free agent they covet, and generally stick with it.
Reich and Ballard recently were rehashing some of their free-agent experiences from the past two seasons.
“Moves that we were thinking about making, didn’t make, could’ve spent big money, didn’t – I’m not going to go into what those were – and it turns out we were right not to chase it,’’ Reich said. “There are two specific examples that I am thinking of that guys that we thought, ‘This might be the guy. This might be that selected guy.’
“We go down the road a little bit and then something happens and it doesn’t work out. Two of those in two years that we looked back at and both of them it ended up playing out better for us.’’
Who were those players?
“Chris can share that with you if he wants to,’’ Reich said with a laugh.
Ballard wasn’t in a sharing mood.
What must be pointed out is the Ballard-led Colts haven’t avoided shopping on the veteran free-agent market. They’ve simply had their limits.
Since 2017, Ballard has signed roughly 18 veteran free agents within the first month of the market opening. Those contracts have involved about $80 million in guarantees.
What’s been missing have been the over-the-top contracts. Think of Jacksonville signing quarterback Nick Foles to a four-year, $88 million deal last year that included $50 million in guarantees. Or Washington signing safety Landon Collins to a six-year, $84 million deal with $44.5 million in guarantees.
Ballard’s heftiest investments: defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins (three years, $30 million, $14.5 million guaranteed), defensive end Jabaal Sheard (three years, $25.5 million, $9.5 million guaranteed) and defensive end Justin Houston (two years, $23 million, $18.5 million guaranteed). He gave wideout Devin Funchess a one-year, $10 million deal with incentives that could have boosted the value to $13 million.
Ballard is confident the makeup of the locker room is conducive to adding a few high-priced veterans without disrupting the existing chemistry; that wasn’t necessarily the case a few years ago.
“We have a good locker room,’’ he said. “Our locker room is outstanding. They work. They are good guys and they do things the right way.
“So I do think we can handle it.’’
Still, it’s a stretch to believe Ballard will stray from his blueprint. That seemed evident during his meeting with the media in early January.
“You all know my philosophy on free agency,’’ he said. “You cannot buy a championship. You cannot buy a locker room.
“We will continue to go down the same road we’ve been going down. Saying that, when we get opportunities to acquire players that we like, we’ll do it.’’
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