INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Chris Ballard has been on the job 83 days, and his message hasn’t wavered one iota.
The blueprint for lifting the Indianapolis Colts out of their two-year residence in NFL mediocrity is all about creating a more competitive roster, from top to bottom. Remember this telling statement in late January from a first-time general manager who was inheriting a franchise led by Andrew Luck: “It will never be about one guy.’’
Ballard has spent the last 12 weeks proving he wasn’t simply offering lip service. He set in motion a significant roster overhaul that has shed age and cut ties with players who hadn’t lived up to their hefty contracts, and added 12 veteran free agents, several of whom will be asked to play major roles this season.
In all, 18 first-time Colts have been acquired since January, and that number figures to double before the dust settles and training camp opens in late July.
The next step comes in next week’s NFL draft. The Colts hold seven picks, all in the first five rounds, and no one should be surprised if Ballard finagles another couple of picks by trading back.
Again, the goal is – has been – to upgrade a 90-player roster that must be trimmed to 53 in September.
That remained one of the overriding themes as Ballard looked ahead his first draft as a GM.
“We’re always going to be trying to add competition and I think I’ve said this numerous times: player acquisition is 365 days and we’re always going to be active on the roster,’’ he said this week in his pre-draft meeting with the media. “We knew we had some holes that we needed to fill and I thought free agency helped us do it.’’
Five veteran free agents addressed a lacking linebacker room. Two, Jabaal Sheard and John Simon, undoubtedly will start. A third, Sean Spence, might. As soon as Johnathan Hankins signed his three-year, $27 million contract, he became the starting nose tackle.
But as much as Ballard added starter-level talent to a defense that a year ago was historically bad by team standards, he’s also addressed the midsection of the roster. Al Woods and Margus Hunt thicken the defensive line rotation. Kamar Aiken adds further depth to an experienced receiver corps. Brian Schwenke should push for playing time on the interior of the offensive line.
While the Colts must come out of the draft with difference-making talent – we’ll lobby for an edge pass rusher in round 1 until Ballard goes in a different direction – they also must come away with another projected starter, or two, and young talent to develop.
It’s anyone’s guess whether Ballard was surprised by the magnitude of the rebuilding process he inherited as he reviewed video from 2016. But from the outset, he’s made it clear this won’t be a quick fix.
“It takes time, like anything,’’ he said. “It takes time to build a team. It takes time to build a defense, an offense and have them all come together. Do we have work in front of us? Yes, we do.
“The biggest thing I want to make sure that we’re emphasizing is that competition and they have to earn it. Doesn’t matter where you come from and how we build it – from first-round pick to undrafted free agent to street free agent, guy that was cut at the 53, future signing.’’
Luck, the franchise cornerstone, agrees with his GM’s approach.
“There certainly is a feeling in the locker room . . . that everybody on this team – including myself and Adam Vinatieri – have to go out there and earn a spot on the roster,’’ Luck told IndyStar. “I think that Chris has taken the approach that competition will bring out the best in everybody and it’s going to weed out the guys who can’t help the team.
“I know as quarterbacks, Scotty (Tolzien) and Stephen Morris and I, we compete, even in conditioning. Guys are in the weight room working as hard as they ever have since I’ve been here. We’ll see. It’s not about the first two days (of offseason work). It’s week 2, 3, 4, 5, too. But there’s certainly a feeling that really promotes competition, which I do think will bring out the best in everybody.’’
That, in the end, is Ballard’s objective.
“You want guys that are going to be great in the locker room, good teammates, they hold each other accountable,’’ he said. “That’s when you know you’ve got it right. The good teams, they hold each other accountable.’’