Colts GM Chris Ballard shares thoughts on ‘disruptive d-linemen,’ Eric Fisher, T.Y. Hilton and more

Sports

Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard walks on the field before an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – It isn’t often we’re allowed a peek behind the curtain or are given an opportunity to see how the sausage is made.

There’s inherent Us vs. Them mentality that drives the NFL. Access is limited. Information is closely guarded.

 That’s why it’s refreshing and enlightening when a team – the Indianapolis Colts – and a general manager – Chris Ballard – set aside a couple of hours to at least briefly bridge that gap separating teams and the media.

That was the case Thursday afternoon at the Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center. A handful of media who regularly cover the Colts spent time discussing the April draft, offseason moves and the general state of the franchise with Ballard and Mike Bluem, the team’s cap guru.

No topic was off limits, but much of the give-and-take was off the record. Some of it was way off the record. It was for our background, our understanding of why the team did whatever it did.

Some observations from what was on the record:

Disruptive players: 

For the first time in the common era of the NFL Draft (since 1967), the Colts used their first two picks on defensive lineman. That would be Michigan defensive end Kwity Paye (round 1, 21st overall) and Vanderbilt defensive end Dayo Odeyingbo (round 2, 54th).

Ballard and his staff thought Paye might go as high as 10th overall. And Ballard was tempted to take Odeyingbo in the first round, but the torn Achilles Odeyingbo suffered in late January while working out for the Senior Bowl essentially took that option off the board.

“We’re always looking for guys that can disrupt the line of scrimmage,’’ Ballard said. “If you can find d-linemen that can disrupt the line of scrimmage, you’ve got a chance.’’

Paye will be allowed to develop at right end and Odeyingbo at left end whenever he’s medically cleared.

On Paye: “We thought he was going to end up being a perfect Colt once we got our hands on him. That’s what made the decision so easy on draft day. The guy’s 268 pounds and he’s got a short, compact build, but he’s got really quick feet and really good get-off.

“And then he’s relentless. Those three things, if you have them and you combine that with power . . . he can be a good pass rusher. I don’t have any reservations about Kwity. None. Do I wish he would have had 40 sacks in his career? Absolutely. But we wouldn’t have been talking about him at the 21st pick in the draft.’’

The issue with Paye, who had 11.5 sacks in 40 games at Michigan, is the need to expand his pass-rush repertoire.

“He’s got to develop a second move,’’ Ballard said. “Right now, it’s power and speed off the edge.’’

Young players, he added, are “not refined pass rushers when they come into our league. They’ve got to learn how to counter. They don’t need a bunch of ‘em, but they have to have some curve ball to be able to throw.’’

Odeyingbo is a tad over three months into his rehab from the torn Achilles and might not be a factor until October or November. It’s possible the team won’t realize the full force of its second-round investment until 2020.

Odeyingbo and recently signed left tackle Eric Fisher suffered torn Achilles at roughly the same time.

“Everybody’s different,’’ Ballard said, “that’s why I’m not going to put a time on it. When they’re back, they’re back. We’re not just going to force a guy. We’re going to make sure he’s healthy.’’

When Ballard considers a healthy Odeyingbo, he sees a difference-maker.

“You talked to people about this SEC and this is the guy who kept coming up,’’ he said. “He’s still young, but he has got a really unique skillset with his length, his athletic ability, his body control. He’s got some real special in him.’’

Morocco Brown, the director of college scouting, compared Odeyingbo to former New York Giants standout Justin Tuck.

The Colts envision Odeyingbo providing the type of production and versatility of Denico Autry.

“Bingo,’’ Ballard said.

Eric Fisher

The Colts filled Anthony Castonzo’s void by signing Eric Fisher to a one-year, $9.4 million contract. It technically is a two-year deal for book-keeping matters, but the second year voids prior to 2022.

The Colts would have gone another route if the draft had provided a suitable alternative, but Ballard didn’t believe there was a true left tackle available when the Colts were on the clock.

