INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – This was Ground Zero. It’s where draft-worthy prospects – 216 this year – were dissected, debated and graded. It’s where area scouts pled their cases for this guy or that guy, hoping to sway opinions on a prospect they really coveted.
It was the draft room deep inside the Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center.
It’s where the sausage is made. And general manager Chris Ballard, casually dressed Monday evening in an Indianapolis Colts’ pullover and flip-flops, is the grinder.
During a two-plus hour meeting with a segment of the local media, Ballard offered intriguing and unique insight on the vision he and coach Frank Reich share, including how he is attempting to shape the roster; the characteristics necessary to not only be on the Colts’ draft board, but be worthy of a slot in a specific round; why Quenton Nelson is cut from a different cloth.
The expansive discussion offered a glimpse behind management’s curtain that is so closely-guarded throughout the league, including in Indy.
Ballard touched on what attracted him to most of his 11 draft picks – did we mention he absolutely loves Quenton Nelson? – and how the defensive talent projects into the new 4-3 scheme. Not surprisingly, he can’t wait to see Darius Leonard and Kemoko Turay coming out of a sprinter’s three-point stance and injecting life into the Colts’ lackluster pass rush.
He also commented on some returning Colts. This is a big year for safety T.J. Green (2016 second-round pick), and his progress last season was impeded by Ballard’s decision to see if the 6-3, 211-pounder could make the switch to cornerback. Aside from being one of the NFL’s premier short-yardage backs, Robert Turbin should be a great influence on a young running backs room. Cornerback Quincy Wilson, whose rookie development was marred by injuries and curious use by the coaching staff, should have a solid year 2. And Tarell Basham, somewhat miscast as an outside ‘backer in the 3-4, should excel working out of a three-point stance as an end in the 4-3.
Questions came, and Ballard answered. Information flowed. Again, it was a two-plus-hour infomercial on the makeup of the Colts.
What caught our attention was, not surprisingly, Quenton Nelson and his expected short- and long-term impact of the offensive line.
Unlike his owner and former head coach, Ballard seldom gives in to hyperbole. However, with Quenton Nelson, he couldn’t help himself.
There’s this: “God made him a little different than he did the rest of us.’’
And this: “This is a big man that can move and pull. Y’all laughed when I told you I could feel him (walk past me) . . . you can feel this kid come off the ball.’’
And this: “He’s transcendent. He can play in any scheme you want.’’
And this: “Nelson was an easy pick. He’s everything we stand for, and the locker room knows it now.’’
And this: “He’s going to make Ryan Kelly better. He’s going to make (Anthony) Castonzo better.’’
And this: “It’s the easiest pick I’ve ever been a part of, by far.’’
The only pro day Ballard attended was Notre Dame’s March 23, in large part because he was dealing with the massive change with the coaching staff. The Irish had several interesting prospects, led by Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey.
Ballard whisked through portions of the pro day-workouts. He highlighted Nelson’s off-the-charts traits with his red laser pointer: the gymnastics-like flexibility by the freakish 6-5, 325-pound guard; the lateral movement.
As Ballard made the 3-hour drive home from South Bend, he wasn’t locked onto Nelson as his first-round pick. He already had authored the trade with the New York Jets, sliding back from 3rd overall to 6th, picking up three second-round picks in the process.
“I knew he was in the mix,’’ Ballard said. “There was no doubt. I got done and it was like, ‘Holy cow, man.’’
As last Thursday’s first round of the draft unfolded, a team called to determine whether Ballard might want to trade back again, which almost assuredly would have cost him Nelson.
Did Ballard listen?
“No,’’ he said. “If you noticed, I turned the pick in quick. And the league had told us to wait till 5 minutes (had passed). I turned it in too quick.’’
We wondered what Ballard might have done had N.C. State pass rusher Bradley Chubb still been on the board when the Colts were on the clock. Chubb went a spot ahead to the Denver Broncos.
“There would have been a discussion. I’ll just say that,’’ Ballard revealed. Chubb’s a good player. He checked all the boxes that you wanted.
“But I’ll say this: this guy (Nelson) probably has more upside. Unique. Chubb’s a great player, an absolutely tremendous player. But (Nelson) is really unique.’’
Ballard conceded there’s still work to be done with the roster.
“There’s only so much you can do,’’ he said, “but you’ve got to start somewhere.’’
That’s why this draft was all about reinforcing the offensive line – Nelson and Braden Smith should be the starting guards for the foreseeable future – and defensive front-seven.
The more Ballard talked, the more clear it became that finally – finally! – fixing a broken offensive line was priority 1. Since Luck’s arrival in 2012, the Colts have allowed a league-high 691 quarterback hits. Luck has been sacked 156 times in 70 regular-season starts, and the umpteen hits have taken an obvious toll. Jacoby Brissett was sacked 52 times last season, most in the NFL.
There was some national criticism with Ballard using the sixth overall pick on a guard, then doubling up with Smith with one of the record four second-round picks.
“They complain when our quarterbacks get hit,’’ he said. “They’ve been hit more than any other quarterback in the league over the last five years.
“People forget that on draft day. It’s not sexy to draft on the O-line.’’
Ballard’s goal is to go into training camp with 10 “good, functional’’ offensive linemen. Attrition almost always requires a team to dip into its depth, as does ineffective performance.
During his stint with the Kansas City Chiefs and Chicago Bears, Ballard saw the teams routinely keep a minimum of nine, sometimes 10 offensive linemen on the 53-player roster.
“We were heavy on the offensive line,’’ he said. “We knew how important it was for us to be good up front.
“I believe you can’t win if you’re not good up front (offense and defense). It makes it hard. It makes it really hard in the winter months; get into December, January and you’ve got to go play outdoors.
“Big men, athletic men up front, it wins.’’