“I’ve gotta let the poison get out,” he said, “and it’s not out yet.” So said Chris Ballard at his annual post-season press conference. After the humiliating defeat to Jacksonville that cost Indianapolis a playoff spot, this conference was earlier and more downbeat than last year’s.
Chris Ballard has got to get the poison out. I suspect he also needs some family time and a vacation after the rollercoaster of a season we’ve experienced. Once the poison is out, Chris Ballard has some decisions to make. One of those is at Quarterback.
Ballard’s press conference covered a lot of ground and gave us plenty of angles to discuss for the next few months. But his most important comments came when he discussed Carson Wentz.
This was not a General Manager hanging his Quarterback out to dry in front of the media, but nor was it a GM backing their QB to the hilt.
“When we decided to make a (trade for) Carson, at the time of the decision we felt good about it and I still don’t regret the decision at the time.”
I maintained throughout the season that Wentz was the best option for the Colts this season. The only better QB who hit free agency was Matthew Stafford who the Rams overpaid to get by parting with two first-round picks. Even Stafford has shown some significant issues as LA hopes he’ll lead them to a Superbowl this year without having won a playoff game in his career so far.
“It is not an exact science. Everybody just thinks you just take one, and you’re going to fix the problem. Look, taking one will get y’all off my ass for a little bit, but the second that guy doesn’t play well, I’m gonna be the first one to run out of the building.”
So said Ballard around this time last year following the retirement of Phillip Rivers. He was right that it’s not as simple as trading up to get your Quarterback of the future. Indianapolis would have had to trade up with Atlanta to the 4th spot to be confident of being able to draft their next QB. Even then they would have to have been happy with at least two of Lance, Fields, and Jones as they couldn’t have known who the 49ers were going to take at 3.
It’s still too early in their careers to make definitive judgments on any of the 2021 Quarterback crop, but at this stage, Mac Jones is the only one who looks like he’d be worth the pick. Even then it’s too early to tell if he’s worth the multiple first-round picks it would have taken to move up to four. There’s no point talking about moving up to 10 to take Fields or 14 to take Jones because the Colts couldn’t have known they’d be available then until draft night and were too good a team to go into the draft without a plan at Quarterback.
Chris Ballard was correct that Carson Wentz was the right option at the time, but it is less clear Ballard is convinced Wentz is the long-term solution.
“I won’t comment on who’s going to be here next year and who’s not going to be here; that’s not fair to any player. I thought Carson did some good things and there are a lot of things he needs to do better. Our passing game needs to be better.”
Ballard may not comment on which players are going to be here, and he was pretty consistent on that throughout the position groups discussed on Thursday. He did essentially confirm that Quenton Nelson will be back thanks to a big new contract, but we all kind of knew that anyway. However, Ballard was more equivocal talking about Wentz than he was last year about Rivers. “Do we want Philip back? Yes. But I told Philip we have to go through the process. I have to do my job.”
There was praise for Wentz from Ballard, but there was criticism too “I talked to Carson about this yesterday: Just make the layups. Just make the layups. Make the layups. Like the throw against Arizona was incredible; there might be two or three other quarterbacks in the league who could make that. But let’s make the layups.”
Jim Irsay has made it clear that changes will be made after the crushing loss to Jacksonville. After their long talk in Irsay’s office on Sunday night, I’m sure they need change, and getting it right this season has not been lost on Ballard and Reich.
With seven pro bowlers, the Colts are a talented team. But whether they get the right Quarterback will largely determine if they fulfill Irsay’s ambition of winning at least one Super Bowl. Ballard and Reich will now be in no doubt about how important getting the position right is for their continued job security.
To be fair to Wentz, there was a lot to like about him last year. He started badly but that was understandable given the offensive line was riddled with injuries. Once they got healthy Wentz played much better and the Colts started winning. Wentz wasn’t the most explosive QB, but he didn’t make many errors, even if some of the ones he did make like those against Tennessee were costly.
With Taylor enjoying an incredible season, Wentz was doing enough to make the Colts a genuine threat. Unfortunately, even when the team was playing brilliantly against New England Wentz had a bad game. He bounced back impressively to secure a clutch win against Arizona but faltered as the Colts missed the playoffs in losses to Las Vegas and Jacksonville.
Perhaps most concerning for Reich and Ballard is the way Wentz was unable to punish teams who stacked the box to stop Taylor. It was understandable when David, Vea, and White et al of Tampa constrained the Colts run game. But it was deeply concerning to see Jacksonville and Las Vegas able to do it without being scorched in the passing game. Both had given up huge games to Taylor at the end of last season. Indianapolis will be concerned that with Wentz behind center next season, teams will just be able to stop their offensive by stacking the box against Taylor.
At this stage, I’d guess that Ballard is ready to move on from Wentz but isn’t convinced a better option is available. Financially, moving on from Wentz would be difficult but not impossible. Cutting Wentz before March 19 would mean absorbing $15m in dead cap, although it would save $13m in salary for the season. Trading him would cost nothing if done before March 19. Generally, the Colts are in a strong cap situation with an expected $50m in cap space. It is possible another team would be willing to trade for Wentz before March, although I wouldn’t expect too much in trade compensation.
If Indianapolis does decide to move on from Wentz, they’ve got to be willing to cut him before March 19 and hoping to trade if someone is interested. Cutting Wentz would put the Colts in a challenging cap position, but it wouldn’t be insurmountable if that is what Ballard decided was the best long-term move for the team.
If Indianapolis does decide they want to pursue a new Quarterback, who might they want and who could be available?
