INDIANAPOLIS - History informs us that you can’t judge an NFL general manager based on a single season. We know this because Ryan Grigson was named NFL Executive of the Year after his first season at the Colts’ helm, having drafted well – or so it seemed at the time – while shepherding a rebuilt Colts’ team from 2-14 to 11-5. After that, though, it turned ugly, Grigson missing on far more draftees and free agents than he hit upon, the Colts morphing into an old, slow team with no real future.
It’s with that in mind, then, that we can look at Chris Ballard’s first season as the Colts’ general manager, and we can say – well, I can say – that despite the 3-7 record, he’s off to a very promising start. The Colts aren’t any good this season, but there’s hope, and that hope isn’t completely tied into the health of Andrew Luck.
It sounds crazy, I realize, but despite the 3-7 record, I see hope and I see growth. The real test will come next year, when he will have the opportunity to select high in the draft and has a chance to turn his top pick into multiple picks as teams line up for the chance to take their next franchise quarterback. If he hits on most of those picks, this team has a chance to get better much faster than anybody expects. (And it will help to have a healthy Luck back. If we’re faced with the worst possible scenario regarding Luck and he can’t play or can’t play effectively, then I never wrote this column.)
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Let’s start here, with the most recent draft:
It is abundantly obvious the Colts selected at least three players who are going to be key contributors for years to come. Malik Hooker had three early interceptions before a devastating knee injury, and figures to be the Colts’ free safety for years assuming he can fully recover from surgery. Marlon Mack has not yet established himself as a three-down back and may never accomplish that, but he promises to be a very effective change-of-pace back that can make big plays both as a runner and as a pass receiver out of the backfield. Nate Hairston, who gets consistently overlooked, has been a very strong nickel corner almost from the moment he stepped on the field at West 56th.
Under the heading of “We’ll See,’’ throw in four other draft choices.
Quincy Wilson has been a bit of a mystery. He played well against Arizona, then got hurt, then got benched for poor play in practice and now figures to get some playing time after the release of Vontae Davis. Like so many other rookies, he hasn’t yet figured out how to be a pro, but his time will/should come. The question will be whether he can eventually replace Rashaan Melvin or Pierre Desir, two guys who’ve come from nowhere to establish themselves as above-average cornerbacks.
Grover Stewart is in the defensive line rotation and Anthony Walker is on the roster. Tarell Basham has been a bit of a disappointment, but pass rushers tend to be guys who’ve made their bones in college by simply being quicker and bigger than their opponents, as was surely the case when he was at Ohio University. The Colts pray he can develop into a player who can be a dominant pass rusher, but we haven’t seen it yet. So again…we’ll see.
The only immediate draft bust? Zach Banner, the mammoth offensive tackle, who didn’t make it to the season opener.
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Let’s move to free agency:
Ballard will have a lot of disposable cash under the cap to spend this off-season, but he showed this past summer that he can re-build a defense while watching the bottom line. Granted, the Colts’ defense remains one of the league’s worst by most measures, but the improvement in recent weeks has been striking. As Kevin Bowen of 1070TheFan pointed out, there was an earlier stretch this season when the Colts were allowing scores on 76 percent of its opponents’ drive (16-of-21). In the last three weeks, the defense has allowed scores on 24 percent (8-of-33).
Al Woods has been a solid run stopper at nose tackle. Johnathan Hankins, who was picked up from the Giants, has consistently graded out well. John Simon was the Colts’ best defensive player until he got hurt and Jabaal Sheard has been a very nice and occasional game-changing addition. That doesn’t mean the Colts don’t need to upgrade, if that’s possible, through the draft; you can never have enough pass rushers. Inside linebacker Jon Bostic still struggles in pass coverage (except recently), but he’s been a contributor.
Guys like Barkevious Mingo, Margus Hunt, Kamar Aiken and Kenny Moore have been effective spot players and special teamers.
The only free agents who fell by the wayside were Sean Spence, Jeff Locke and Brian Schwenke.
As for street free agents, the Colts have done relatively well. Everybody expected that Locke would be Pat McAfee’s replacement, but street free agent Rigoberto Sanchez has been a revelation and has established himself as one of the better punters in the league.
The best move, without question, was the pickup of cornerback Pierre Desir, who had been cut three previous times by three previous teams, but has come to Indianapolis and established himself as a very solid starter. Now, down the road, it’s possible Wilson replaces him, but for the time being, Desir (along with Melvin, who was acquired by Grigson) has done a very creditable job.
And don’t forget Warren Central grad Deyshawn Bond, the undrafted free agent center who did such a fine job replacing the injured Ryan Kelly. Bond now gives the Colts some much-needed depth on an offensive line that needs to be rebuilt this off-season.
Now…when Ballard failed to bring in a quality backup quarterback during that period when we didn’t know how long Luck would be out, I criticized him. Everybody criticized him. How do you go into the regular season with Scott Tolzien? There was a reason, though: The Colts believed, both strongly and wrongly, that Luck would be back within the first month of the season. They thought they could roll with Tolzien a game or two and then Luck would be back.
Of course, that didn’t turn out to be the case.
But Ballard rebounded, and was able to make a one-sided deal with the New England Patriots, sending first-round draft bust Phillip Dorsett to Foxboro in exchange for quarterback Jacoby Brissett. If not for Brissett, the Colts would be 1-9 or 0-10. They would be the Cleveland Browns. For now, it makes perfect sense to hold on to Brissett as a much-needed insurance policy. Down the road, though, if Luck comes back and shows he’s back to full health, it might make sense to move Brissett to a quarterback-desperate team in exchange for assets – much like the Patriots just did with Jimmy Garoppolo. Not for a while, though.
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It may sound absurd to give the general manager a B grade when his team is 3-7 and completely out of playoff contention, but in the midst of a hopeless and mostly hapless season, I see hope. Now combine the promise of a top-10, even top-5 pick, plus ample cap space, and this Colts rebuild could happen a lot faster than people realize.
If he picks the right players.
And if Luck comes back.
Two very big ifs….