As pure as alpine snow.
Colts off-season grade: A+
Last year I stated this in week 4:
“There’s something happening in the Colts FO. Can’t simply hand all the credit to Ballard but there’s talent in that FO somewhere. Turn over every rock, scrape and claw for the best roster possible. They might be off to a rough start but this team looks very different from the teams that Luck and Manning carried. They are being very patient in the draft and it’s showing promising results. They are filling in the gaps with players who fell through the cracks despite having a spark of untapped talent. They are quietly attacking FA, adding players to instant value team friendly contracts that fit their coach’s system. It’s a patient path but the Colts are on the right one.”
The Colts were 1-3. Then dropped to 1-5. Then they won 10 of their next 12 games, making the playoffs and advancing to the AFC divisional round. Where did that come from? Proper management. The job of a GM is to take proper steps as many times as the market and draft allow. Do not overextend, do not chase. Be patient, frugal and measured. If you operate in that fashion, results almost always show up before you’d expect them to. I did not see the Colts exploding down the stretch, but the evidence was there to know it was coming. It’s no surprise that the Colts took home the award for GM of the year.
Genius ain’t anything more than elegant common sense. ~Josh Billings/Henry Wheeler Shaw
You can’t look at Ballard’s (I’ll refer to the whole FO as Ballard despite the fact that he has assembled an amazing team since his hiring) work in the snap shot of one offseason. Ballard works with multiple year vision in every move he makes. It’s patient, proper and elegant. Ballard inherited an 8-8 team and, like every new GM, he wanted to take a step forward immediately. His patience was at an all-time low, and that’s understandable. Chuck Pagano was an inherited coach, who deserved to be respected. Due to this the Colts bought.
How the Colts bought immediately grabbed my attention. John Hankins was added to the DL on a 3 year deal for 27 million dollars. This didn’t work out, however the structure of the deal did. Hankins was given a $3 million base and a $7.5 million roster bonus leaving $16.5 million dollars for the final 2 years on the deal. It was front loaded and, due to verbiage, all guaranteed money was paid in full year 1. Before $4.5 million was about to become guaranteed in 2018, the Colts cut bait because their scheme switch made Hankins an unnecessary expenditure. Great GMs and bad GMs will make mistakes. Great GMs and bad GMs are compelled to buy. Great GMs can walk away from their mistakes without dead money. Next up was Jabaal Sheard at 3 years $25.5 million. Same exact structure. 10/7.5/8 yearly breakdown with verbiage that allowed the Colts to eliminated future guaranteed money beyond year 1.
This one has paid off for the Colts. Despite Sheard being an awkward fit for the 3-4, pass rush was a dire need. The switch to the 4-3 put Sheard in his proper spot. His fit with the new scheme was obvious and gave all the reason needed to hold on to the $15.5/2 left on his contract. John Simon was also brought in to upgrade the OLB position. After being under used in Houston, Simon was blossoming as a player and the Colts cast him into the proper role. He thrived until a neck injury ended his season. $4.5 million AAV for a starting OLB is an incredible value contract. The deal was graded very highly across the board at the time of signing. Ballard utilized roster bonus money and $6 million was paid year 1, front loading the deal, yet again. The injury and the scheme change made him a bad fit in 2018 and he was released with no further cap cost. Margus Hunt was paid $2 million AAV. A talent laden draft pick of Cincinnati that had slowly improved over his time there. Al Woods $2 million AAV to be a run plugger. Appropriate value for players who have some upside or a defined role where they succeed. A punter was also paid but that was aborted from immediately.
The rest of 2017 was spent on 1 year deals. Butler, Aiken, Spence, Mingo, Williams, Michael and Bostic were signed for a combined $13.8 million which is $7.6 million above veteran minimum salaries. That is a solid list for the investment made. The Colts bought for Pagano in 2017, but in a patient and prudent fashion. Ballard wanted to improve, but he also made a point of repairing the cap and positioning himself for the years ahead. 2017 was not supposed to be the ceiling, it was meant to be a stepping stone.
