INDIANAPOLIS – There have been more than a few major splashes in the construction of the Indianapolis Colts.
Trade, trade and another trade.
There’s Stephon Gilmore, added to Gus Bradley’s defense as a veteran free-agent acquisition.
Kenny Moore II was signed off waivers from New England, but only after a scout convinced Chris Ballard to ignore his positional metrics and make an exception. Rigoberto Sanchez and Mo Alie-Cox were two of the many post-draft prospects who’ve earned their spot and made a difference.
“Player acquisition is year ‘round,’’ Ballard said. “I know everybody thinks March is the only time that you acquire good players, but you can acquire good players in October.
“They’re out there, and you just got to continue to hunt and find and search.’’
The foundation, though, is the draft.
Handle the ground-up construction properly and veteran free agency and an occasional trade address significant needs that the draft doesn’t, at least in the short term.
Buckner was the missing 3-technique tackle for then-coordinator Matt Eberflus.
Ngakoue was the missing proven edge pass-rush threat for Bradley.
Ryan was the necessary mulligan after the Colts whiffed on Carson Wentz.
Gilmore injected a Pro Bowl presence at cornerback, which became more of a priority after the trade with the Las Vegas Raiders for Ngakoue cost Indy starting corner Rock Ya-Sin.
Scan the Colts’ roster, and the influence of the draft is undeniable.
Ballard has exercised 45 picks in his five years as general manager, and 26 remain. More to the point, of the 22 projected starting positions, 15 or 16 are manned by draft picks (depends on how the wideout/tight end situation is viewed).
The exceptions: quarterback (Ryan), left tackle (Matt Pryor, trade), one tight end (Alie-Cox) in a two-tight end alignment (2021 4th-round pick Kylen Granson is his projected sidekick), defensive end (Ngakoue), defensive tackle (Buckner) and cornerback (Gilmore).
Ballard described roster building as a “definite balance’’ that starts with determining which of his own pending free agents to re-sign (Alie-Cox, Pryor, Zaire Franklin, Tyquan Lewis, Ashton Dulin). That leads to possible trades (Buckner, Ngakoue, Ryan) and veteran signings (Gilmore, Rodney McLeod, Brandon Facyson, Brandon King, Armani Watts).
And that leads to the draft.
It’s all intertwined.
“You’ve got to balance out the in-house players that you want to take care of,’’ Ballard said, “then you’ve got to identify what’s in the draft versus what’s in free agency and what’s on the street after the draft.’’
The overriding objective is for the months and months of player evaluations to bear fruit with lasting, impactful talent out of the draft.
Listen to NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah.
“Look, there’s some years you’re going to know right away,’’ he said. “I think we can all agree the Bengals had a good draft last year just because of what they got out of Ja’Marr Chase right out of the chute.
“But in terms of like the collective of your picks, the goal – the teams that I was on – usually the aim was if you could get three starters in the draft, that’s a really good draft. You’re talking about over a three-year process. So within three years if you had come out of that with three guys who are solid starters, guys you’re not looking to replace – winning players would be another phrase you’d hear – that’s a really, really solid draft.
“You get four? Man, you’re cooking with gas when you get four.’’
The NFL Draft gets underway Thursday at 8 p.m., although the Colts might not be involved until round 2 on Friday. Their 1st-round pick belongs to Philadelphia as part of the 2021 trade for Wentz. Overall, Indy has seven selections, including the 42nd overall.
That in mind, here’s a recap of Ballard’s five drafts:
Total picks: 7.
Still with team: 6 – DE Kwity Paye, DE Dayo Odeyingbo, TE Kylen Granson, QB Sam Ehlinger, WR Mike Strachan, OL Will Fries.
Gone: S Shawn Davis.
Starters: 2 – Paye, Granson (projected).
Overview: The only grade that’s appropriate is “Incomplete.’’ It’s imperative Paye and Odeyingbo experience that sizeable leap from year 1 to year 2. They, not Ngakoue, must be the foundation of the pass rush moving forward.
Total picks: 9.
Still with team: 7 – WR Michael Pittman, Jr., RB Jonathan Taylor, S Julian Blackmon, OL Danny Pinter, CB Isaiah Rodgers, WR Dezmon Patmon, LB Jordan Glasgow.
Gone: QB Jacob Eason, DL Rob Windsor.
Starters: Pittman, Taylor, Blackmon, Pinter (projected), Rodgers (projected).
Overview: Ballard and Frank Reich went into the draft looking to add playmaking talent. Voila! Taylor was in the running for Offensive Player of the Year in ’21 (it took Cooper Kupp’s brilliance to deny him) while Pittman gave every indication he’ll lead the receivers room for the immediate future. Blackmon started 20 of 22 games before tearing an Achilles tendon in mid-October last season, and Rodgers’ ball skills produced three interceptions in his second season. Pinter heads into his third season as the front runner to replace Mark Glowinski at right guard.
Total picks: 10.
Still with team: 6 – DE/LB Ben Banogu, WR Parris Campbell, LB Bobby Okereke, S Khari Willis, CB Marvell Tell III, LB E.J. Speed.
Gone: CB Rock Ya-Sin, DE Geri Green, OT Jackson Barton, C Javon Patterson.
Starters: Okereke, Willis.
Overview: Ya-Sin was coming off his best season, but it was an easy choice to package him in the trade to acquire Ngakoue. Edge rusher trumps cover guy. Okereke and Willis are defensive mainstays, but it’s impossible to deny the impact of missing on the other two 2nd-rounders. Banogu has two tackles while being inactive for 15 of the last 25 regular-season games. Injuries have forced Campbell to miss 34 of 49 games.
Total picks: 11.
Still with team: 6 – G Quenton Nelson, LB Darius Leonard, OT Braden Smith, DL Tyquan Lewis, RB Nyheim Hines, LB Zaire Franklin.
Gone: DE Kemoko Turay, WR Reece Fountain, RB Jordan Wilkins, WR Deon Cain, LB Matthew Adams.
Starters: Nelson, Leonard, Smith, Franklin.
Overview: Let’s consider this a transformational draft. It’s similar to the 2012 event, but that one included a franchise QB (gone-too-soon Andrew Luck) along with a wideout who would earn four Pro Bowl nods (T.Y. Hilton) and a pair of productive tight ends (Coby Fleener and Dwayne Allen). Nelson and Leonard are three-time first-team All-Pros, Smith is the long-term answer at right tackle, Hines is one of the few playmakers on offense, and Franklin is heading into his second season as a starter. The ultimate standard for a successful draft is whether a player proves worthy of a second contract. Leonard, Smith and Hines received extensions last offseason. Franklin and Lewis were re-signed in March. Nelson is going to hit the lottery this offseason.
Total picks: 8.
Still with team: 1 – DT Grover Stewart.
Gone: S Malik Hooker, CB Quincy Wilson, LB/DE Tarell Basham, OT Zach Banner, RB Marlon Mack, CB Nate Hairston, LB Anthony Walker.
Overview: Injuries sabotaged Hooker’s career in Indy, and the team got little or nothing out of Wilson (round 2), Basham (round 3) and Banner (round 4). It’s extremely detrimental when there’s nothing to show from the entire top half of a draft. It hit on Mack, Stewart and Walker.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.