INDIANAPOLIS – He wasn’t true to his word
Chris Ballard was discussing his commitment to doing everything possible to upgrade an Indianapolis Colts roster that went into a death spiral last season after a 5-2 start and missed the playoffs for the fourth time in five years.
“We’ll turn over every stone going through this roster,’’ he said in January.
As it turns out, he missed a rock.
In what was a busy offseason of addressing this and tweaking that, Ballard utilized so many personnel avenues available to general managers: trades, re-signing his own, veteran free agency, the April draft, the post-draft signing frenzy.
What was missing? Waivers. Not one waiver acquisition.
OK, so we’re making light of Ballard passing on that option, but he’ll undoubtedly make up for that when rosters that currently sit at 90 are trimmed to 53.
As the NFL has hit the pause button and prepares for the start of training camp in late July, it’s worth a look at the makeup of the Colts’ 90-man roster.
It’s a mishmash of high draft picks and castoffs who found a new start in Indy. It’s the 7th overall pick in the 2016 draft (DeForest Buckner) who was acquired in a March trade and an undrafted wideout (Zach Pascal) who had been waived three times before finding a home with the Colts.
One number that jumped out at us: 38. That’s the number of Colts who weren’t drafted. The 53-player roster that finished 2019 included 30 players who weren’t selected in the draft.
OWN DRAFT PICKS (36)
If you don’t understand the value Ballard places on homegrown talent, you haven’t been paying attention.
“We are going to stay the course of how we believe in team building,’’ he said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “We want to be able to acquire young players and develop our own and develop them as Colts.’’
Since settling in the GM’s chair in February 2017, Ballard has invested 38 draft picks. Thirty-two remain on the roster. There have been some notable misses: cornerback Quincy Wilson, defensive end Tarell Basham, offensive tackle Zach Banner, and the jury is very much out of defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis.
More than offsetting the misses, though, have been sweet-spot hits: two-time All-Pro guard Quentin Nelson, All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, offensive tackle Braden Smith, running back Marlon Mack, linebacker Anthony Walker. Last year’s draft class seemingly includes several keepers (Rock Ya-Sin, Khari Willis, Parris Campbell, Bobby Okereke), but it’s too way soon to anoint them.
The four homegrown draft picks precede Ballard’s arrival: left tackle Anthony Castonzo, wideout T.Y. Hilton, center Ryan Kelly and backup offensive lineman Le’Raven Clark.
We’ll see how training camp and the preseason unfold, but we should anticipate a vast majority of those draft picks taking up spots on the 53-man roster.
Buckner is the latest trade target and was preceded by quarterback Jacoby Brissett (2017) and wideout Marcus Johnson (2018).
The expectations for Buckner are stratospheric because of what it cost to bring him to Indy. Ballard sent the 13th overall pick in the April draft to San Francisco for the Pro Bowl defensive tackle, then signed him to a four-year, $84 million extension.
Andrew Luck’s balky right shoulder forced Ballard to swing a trade with New England for Brissett eight days before the 2017 regular-season opener (the Pats received 2015 first-round pick Phillip Dorsett). Johnson was picked up in a September 2018 trade with Seattle at the cost of tight end Darrell Daniels.
MAJOR VETERAN FREE AGENCY (8)
There’s a misperception Ballard is averse is signing veteran free agents. The reality is he’s opted to let the expensive/ridiculous early portion of free agency run its course and invest when things settle down.
Ballard deviated from that blueprint in March when he brought 38-year old Philip Rivers to Indy with a one-year, $25 million contract. If things go as planned, Rivers also will be under center in 2021. He also added a few others who should play significant roles this season: corners Xavier Rhodes and T.J. Carrie, tight end Trey Burton, fullback Rosie Nix and d-lineman Sheldon Day.
This offseason’s group is buttressed by two significant holdovers: end Justin Houston and d-lineman Denico Autry.
OTHER FREE AGENTS (37)
That number probably doesn’t seem high since teams routinely fill out their 90-player roster with young free agents and undrafted rookies. Ballard, for instance, quickly signed 10 players who were passed over in the few days following the draft.
But that list of free agents includes several who hold key spots on the roster: punter Rigoberto Sanchez, long-snapper Luke Rhodes, backup safety George Odom, backup tight end Mo Alie-Cox.
The Colts have had at least one undrafted rookie make the opening-day roster for 21 straight seasons, the NFL’s longest active streak.
That streak could be threatened. The COVID-19 pandemic forced teams to hold their offseason work on a virtual platform. There were no on-field sessions, no minicamps, no OTAs. The first time rookies will be on the practice field is when camp opens in late July. Undrafted rookies will be at a decided disadvantage as the coaching staff finds itself in hurry-up mode to prepare for the season. Look for this year’s draft class and returning Colts to receive preferential treatment.
Listen to Austin Ekeler. He went undrafted in 2017 but signed as a rookie free agent with the Chargers and has developed into one of the league’s more versatile running backs.
“I don’t know, honestly, if I would have made the team if I didn’t have OTAs,’’ he told ESPN.com. “For me, I needed OTAs . . . It’s honestly pretty sad just as far as how unfortunate it is for these guys to have an opportunity. The opportunity is already small, but now it’s even smaller.’’
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. A cliché? Of course.
But other team’s discards have enabled the Colts to add two-time Pro Bowl tight end Jack Doyle, standout nickel corner Kenny Moore II, starting guard Mark Glowinski, Pascal, backup d-lineman Al-Quadin Muhammad and placekicker Chase McLaughlin.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.