INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – This was where the sausage is made. And Chris Ballard was on hand to discuss the details.
This was the core – the figurative heartbeat – of the Indianapolis Colts, where personnel decisions are discussed, debated and finalized on a weekly, even daily basis. It’s where the draft process begins, unfolds and never ends. It’s where free agents are considered, and often determined to be the right fix in a time of need. Remember Mike Mitchell? Dontrelle Inman?
“We live in here,” Ballard said Tuesday during what so many of us hope will be an annual, casual gathering to discuss the recently-concluded NFL Draft and all things Colts.
There are four flat-screen TVs hanging in two corners, and a massive screen between them. Leading up to the draft, scouts and the personnel department cue Pro Day workouts of this guy, NFL Scouting Combine drills of that guy.
Last month, there was a not-so-small distraction. While Ballard and his crew were knee-deep in draft evaluations, Tiger Woods was making his dramatic, emotional surge to a fifth Masters championship.
“I wish I could say I just have tape on all the time,” Ballard said with a wry smile. “During the Masters, we were in here doing drafting (and) we were watching Tiger.”
Tiger aside, this room – the Colts’ Draft Room – is where decisions are made that determine whether Jim Irsay’s franchise is capable of competing for another Lombardi Trophy.
“It’s a really good working room,” Ballard said.
It was a rare two-hour behind-the-scenes session for the media. Most teams are averse to sharing inside information with the media. Paranoia and a bunker mentality rule the NFL.
A portion of Ballard’s conversation was off the record, for background purposes only. But so much of it offered a look at the “Whys?” and “Hows?” and “This is what we were thinking.”
Here’s a sampling of the topics broached and views shared:
The focus on the defense. Seven of the 10 draft picks added options for defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
“Really there was only one player to build around here two years ago, and it was (Clayton) Geathers. That’s it,” Ballard said. “There was not another player defensively. It was an older defense that needed a complete rehaul.”
Ballard’s three drafts have involved 29 picks. Eighteen have targeted defensive talent. Darius Leonard had a rookie season for the ages: Defensive Rookie of the Year and first-team All-Pro. The team is expecting a breakout season for safety Malik Hooker. There’s Anthony Walker, Quincy Wilson, Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis.
The team’s free-agent additions during that stretch have included Jabaal Sheard (starting end), Margus Hunt (invaluable end/tackle), Denico Autry (another versatile linemen who led the team with 9 sacks last season) and Justin Houston.
“It was a complete redo on defense,” Ballard said.
An interesting statistical note. The Colts’ defense ranked 30th in yards allowed and points in 2017. In Eberflus’ first season as a coordinator last year, it ranked 11th overall and 10th in scoring.
The last time the Colts’ defense ranked top-11 in both categories: 2008.
The need for speed, and “hawkers.” If there was an overriding theme to the session, it was Ballard’s commitment – obsession? – with adding athleticism, speed and pass-rush threats to Eberflus’ defense.
At one point, Ballard clicked off mobile quarterbacks the Colts will face this season: Houston’s Deshaun Watson, Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, Tennessee’s Marcus Mariota, Cleveland’s Baker Mayfield.
“When they get out of the pocket, you’ve got to track them down,” he said. “There were a couple of plays versus Houston last year when Watson broke the pocket (and) Darius just hawked him. That’s when those guys become dangerous. When you have a few guys – Turay, Darius, Banogu, Okereke, Walker – they all have that kind of speed on the field (that) when they break the pocket, they can run and get him.
“You can talk about keeping them in the pocket all day if you want, but that’s easier said than done. It’s hard to do, man.”
The Colts are downright giddy when they consider the potential of second-rounder Ben Banogu and third-rounder Bobby Okereke.
Ballard on Banogu’s performance at the Senior Bowl: “He was freaking good at it on rush downs. They couldn’t block him in practice. He’s got all the explosive, first-step movement that you want as either a rusher or linebacker.”
Banogu is working at SAM ‘backer, but look for Eberflus to find ways to maximize his skills as a pass rusher in sub packages.
“Just . . . ‘Sic ‘em. The guy they hike the ball to, go get him,”’ Ballard said with a laugh.
And on Okereke: “We’ll play Okereke at MIKE and SAM. He’ll play some WILL. He will definitely get in there and compete. Remember when I said ‘hawking the quarterback?’
“He’s not Darius, but he’s good. This kid is going to be a good player for us.”
Parris Campbell. The Colts never imagined the Ohio State speedster would be available when they were on the clock with the 59th overall pick.
“Sometimes you get lucky,” Ballard admitted. “Did we like Parris Campbell? Absolutely. Did we think he’d be there with the 59th overall pick? No, we did not.”
The Colts entered the offseason committed to adding size to the wideouts’ room. That was accomplished with the free-agent signing of Devin Funchess.
In a perfect world, they’d also add speed. The Colts’ interest in Campbell went through the Lucas Oil Stadium roof after his Combine performance.
“One of the better workouts I’ve seen in a long time,” Ballard said.
Frank Reich was an instant fan, and immediately began digging into Campbell’s collegiate resume. Even though the Colts took him in round 2, patience will be a must. At Ohio State, Campbell primarily worked out of the slot.
“The question with Parris is how long will it take him to really learn how to play outside? He just hasn’t done it,” Ballard said. “There’s going to be an adjustment period for him. No question we think he can do it. But how long does it take?
“How long did it take Reggie Wayne to be a great player? And I’m not calling him Reggie Wayne, but year 3? Maybe it happens day 1, maybe it’s year 3. You don’t know.”
Ballard is confident Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni will maximize Campbell’s skills and put him in position to contribute immediately while also developing his all-around game. Look for the Colts to see if he’s a possibility in the return game, particularly punt returns.
“He’s definitely got the explosive element you want,” Ballard said.
Rock Ya-Sin. The Colts considered standing pat at 26 overall and taking the Temple cornerback, but opted to trade back with Washington. That pushed them back to 46th overall while also garnering another second-round pick in 2020. They still had the 34th overall pick from their 2018 trade with the New York Jets.
“When we were at 26, we had five guys left (who merited being drafted at that spot),” Ballard said. “Just looking at the board and the needs, we were sure we’d be looking at one of those guys at 34. When we got to 34, we were still looking at three of those guys.”
There was another opportunity to trade back and accumulate more draft picks, but Ballard wasn’t willing to risk losing Ya-Sin.
“He fit the scheme too well,” he said, “plus he’s got high character. He stands for everything we want to stand for. We thought it was the right thing to stay put.”
Ya-Sin, Ballard added, “is a pitbull. He’s a powerful athlete.”
Who plays? Who doesn’t? Ballard made one thing crystal clear: the NFL is a meritocracy.
“When guys deserve to play, then they’ll play,” he said. “They’ve gotta earn it. I tell every rookie that comes in here, ‘You’ve gotta earn your playtime. Just because you were drafted doesn’t mean you are going to start and play.'”
Of the 29 players selected in the last three drafts, 27 remain on the roster. The two outliers: offensive tackle Zach Banner and defensive end Tarell Basham. Ballard pointed his finger inward when considering players who fail to measure up.
“When we draft a kid, at the end of the day if he doesn’t work out, that’s on me,” he said. “It’s not his fault. We drafted him.
“We’ve got to do everything possible in this building to make his talent come to light.”
And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast: