INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – You’ve undoubtedly seen and heard the speculation and chatter. If not, welcome back from Pluto.
Imagine, it goes, Chris Ballard actually maximizing the ridiculous cap space at his disposal – north of $107 million – and digging into his owner’s deep pockets. Imagine him giving Andrew Luck a transcendent running back who’s entering his prime. Or imagine him grudgingly giving up a mid-round draft pick and acquiring one of the NFL’s truly elite wideouts.
Imagine Chris Ballard adding Le’Veon Bell or Antonio Brown to the Indianapolis Colts’ roster.
It’s possible, but we’re not holding our breath. Do so at your own risk.
Without uttering either player’s name, Ballard and Frank Reich all but offered a resounding No! at the prospect of investing in such rare skills.
Make no mistake, Ballard and Reich are committed to delivering a Lombardi Trophy to Indy. They’ll continue to enrich Luck’s supporting cast and add pieces to a young, improving defense. They’ll maximize the draft. They’ll be selective but active in free agency.
But there are limits to what will be tolerated in a player’s history, and how that might impact the current locker room.
Listen to Reich.
“We’re a team on the rise and the reason is we have the right players in the locker room,’’ he said Wednesday. “It’s the right kind of culture and that culture starts with the guys in that locker room.
“It’s not open to just anybody. That locker room is not just open to any great player. You’ve got to be the right guy. You’ve got to be the right player.’’
Listen to Ballard. The Colts, he insisted, have a strict criteria every incoming player – free agent or draft pick – must meet.
“We want players that want to get better, want to be great, want to be part of the team, that are willing to sacrifice sometimes their individual stats for the betterment of winning and being a good teammate,’’ he said. “If they fit into that criteria, absolutely they’ll fit in.
“But it is going to be a strict criteria.’’
Listen to Ballard and Reich long enough and you’ll understand they aren’t giving lip service to creating the proper environment and culture. A player’s character is paramount, and that’s especially true when adding a free agent or someone acquired through a trade.
There’s no lack of veteran leadership in the Colts’ locker room: Luck, Anthony Castonzo, Ryan Kelly, T.Y. Hilton, Jack Doyle, Adam Vinatieri, Clayton Geathers. Jabaal Sheard was the Colts’ nominee for the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
Even so, it remains a young collection. At the end of last season, the 53-man roster featured 22 players with less than two years experience, including 10 rookies.
“We’re young. It’s a young locker room,’’ Ballard said. “Do I feel a little better than I did a year ago? Yes.
“Do I think we’re quite there yet? No.’’
The idea is for an incoming player to buy into and enhance the existing culture, not possibly disrupt it. The days of giving a high-profile mercenary a major contract – we’re thinking of LeRon Landry and his four-year, $24 million deal – are over.
For all of their incredible talents, Bell and Brown bring baggage. And, it’s worth noting, potentially staggering price tags. Bell sat out last season in Pittsburgh instead of playing for the $14.5 million franchise tag. He’s going to want to recoup what was lost, and then some.
Brown has worn out his welcome in Pittsburgh; his antics have the Steelers shopping him and a contract that pays Brown approximately $12-13 million per season over the next three years. It’s not a reach to anticipate him seeking a new deal from his new team, replete with massive guarantees.
Whatever a player’s skill set, he’s got to fit with what the Colts are doing. He’s got to fit with those around him.
Ballard isn’t averse to dealing with at-risk players, but only after doing a deep dive into that player’s background. When possible and when appropriate, he’s eager to offer second chances.
“I didn’t get into this to be a GM,’’ he said. “I got into it because I cared about kids. I wanted to make players better. I wanted to make them better men.
“Guys make mistakes, they do. They’re young men and they make mistakes. What we’ve got to do is evaluate, OK, is this going to be a consistent habit with the mistake he made? Or is it something we can work with and fit in and help him get better and help him become the man we want him to be?
“If we see a player – even if we have a good player at the position – if we think this guy is the one who will put us over the top, we’ll make the move.’’
Reich continually pointed to how a player would have to fit in the locker room.
“Gotta be a case-by-case deal,’’ he said, adding he weighs a pair of issues. “Are they really, truly, deep down a team-first guy? And do they have that mentality . . . do they love football? Are they really fighting to get better? We don’t want guys that are just like, ‘Let me sign the best deal.’ Do you love football? Do you love practicing? Do you love being in the locker room?’’