KRAVITZ: For Colts’ Ballard, the honeymoon is over and it’s time to get to work in free agency

(from left) Carolina Panthers guard Andrew Norwell, New England Patriots running back Dion Lewis, Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Robinson and Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens. (AP file photos)
Bob Kravitz

INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - So far, Chris Ballard has enjoyed a lovely, sun-kissed honeymoon. And that’s understandable: When he took over the Colts last season, they were a dumpster fire with a substandard (read: poor) roster and no franchise quarterback. Even when the Colts went 4-12, the blame was dropped squarely in the lap of Chuck Pagano and his overmatched coaching staff, and that was a reasonable view of the matter.

He also had something else going for him: He wasn’t Ryan Grigson, who failed to endear himself to the masses and struck out too often in the draft and free agency. Personally, I got along fine with Grigson, and when we had our issues – and we…had...issues – we hashed them out like adults and moved on.

Now, though, free agency begins, and the honeymoon ends for the Colts’ second-year general manager.

He’s got the No. 3 pick in the draft and he’s got an estimated $74 million at his disposal to purchase shiny, new toys. And let’s be honest: The Colts need toys like a man in the throes of a middle-aged crisis. They need help on the offensive line – this is a recording – need help at wide receiver, need help at running back, need help with the pass rush, need help with interior linebacking. Other than that…

This has got to be Ballard’s signature offseason, the time when he shows he’s the real deal, that he’s worth the compliments Jim Irsay tossed his way when he called Ballard “the best GM candidate of the 21st Century.’’ When he was hired, the reaction around the league was universal: This guy’s got the goods.

But honestly, there have been some missteps, some of his own making and some beyond his reach, that have given me some pause.

I didn't understand why he kept Pagano last season. Maybe it's because Ballard got hired late in the game. Maybe it's because the Colts struck out in their efforts to bring back Peyton Manning and have him arrive with Jon Gruden in tow. Maybe it was a Jim Irsay prerequisite to Ballard's hiring. We don't know, but it made absolutely no sense to bring Pagano back as a lame duck. It was doomed from the start.

I didn’t understand why Ballard was willing to go into last season with Scott Tolzien, although he remedied that mistake by making a great trade to acquire Jacoby Brissett. Like everybody in the organization, Ballard was convinced that Luck would be back in relatively short order; for that reason, he wasn’t willing to spend big money on one of the available veteran free-agent quarterbacks. Turned out he was wrong, just as almost everybody was wrong.

I guess you could give him grief for the whole Josh McDaniels fiasco, but I’m disinclined to do so. What McDaniels did was virtually without precedent. Should he have foreseen that McDaniels was a snake? Maybe so. But when a man gives you his word, what are you supposed to do when the rules don’t allow you to make it official until after that coach’s post-season is over? Where he did err, though, was in having his organization announce McDaniels' arrival and set up a time and place for the introductory press conference before the contract was ever signed. “That one’s on me,’’ he said at the time. Live and learn, I guess.

I don’t feel terribly bullish, either, on this young and mostly unproven coaching staff. While LA’s Sean McVay surrounded himself with Wade Phillips and Doug Pederson hired defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz, I’m at a loss to tell you much of anything about this new staff. Now perhaps this is a function of having had to start late and then start all over again after the Frank Reich hiring, but in talking to people at the NFL Combine, I didn’t get the sense this staff was highly regarded within the business. That may prove to be wrong or even unfair, but none of them come with much of an established pedigree. I can also see potential issues with the coaches who were brought here to work with McDaniels. Irsay and Ballard did the ethical thing, keeping those coaches on the staff, but they’re not Reich guys, just as Pagano wasn’t a Ballard guy. We’ll see.

In the end, though, what matters is talent, and this is going to be Ballard’s best chance to bolster a team that has no draft choices left from 2013 and may have none left from 2014, depending on how things shake out these next few weeks.

During an interview at the Combine, Ballard was asked about re-signing his own free agents, and he responded by saying, “Well, we’d like to sign them all.’’ That wasn’t true at all. As he said later, “We won four games,’’ meaning, “Why would I bring back a bunch of slugs who led us to a 4-12 record?’’ In my mind, the only Colts’ free agent worth keeping (besides Adam Vinatieri, who already has signed a one-year deal to remain in Indianapolis) is Rashaan Melvin or, failing that, Pierre Desir. Notice, though, that Ballard isn’t being terribly proactive about bringing any of them back, smartly choosing to let the market dictate the players' price on the free market, then determining whether the price is right for the Colts.

Here’s my free-agent Wish List, one I constructed without having the first clue how much these players might demand:

  • Andrew Norwell, a guard from Carolina. He’s going to cost big bucks, but he fills a significant need in the interior of the Colts’ leaky offensive line.
  • Dion Lewis, a running back from New England. Whether they sign Lewis or not, it’s expected the Colts will take a younger running back in the draft, possibly Saquon Barkley if he isn’t snapped up in the first two picks by the Browns or Giants. But Lewis is an all-purpose back who is dynamic catching passes out of the backfield. He’d be a major upgrade on who they have now.
  • Allen Robinson, wide receiver, Jacksonville. The Colts currently have T.Y. Hilton and …um, er, Chester Rogers? I see no way Donte Moncrief returns, and that’s as it should be. Robinson is coming off a serious injury, but before then, he was remarkably productive and would give Luck (we hope) a big-bodied wideout to pair with the smallish Hilton.
  • Anthony Hitchens, inside linebacker, Dallas Cowboys. Hitchens is very familiar with the Colts’ new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus. Consider who the Colts have at that position now: Anthony Walker, Antonio Morrison, Jeremiah George, and Jon Bostic likely will be let go in free agency. This is another area of desperate need.

Ballard has made it clear, he wants to build from within, wants to draft good players and keep them, just as Bill Polian did during the Colts’ halcyon years. Remember, though, Polian was very aggressive in free agency his first few years in Indianapolis as he rebuilt the team. I like the idea of building from within, but first you need players around whom to build, and the Colts don’t have those, by and large. There were simply too many big misses during the Grigson Era, leaving the cupboard relatively bare. It’s important for Ballard to be a major player once things really get cooking in free agency this week.

The Colts can turn this thing around fairly quickly if Luck returns to full health and Ballard hits some triples and homers in free agency.

Now we see if that great reputation is warranted.

The honeymoon is over. Time to get to work.

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