It’s been a hectic offseason for Colts GM Chris Ballard. He watched Phillip Rivers retire and made a trade to secured Carson Wentz as his replacement. He resigned TY Hilton, drafted a slew of exciting prospects, and signed Eric Fisher to replace Anthony Castonzo.
Chris Ballard has also been spending a lot of money. he’s secured significant contract extensions for franchise pillars Braden Smith and Darius Leonard. Now he’s finalized perhaps the most essential contract extension of this offseason – his own.
Colts owner Jim Irsay has agreed on new contracts with both Chris Ballard and Frank Reich that keep them in Indianapolis through the 2026 season. That stability in the team’s key personnel and the certainty it brings will be invaluable for the team. My colleague Lucas Robbins has covered Frank Reich’s extension in detail, so I’ll focus on what Ballard’s extension means for the franchise’s future.
I like that this is a five-year contract because it more or less matches the Colt’s window to win a Super Bowl. I see the Colts window being open while 2016 draftees Deforest Buckner and Ryan Kelly are in their primes. Once those two retire or leave, you haven’t got much time to replace them before the 2018 intake of Nelson, Leonard, and Smith potentially start retiring.
There’s every chance Buckner and Kelly remain at the top of their games for the next five years. Ballard’s extension ensures he’ll be leading the organization for the rest of their peak years and the prime of Nelson, Leonard, and Smith’s careers. Jim Irsay is clear that his goal is to win another Super Bowl. He believes Chris Ballard is the man to make the team achieve that lofty goal.
Ballard’s extension is a vote of confidence in his approach to running the franchise. Some fans dislike Ballard’s unwillingness to spend big in free agency. I can understand it’s not always easy watching free agents you like get snapped up by other teams while the Colts twiddle their thumbs, but I think Ballard’s approach is getting results.
I spent this year’s free agency hoping the team would pursue one of the many edge rushers available, with Yannick Ngakoue my preferred option. My thinking was we’d focus on a left tackle in the first round of the draft.
Chris Ballard has said he’s reluctant to be aggressive in free agency because it’s so hard to find good value as so many teams are willing to overpay for talent. I think much of the Patriots business in free agency is a good example of this. It also applies to a lot of edge rushers this year. The Bengals overpaid for Trey Hendrickson, the Titans overpaid for Bud Dupree and the Rams overpaid to keep Leonard Floyd. Although I do think some good deals were possible, such as those for Ngakoue, Lawson and Reddick.
Ballard didn’t pursue any edge rushers in free agency. He focused on resigning Hilton and Rhodes in free agency, drafted two very exciting pass rush prospects in Paye and Odeyingbo and found his left tackle in Eric Fisher after the draft. Time will tell how successful these decisions prove to be, but they have the potential to give the Colts two starting defensive lineman and a left tackle for at the next few years at very little cost.
That being said, we need to challenge the idea Chris Ballard isn’t willing to make moves in free agency when he sees value. He’s taken big swings to trade for Deforest Bucker last year and Carson Wentz this offseason. He’s also made prudent moves to pick up Phillip Rivers and Xavier Rhodes last year. Ballard may not be in the habit of handing out million dollar deals on the first day of free agency, but he’s willing to do business for the right price.
Chris Ballard has always favoured a patient, analytical approach to running the Colts. He’s reluctant to be too aggressive and has refused to leverage the team’s future salary cap space to fund short term spending. Instead he spends money carefully, focuses on getting new talent through the draft and ensures the team has the resources to pay its players when the time comes. Ballard generally prefers shorter contracts for players but is happy to give out longer contracts for top players like Buckner, Leonard and Smith.
This approach has ensured the team has almost no dead cap space and has avoided being saddled with bad contracts. Even a well-run team like the LA Rams gave out big contracts to Todd Gurley, Jared Goff and Brandin Cooks which it later had to get out of and live with the consequences.
The Colts on the other hand have been able to give out big new contracts to Smith and Leonard even in a year when the salary cap has shrunk significantly and has been much lower than any team could have predicted just two years ago. Nor have the Colts emptied their pockets, they should still have plenty of cap room to give Quenton Nelson a massive new contract next year. They should also be able to pay players like Okereke even if he has the breakout season many are predicting for him this year.