In 2018, this free agent class was reduced to Sheard, Hunt and Woods for $12.5 million. Down from the $14 million they were paid in 2017. All the shuffling resulted in no dead cap for 2018. Due to the absence of Luck the Colts were coming off a very bad year. Ballard could have felt the pressure to make a name for himself. He had his new coach and money to burn. This is when Ballard proved himself special. Ballard approached free agency in 2018 as a hunter, not a buyer. When you think of KC and PHI offensively prior to 2018 the names that should jump to mind are Kelce and Ertz. The Colts had Jack Doyle, a good inline TE but not someone who is in the Ertz Kelce camp. His passing game chops were not to the desired level. Enter Eric Ebron. A 25 year old, top 10 draft pick, who never got his feet under him in Detroit. Upside galore but due to his upside being undiscovered he only set the Colts back $13 million over 2 years. Same template again. Roster bonus, verbiage to opt out free and clear in year 2. Upside and no risk, especially when you compare this with the $8 million per year Chicago paid an unproven 26 year old Trey Burton or the $10 million per Green Bay paid a 31 year old Jimmy Graham. Reich had brought in Eberflus as his DC from Dallas. A bright mind in the football world who had worked under Monte Kiffin and Rob Marinelli. If you think about the Cowboy’s defense in recent years, you’d first think of Sean Lee or Demarcus Lawrence. That’s true, but you’d be overlooking a position that Dallas hasn’t be able to solve since 2013. In 2013, Dallas had 6’6 290lb Jason Hatcher. Hatcher put up 11 sacks that year and Marinelli still talks about him every offseason. Dallas has missed their disruptive under tackle. They signed Henry Melton coming off a knee injury to a deal with an $8 million AAV. Then took Malik Collins and Trysten Hill hoping to fill this vital position. They were so desperate to fill this position that they used David Irving there, despite the fact that he was getting embarrassed versus the run. Needless to say, it hasn’t worked.
Ballard nailed it on his first try. Denico Autry, whom Oakland used all over the place garnering modest results. At the price of $18/3 to boot, which is $4 million low per year for a DT who can rush the passer. Same contract template. Contract broken down to 7/5/6 per year and expires when he is 30 years old. No risk, upside and a perfect fit for a hard to find role.
This is how you hunt. It’s very difficult to sign players in the free agent market to value contracts. Ebron and Autry were underpaid by at least $6.5 million in their first season with the Colts and cost even less in 2019. It didn’t take long for the league to see that Ballard stole these two players. After that, the Colts kept it simple. Grant, Howard, Slauson, Desir, Mewhort, Hewitt, Mitchell, Thomas, Goode, Oliver and McCain were all added to 1 year deals for a grand total of $19.4 million. Attempts at filler stability for the roster. When all was said and done the Colts left 50 million dollars of their cap free.
Why? There are three reasons teams buy in free agency. They buy players who are the solution to their problem. This is fixing a position with a highly impactful player who perfectly fits your system. They buy to get better. This is buying an improvement to a position while not adding a player who meets the criteria of what you ultimately want. It misses ideal but at least it’s an improvement. They buy filler. This is added roster stability that should be on a one year deal. The best areas to spend are solutions and filler. Trying to force your team into being better leads to free agency mistakes. Chasing better is what desperate teams do. It comes back to bite them. The Colts added two solutions on value deals. This is nearly impossible to do. The Colts added filler. They could have looked to upgrade the WR position. Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson were highly paid. They could have looked to improve the LB position. Leonard in the draft solved one position and the only Mike who fit Ballard’s criteria was Avery Williamson at $23.5/3. Strong Safety was barren. CB values were through the roof. The DE market was depleted. Even RB was overpaid versus the 2019 market and options were very thin.
Why did Indianapolis leave $50 million dollars of cap open? There wasn’t a worthy target. It would have been spending for the sake of spending. That’s not what great GMs do. Indianapolis added their two value buys and left the spending spree to those who were willing to bid too high.
I repeat: The job of a GM is to take proper steps as many times as the market and draft allow. Do not overextend, do not chase. Be patient, frugal and measured. If you operate in that fashion, results almost always show up before you’d expect them to.
Every GM is expected to show promise by their 3rd year on the job. Ballard’s team was in the final 8 in his 2nd year. The Colts hadn’t reached double digit wins in the previous 4 years.