There’s every chance Fisher misses the first few games, perhaps the first month of the season. But Ballard is confident he’ll be back in time to fortify the offensive line and help in pursuit of a playoff berth.

If things unfold as expected, look for Fisher to be Indy’s starting tackle for the next few years.

“I know it’s a one-year deal, but (Fisher) may be the answer for the next three or four years than a guy I would plug in for a year,’’ Ballard said. “You would like for it to work out. He’s 30 years old. He likes to play. We think he’s still got a lot left.’’

Giving Fisher a multi-year deal at the end of 2021 will result in the team possessing an ultra-expensive offensive line. Right tackle Braden Smith is in line for an extension this summer (perhaps in the $12-14 million per year range) and Ryan Kelly is the third-highest paid center in the league ($12.4 million average). Also, All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson will command a hefty contract next offseason ($18 million per year might be conservative).

A top-10 left tackle commands roughly $14 million per year.

“We would do everything we can to make it work,’’ Ballard said, adding “it’s a challenge.’’

The quarterback room

Carson Wentz is QB1, 2020 fourth-round pick Jacob Eason the projected No. 2 and rookie sixth-round pick Sam Ehlinger the third arm on the depth chart.

That begs a question: Might the Colts bring in a veteran QB to serve as Wentz’ backup in case he goes down at some point? This is a franchise that believes it’s in position to contend for the AFC South and more. The idea of turning things over to Eason, who has yet to take a competitive snap, seems downright risky.

“That’s a great question,’’ Ballard said. “It’s one we’ve definitely thought about. Let’s get through the preseason. Let’s see where we are. We want one of these young guys to be the guy. We think they can. We’ll keep working through that.’’

The league has a three-game preseason schedule in August as a byproduct of the 17-game regular season after COVID-19 wiped out the 2020 preseason schedule. Snaps in the preseason will be invaluable to young players.

“Jacob’s really talented,’’ Ballard said. “He’s a good kid and he’s got to learn. He just needs to play. Those preseason games and the reps he needs to get are important.’’

Ehlinger is due back in Indy this weekend. He reported for last weekend’s rookie minicamp but quickly returned to Austin, Texas following the death of his younger brother, Jake. Owner Jim Irsay made his private jet available to Ehlinger to return to his family.

“It’s been a hard week,’’ Ballard said.

Hilton’s return

Ballard admitted it was “50-50’’ on whether the team would be able to re-sign Pro Bowl wideout T.Y. Hilton. Normally rigid on contract offers to free agents, even their own, the Colts “wiggled’’ a bit with Hilton. He signed a one-year, $8 million deal that could be worth as much as $10 million.

“He’s worth it,’’ Ballard said.

Ballard considers Hilton a franchise cornerstone.

“I have just great respect for who he is and his toughness,’’ he said. “He’s pound-for-pound as tough as any guy we’ve got on this team.’’

Hilton could have signed for more money with the Baltimore Ravens but opted to remain with the team that drafted him in 2012.

“What the city and the organization mean to T.Y. is real,’’ Ballard said. “I’ve never been around many players who did what he just did. Unselfish. He deserved the respect to come back to Indy if that’s what he wanted to do.’’

Big year for Banogu

The clock is ticking on Ben Banogu. The 2019 second-round pick has yet to make a difference. He was a healthy scratch much of last season.

“This is a big year for Ben. Ben’s got to come on,’’ Ballard said. “We think he’s got the talent to do it, but he’s got to come on.

“He’s got to get his confidence because he’s got more than enough talent to play.’’

The defensive line is one of the team’s strongest areas, especially after the arrival of Paye and Odeyingbo. That should have caught the attention of the returning linemen.

“Look, I’m not stupid,’’ Ballard said. “I know what it told them room: ‘C’mon, let’s go.’ We’ll keep as many as we can. If they’re good players and they’re producing, we’ll keep them.’’

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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