With Chris Ballard, Colts’ draft options run the gamut

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INDIANAPOLIS – In a few playful seconds, Chris Ballard offered a glimpse of how the early portion of the NFL Draft might unfold for the Indianapolis Colts.

In other words, he offered zero clarity.

“Thank y’all,’’ Ballard said as his 30-minute pre-draft Zoom conference call last week was winding down. “I’m sure we’ll be talking Friday. What day does the draft start, Thursday? Friday or Saturday we’ll be talking.’’

There was a short pause and a few chuckles.

“Maybe we’ll be talking early Thursday,’’ Ballard said. “You never know.’’

In other words, the Indianapolis Colts general manager might be available late Thursday evening to discuss the player he targeted with the 21st overall pick – a left tackle, edge pass rusher, cornerback or wide receiver – in the draft.

Or he might address his rationale for trading out of No. 21, sliding down a handful of spots, still getting a prospect his staff covets and perhaps recouping the third-round pick he sent to Philadelphia as part of the Carson Wentz trade.

 Or the team might fire up the Zoom link earlier Thursday so Ballard can explain why a GM who “loves them picks’’ traded up – that would require packaging No. 21 overall and further depleting the draft stash – to acquire a difference-maker he was convinced wouldn’t be there at No. 21.

Or the trade-back scenario could take the Colts out of the first round altogether. Remember, Ballard hasn’t had a first-round pick the last two years. Roughly two months before last year’s event, he sent the 13th overall pick to San Francisco for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. While on the clock April 25, 2019, Ballard traded the 26th overall pick to Washington for 2019 and ’20 second-rounders.

Two issues can’t be overstated when discussing the draft: never pass up an opportunity to add a true difference-maker to the roster, even if it doesn’t address your most pressing need(s), and more picks is better.

Ballard enters the three-day draft with just six picks, the fewest he’s had in his five drafts with the Colts. There were 11 in 2018, 10 in ’19, 38 overall.

He calls them “shots at the board.’’ Of the 38 total selections, 27 remain on the roster.

“This is not an exact science,’’ Ballard said. “Let’s be real here. I think we’re pretty good at what we do but there needs to be a little bit of luck involved and the more picks you have, the more chances of luck are going to show up.’’

The way to build up the draft arsenal is trading back. In the last four years, Ballard has authored 18 trades involving draft picks and netted a gain of eight selections.

The most influential trade-back was with the New York Jets in March 2018. For the 3rd overall pick, Ballard received the 6th overall pick, two second-rounders (Nos. 37 and 49) and a 2019 second-rounder. That wheelin’ and dealin’ – he subsequently traded the ’19 second-rounder – delivered Quenton Nelson, Braden Smith, Rock Ya-Sin, Kemoko Turay and Jordan Wilkins to the roster.

Ballard hasn’t been averse to upward mobility. He moved up three spots in round 2 last season to ensure getting running back Jonathan Taylor and shot up 20 spots in round 4 of ’19 to grab safety Khari Willis.

Obviously, everything – moving up, moving down, staying put – hinges on the variables at the time.

“If we’re sitting there and there is a player that we really think is a difference-maker and he is going to really make a difference on our team, we’ll take him or we’ll trade up to get him,’’ Ballard said. “We thought Jonathan Taylor was a difference-maker and we traded up to get Jonathan Taylor.

“But there are times that we felt that whether it was the fit of the player, medical issues on why we traded back, we just thought at the time whoever was sitting there we could move back and acquire two or three players versus the one player at the time.’’

The Colts’ pre-draft evaluation revealed “five-to-six difference-makers,’’ Ballard said. “From a first-round standpoint, we have plenty of names that when someone gets to 21, we’ll feel good about picking them.’’

Like Ballard, owner Jim Irsay believes the draft must be a team’s “lifeline.’’

“I think we’ll have an excellent opportunity to see some starters come out of this draft as rookies,’’ he said. “That’s the way the league has to be now because with the salary cap, it just demands that sometimes you bring in rookies that are going to start for you.’’

Irsay’s wish list includes playmakers on offense, either an explosive wideout or tight end who can stretch the field and create mismatches. Or both. He mentioned a pair of big-play Chiefs.

“It’s amazing when you see 87 (Travis Kelce) and 10 (Tyreek Hill) in Kansas City, the things they do,’’ Irsay said. “It’s incredible.’’

So, left tackle, pass rusher, wideout, corner?

Ballard insisted this is a good draft for teams that need offensive linemen.

“Maybe as good as I have seen in a while just in terms of the depth of it,’’ he said.

The Colts, he added, will “work through it. The one thing we won’t do, we won’t just force the issue, especially early in the draft. That’s when you make your biggest mistakes.

“I think y’all know our philosophy on the fronts. You need eight to 10 offensive linemen and we feel you need eight to 10 defensive linemen. So, we’ll continue to add fuel to the fire, but we are not just going to force the issue.’’

Listen to the Colts Blue Zone Podcast for weekly coverage and analysis of the Indianapolis Colts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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