INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The template for success isn’t lost on Jim Irsay.
Priority 1: Install the proper cornerstones.
“It’s no secret,’’ the Indianapolis Colts owner said Saturday. “Quarterback, head coach, general manager.’’
Andrew Luck, Frank Reich, Chris Ballard.
Check, check, check.
But there’s more. Surely you haven’t forgotten that trio was in place last January when the Colts ventured to Kansas City for a second-round playoff test and were summarily thrashed by the Chiefs.
That brings us to…
Priority 2: provide Reich with a roster that top-to-bottom is capable of dealing with the built-in attrition of a 16-game season – you’re going to lose players along the way – and matching up with the likes of the Chiefs, New England, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles Chargers.
The second phase was addressed during the three-day NFL Draft and saw Ballard and his scouting staff add 10 players to the Reich’s roster and Luck’s supporting cast. Ballard focused on injecting speed and competitiveness to the defense, which seven of the 10 picks addressed.
But it was so much more.
“We have to be great every single day in the offseason, we have to demand more from everyone in this organization and we can’t have any weak links,’’ Irsay said.
No. Weak. Links.
The overriding objective is ensuring, as much as possible, the lack of quality depth doesn’t sabotage a team’s contending or championship aspirations. It’s taking steps during the offseason and even during the season to strengthen the bottom of the roster.
As Ballard and every GM realizes, massaging a roster is a year-‘round venture.
Reich allowed his mind to drift ahead as the draft was winding down and Ballard was adding talent. He considered Aug. 31 when offseason rosters of 90 must be pared to the regular-season limit of 53.
“I am looking at the board in there right now as the names are being put on there. I’m saying, ‘This is going to be hard,’’’ he said. “And it’s hard because you really develop a closeness and bond to every one of these players. This is the cream of the crop.
“It will be tough decisions.’’
That hasn’t always been the case, and that’s true across the NFL. Too often, the issue isn’t cutting the roster to 53. It’s stopping at 53.
“I think when I first took the job, I think I told y’all that I know we’re getting it right when we are cutting players and they’re going and playing for other teams,’’ Ballard said. “That’s when you know you’re getting it right.
“I don’t know if we are there yet, but we are a lot closer than we were.’’
In the aftermath of the draft, the Colts will sign seven or eight rookie free agents. At least one undrafted rookie has made the opening-day roster for 20 straight seasons, the NFL’s longest active streak.
There might always be one player who beats the odds regardless the strength of the roster, but the stronger the roster, the more difficult the task.
Ballard was committed to upgrading the linebackers’ room and did so with Ben Banogu, Bobby Okereke and E.J. Speed.
“It’s an important position for us,’’ he said. “We have some good players. (Darius) Leonard is a great player. (Anthony) is a good player. We had some young kids come in last year: (Matthew) Adams and Zaire (Franklin).
“But if you just think back to 2017 and I want you just to look at the difference in the room.’’
Only two ‘backers remain from that group: Walker, and Jabaal Sheard, who moved to end last season when the Colts switched to a 4-3.
Ballard was going to address the secondary, and added cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, safety-turned-corner Marvell Tell III and safety Khari Willis.
Irsay was quick to project Ya-Sin as a starter.
After signing free-agent wideout Devin Funchess, Ballard further reinforced Luck’s options with Parris Campbell.
Reich described the receivers’ group as “strong,’’ and that’s only going to increase if Deon Cain is able to make a full recovery after missing his rookie season with a knee injury.
A look at a few crowded positions, which is a good thing (* – denotes rookie):
- Receiver: T.Y. Hilton, Devin Funchess, Parris Campbell*, Chester Rogers, Zach Pascal, Deon Cain, Reece Fountain, Krishawn Hogan, Steve Ishmael, Marcus Johnson, James Wright, Jordan Veasy.
- Linebacker: Darius Leonard, Anthony Walker, Matthew Franklin, Zaire Franklin, Skai Moore, Ahmad Thomas, Ben Banogu*, Bobby Okereke*, E.J. Speed*.
- Cornerback: Pierre Desir, Kenny Moore II, Quincy Wilson, Nate Hairston, Chris Milton, Jalen Collins, D.J. Killings, Rock Ya-Sin*, Marvell Tell III*.
- Safety: Malik Hooker, Clayton Geathers, Matthias Farley, George Odom, Derrick Kindred, Isaiah Johnson, Rolan Milligan, Khari Willis*.