I do expect Chris Ballard to be more aggressive in free agency in two or three years time. By that stage the salary cap should be far higher, giving the Colts more headroom to work with. Carson Wentz and the team’s young pass rushers would need to be successful enough to make the Colts genuine contenders. if they are, I’m confident Ballard would pull the trigger and get a player to put the Colts over the line and win them a Super Bowl. What he won’t do is jeopardise the team’s chances of winning a Super Bowl in two or three years time by overspending now.
As The Athletic highlighted when the Colts were going after Wentz earlier this year, there’s a George Young quote close to Ballard’s heart:
“The NFL’s such an impulsive business. The coaches are impulsive. The owners are impulsive. The players are impulsive. The fans are impulsive. The agents are impulsive. I’m not impulsive.”
Chris Ballard is a patient GM. He’ll watch other coaches be impulsive at the start of free agency, he’ll watch rivals like the Titans use future cap space to make a big move for Julio Jones. Ballard can afford to be patient because he’s built a great roster that he can justifiably believe will only get better over the next few years.
Crucially, he can be patient because he knows he has the full support of his owner thanks to his shiny new contract. Some of the worst moves in the NFL happen when a GM or coach knows they’re on the hot seat. They take a big swing to get a player that could help save their jobs, knowing that if it goes badly it won’t be their team anyway. Having an owner, GM and Coach on the same page and in it for the long run prevents this.
It’s fair to say that Colts fans aren’t all as patient as Chris Ballard. This isn’t surprising because as fans we can live moment to moment. We can call for one flashy signing one week and a completely different player the next because we don’t have to carry the cost of failure. General Managers don’t have that luxury.
Even those Colts fans who dislike the way Ballard conducts business much appreciate how much better the days have been since he was made GM compared to the dark days of Ryan Grigson. How many impulsive, flashy moves did he make that didn’t come off and that the franchise lived to regret?
If that wasn’t enough evidence, perhaps Colts fans can look at the rest of the AFC South. How many top ten draft picks have the Jaguars squandered in the last decade? How quickly did they dismantle their successful ‘Sacksonville’ team? Or perhaps you’d like to look at the trashfire that is the Houston Texans at the moment? Look at how quickly Bill O’Brien was able to turn a Super Bowl contender into one of the worst teams in the league and the one with the bleakest future.
At the heart of Ballard’s success has been his skill at drafting great players. His 2018 class is already historically good and could get even better if Kemoko Turay is able to stay healthy and reach his potential. Even relative down years like 2017 and 2019 yielded great players like Grover Stewart, Bobby Okereke and Khari Willis. Whilst the 2020 class already looks to have produced some of the team’s best players in Pittman, Taylor and Blackmon. You can’t judge the 2021 class before they’ve played a single competitive snap, but there is genuine excitement about Paye and Odeyingbo, whilst later picks Granson and Strachan have impressed so far.
Building a team through the draft is much cheaper than free agency, whilst also giving the team an opportunity to build a culture. That’s a big benefit to Reich and Ballard who are so keen to preach the importance of character to the team. Building a team through the draft is also much more in keeping with the great Colts teams of the 2000s built by the legendary Bill Polian.
Before Polian’s arrival in 1998, the Colts had drafted Marvin Harrison and Tarik Glenn in the first round of the previous two drafts. They’d go on to draft Peyton Manning in 1998, Edgerrin James in 1999, Reggie Wayne in 2001, Dwight Freeney in 2002 and Dallas Clark in 2003 (alongside Robert Mathis in the fifth round).
That’s a legendary group of players including several current Hall of Famers and some potential future ones. This current crop of Colts players has a long way to go to reach their level. Quenton Nelson has actually had a better first three seasons than any of those Hall of Famers mentioned above. Nelson joined Devin Hester, Barry Sanders, Keith Jackson, Eric Dickerson, Lawrence Taylor and Earl Campbell as the only players named in the All-Pro First Team in their first three seasons.
Darius Leonard is likely the only other current Colts player you could confidently say is on course for Canton. Although it’s certainly conceivable players like Buckner, Kelly and Smith if they play excellently over the next few years and the team wins a Super Bowl.
Colts fans should be grateful to have a GM so good at drafting and to have him under contract for another five years. Chris Ballard has made his mark identifying and recruiting great talent. In due course he’s rewarded that talent with contract extensions. Now, Jim Irsay has done the same with Chris Ballard.