The only plausible option that would undisputedly be an upgrade would be Russell Wilson. He won’t be a free agent this summer but could conceivably be available for trade. Last offseason was littered with rumors of Wilson’s unhappiness in Seattle and his desire for them to improve their offensive line. Those pleas fell on deaf ears as the Seahawks got significantly worse and missed the playoffs by a distance. Wilson missed significant portions of the year out injured and now Seattle must watch all three of their division rivals in the postseason.
Seattle does have talent alongside Wilson, notably Wagner, Metcalf, and Lockett. But Wagner will be 32 by the time next season starts and might not have too many great years left in him. Wilson himself is 33. Time works differently for Quarterbacks, but does Wilson want to spend potentially some of the last great years of his career on a Seattle team that’s going backward? This is a QB who justifiably craves more Super Bowls.
The Seahawks could for their part be willing to trade Wilson for a hefty fee if they acknowledge they need to start to rebuild and need to trade Wilson to get the draft capital and cap space to begin to do it. If Seattle is willing to trade Wilson, he’ll have to approve any deal thanks to his no-trade clause in his contract.
Indianapolis would plausibly be an attractive destination for Wilson. He’d play behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, could conceivably take them to the Super Bowl in the next few years and with the addition of a good wide receiver in free agency could have some good offensive weapons to work with.
What would it cost to get Wilson if he were available? That’s a difficult question to answer but I think the benchmark would have to be the Rams trade for Stafford this offseason. As I said, I thought the Rams overpaid by sending the Lions two first-round picks, a third-round pick, and Jared Goff in return for Stafford. In Wilson’s case, I think that compensation would be far more reasonable.
Russell Wilson has consistently been one of the best Quarterbacks in the league over the past decade, winning a Super Bowl, making another, making eight Pro Bowls, and consistently leading the Seahawks to the playoffs with strong records. He’s a much more desirable Quarterback than Stafford was last year. Any team trading for Wilson can bank on another five years of elite play. They could easily get another eight years given Wilson’s health and the extent to which he looks after his body. He might even stop everyone going on about Andrew Luck.
Indianapolis doesn’t have a first-round draft pick this year thanks to the Wentz trade, but neither did the Rams when they traded for Stafford. I also think Wentz is a more lucrative Quarterback now than Goff was last year and a quarterback Seattle would plausibly be willing to play if they do start a rebuild. With all this considered, I think a third-round pick this year, the following two year’s first-round picks and Carson Wentz is the kind of haul Indianapolis and Seattle could plausibly agree on for Wilson. Although this can be complicated by adding players and removing picks from the equation.
Outside of Wilson, I don’t see many compelling options for the Colts at Quarterback. There is always the possibility Aaron Rodgers wants to leave Green Bay this offseason and again Indianapolis might be a desirable destination for him. The Colts would love to recruit Aaron Rodgers, especially if he helped bring Davante Adams with him. However, whilst Rodgers would be undoubtedly brilliant, he is towards the end of his career. Rodgers may only have one or two years left in the NFL, meaning he wouldn’t be the long-term answer at Quarterback the Colts are looking for. They’d hope to win a Super Bowl in that time but would have to consider the benefits of trying to find another QB at that stage with the likes of Nelson and Leonard a few years later into their primes.
Other plausible options could be upgrades on Wentz, but might not be. Jimmy Garoppolo is likely to be the best option who could be secured with little draft capital given the 49ers drafted Lance last year. He could be better than Wentz, but could easily not be. Even if he is better than Wentz, there are concerns as to whether he can stay healthy. Were Indianapolis to get Garoppolo, they’d likely need to have an experienced backup in case he got injured. That would likely mean the end of Ehlinger’s time with the team and risk spending a lot of cap space on two good but not great QBs.
Kirk Cousins could also be a realistic option if Minnesota decides they don’t want him for the long term and want to get draft capital for him whilst he’s still under contract. He could be better than Wentz and certainly appears to have a higher floor than Wentz does. But would Minnesota trade him if they didn’t think they could get a better option? Why wouldn’t the Colts pursue that player instead? There are also questions like whether Cousins is good enough without having offensive weapons like Jefferson, Cook, and Thielen? Are Cousins good enough to lead the Colts to a Super Bowl? If not, why trade for him? Baker Mayfield might be an option and is used to playing for a team with a great offensive line and strong ground game. But having seen him for the last few years, would the Colts want him?
I don’t think any of the free-agent Quarterbacks are better than Wentz, although Mariota is probably the best of the bunch. Nor do I think any of this year’s draft prospects are particularly attractive even if Indianapolis could move up high enough to draft one of them. And if you’re giving up that much capital for a QB, why not swing for someone like Wilson?
If the Colts do decide this offseason they need to move on from Wentz, they should go all-in for Russell Wilson if he’s available. They can’t keep expending draft capital and wasting years on options that could work but don’t.
At this stage, I think the most likely outcome is Indianapolis stick with Wentz for another year. He could plausibly improve next year with another year reunited with Frank Reich and a fully healthy offseason. But at least if he isn’t, the organization knows that and can make a decision accordingly. Plus if the options for drafting a QB aren’t attractive this year, they might be better in 2023.
This could be a difficult summer for Carson Wentz, although to an extent he’s brought that on himself by not better grasping the opportunity given to him this year. Whoever the Colts choose as their starting Quarterback next season, I suspect they’ll need to be given some better weapons at wide receiver and tight end. Chris Ballard has quite the challenge ahead of him over the next few months to decide who that Quarterback should be.