The Colts entered 2019 with an estimated $118 million dollars in cap room due to the $50 million that they rolled over from 2018. Time to be a buyer? Look at 2020. In 2020, the Colts have free agents of Castonzo, Funchess, Sheard, Ebron, Doyle, AV and Geathers. Luck, Hilton and Kelly are also inline for new deals. It’s much easier to avoid kicking guaranteed money down the road when you sit on a $50 million roster bonus slush fund. Saving it for a rainy day is a wise move. The Colts didn’t sit idle though. In the last two years the Colts have stacked up an impressive amount of pass rush potential but Sheard was the only real veteran presence at DE. Muhammad has been a solid DE for the Colts. Turay has not hit his stride yet. The Colts had a need for an impact DE. Justin Houston fits the bill and Ballard was able to net the 2nd best DE on the market. Houston is paid $14 million this year ($13 million by way of roster bonus) and $9 million in 2020. Stunningly, half of Houston’s 2020 salary is guaranteed. That’s new for Ballard. Then again, he got Houston for the 19th highest DE contract. Justin Houston played 719 snaps for the Chiefs last year and held onto his elite status. The Colts depth will siphon away a chunk of his game to game snap load but keeping Houston healthy for 60% of snaps weekly will pay huge dividends for this pass rush. He won’t be merely the 19th best DE. The WR market was terrible and overpaid but the Colts added in a savvy way. Devin Funchess has been a model of good health and he is the WR type that the Colts did not have in their toolbox. Adding a big body #1 possession type allows TY Hilton to roam as a chess piece to a higher degree. On top of this, Funchess has always been suppressed by a WR unfriendly QB. There may be upside to be had with a precision passer like Luck. While Funchess should not command a $10 million long term price tag, a one year deal presents a number of possibilities.
Funchess will be a free agent next year which opens up compensation pick possibilities (4th or 5th) for the Colts if he shines with them in 2019. Despite being a 1 year deal, $7 million of this deal is paid out in roster bonus. If Luck gets hurt for a long period of time, it’ll be very easy for the Colts to trade the $3 million left on his base salary to a WR needy team. If Deon Cain and Parris Campbell push him off the field, same story. These last two are unlikely but thinking ahead to that degree has to be applauded.
Ballard checks all the boxes with the type of player he added and how the deal was structured. He’s preparing for everything and is leaps and bounds ahead of the curve. Desir also earned himself an extension. Template Ballard. 9/6.5/7 with no guaranteed money beyond 2019. Geathers was retained on an inexpensive $2.75/1 deal. Ware was added for a filler RB price of $1.3 million. Another $3 million was spent on filler in Webb, Reid, Lewis and Siragusa. Patient, frugal and measured. The free agent market was certainly a player’s market this year. It was wise to avoid it. Especially, since Ballard’s draft and develop backbone has had three drafts to stack an impressive amount of depth on the roster. My only complaint is that I wish the Colts jumped in on a soft RB market, Mike Davis would have been a good fit. They could have been a touch more aggressive.
The two biggest needs the Colts had going into the offseason were a big body #1 WR and a pass rushing plus DE. Both of those boxes got checked and Ballard kept to his standard discipline. He shepherds a playoff team while rolling forward a $44 million roster bonus slush fund. Just to stay ahead of the curve. Imagine. Andrew Luck has 3 years left on his current contract where he is paid $21.4 million AAV. There will come a day when Luck will get a 4 year extension that will likely command $140 million. Aaron Rodgers recently signed an extension like this. His cap hit in the 4 years of the extension: 32/33/37/25. $80 million of the contract was guaranteed.
The Colts are positioned to offer Luck a 4 year $140 million extension whenever they see fit. That’s a $35 million AAV deal. Cashing in the $44 million dollar slush fund would drop the AAV to $24 million per year. Luck could be controlled by the Colts for the next 7 years and his yearly salary (after the roster bonus in the current year, which is actually 2018 cap space) would never have to exceed $25 million in any year. Good things come to those who wait. That’s exactly what Ballard is doing.
Be patient, frugal and measured.
Best of all for Colts fans, this is not an opinion piece. I am not a GM and I am not a genius, but I’ve studied them for over 15 years. I study all GM’s but when something works, over and over again, I steal their methods to build a template that samples the great’s greatest hits. Prior to Ballard becoming the Colts’ GM, I had a template of how a GM/Front Office should operate. Ballard’s group has fit that template to a T. This is a template that was built on historical success and history tells us, this Colts team isn’t going away any time soon. In fact, they haven’t even cleared their throat.
If you are a fan of any team and your offseason doesn’t look like this, you should be jealous of what the Colts have in their Front Office. Indianapolis is the measuring stick. Ballard (and his team) are the league’s Gold Standard.