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Draft offers Colts' Ballard big opportunity

Talent pool aligns nicely with team's many defensive needs

Chris Ballard will run his first draft as the boss next weekend. (1070 the Fan photo)

Maybe it isn’t quite like walking in the door with the No. 1 pick, no starting quarterback and Andrew Luck at the top of the draft board but, for Chris Ballard, it’ll do nicely.

This is one of those rare years when the team’s primary needs just happen to align nicely with the talent pool in the NFL Draft, which is deep in edge rushers, cornerbacks, safeties, tight ends and running backs.

Rarely do supply and demand so neatly coalesce.

With all seven of his picks in the first five rounds -- and six in the first four -- in his first draft as the boss, the new Colts general manager is positioned for quite the introductory haul. Having added at least three defensive starters through free agency -- defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and linebackers Jabaal Sheard and John Simon -- Ballard now will be able to continue the defensive rebuilding process with one of the deepest, strongest crops of prospects in years.

NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks called it “a defensive-heavy draft, particularly at some of the marquee positions.”

“In the defensive backfield, corner and safety I think it's one of the deepest classes that we've had,” Brooks said. “The injuries at the corner position have knocked it down a bit, but I think teams that looking for corners that can come in and act at plug-and-play players will certainly find some guys to their liking. I think the safety class is outstanding, depending upon what kind of safety you prefer, whether it's a box safety or a true centerfield free safety type, those guys are there. 

“There are also some guys who are kind of following the trend of the hybrid player, meaning they can be the nickel safety linebacker or the nickel corner while also occupying a deep safety role. The pass-rusher class is deep at the top and middle round. I think you can find guys that can be perennial 10-sack-plus artists. Guys in the second and third tier that have outstanding skill, may not have the athleticism or size that you like, but they have the ability to get to the quarterback.”

That doesn’t mean Ballard is expecting any quick-fixes for the chronically weak defense, although this offseason offers the opportunity for a big step in the right direction.

“It takes time, like anything,” he said. “It takes time to build a team. It takes time to build a defense, an offense and have them all come together. Do we have work in front of us? Yes we do. But it takes time. The biggest thing I want to make sure that we’re emphasizing is that competition and they have to earn it. Doesn’t matter where you come from and how we build it  … from first-round pick to undrafted free agent to street free agent, guy that was cut at the 53, future signing. I can just go back to examples through history of the league and where I’ve been.

“Doesn’t matter where you come from. You want guys that are going to be great in the locker room, good teammates, they hold each other accountable. That’s when you know you’ve got it right. The good teams, they hold each other accountable. Look, I can get up here and talk. All I want to talk about (is) competition and earning it. Staff can talk about it. But at the end of the day, the great teams in this league, they hold each other accountable in that locker room. And that’s what we want to get to.”

In a 22-minute pre-draft press briefing Wednesday at the team’s complex on West 56th Street, Ballard was short on specifics but long on philosophy. Like every other GM in the history of professional sport, he spoke with conviction about how talent trumps need, but also tempered that by suggesting the talent gap would have to be significant to ignore a need.

“If it’s even, we’ll go with the need,” he said. “But we put them through an exhausting process. We take each player from the tape, from the film, I mean it all matters. I always laugh when people say the workouts don’t matter. Why do we work them out? Absolutely they matter. But the workout has to match the tape. So every level of the evaluation matters, from the tape to the workout to the interviews to the research you do on the player to the medical, it all matters. And then they’ve got to fit. 

“One thing we will not do: if there’s a player in a round, even if we’re loaded at the position, we’ll still take the player. I take Dee Ford as an example. We had Tamba Hali and Justin Houston that were humming, but we saw a player we liked in Kansas City that could rush the passer and that’s who we ended up choosing.”

Ford, the Chiefs’ first-round pick in 2014, stepped forward last season while Houston was injured and racked up 10 sacks.  Interesting that he used that example, as if to subtly reinforce the notion that a team can never have too many pass-rushers. The Colts certainly don’t have enough, even after signing Sheard. He is more of an all-around player who can also rush the passer, not a dominating sack man. 

They also have a major need at cornerback, both for the short- and long-terms. The only proven starter on the roster, Vontae Davis, is coming off a sub-par season and entering a contract year. So the Colts are not only looking for a starter opposite days, but also for a possible successor.

And so, as he scans the board throughout the draft, Ballard will be confronted more than once with the battle between need and talent, although he made it sound like need would only be trumped when their is an obvious and clear-cut gap.

“I always ask myself, ‘What’s the difference between 33 and 20?’” he said. “To me, as long as the talent is close, we’re not talking a guy on our board we think is a top-10 pick and then all of a sudden we’re taking somebody that’s 40th. That’s the spread. Five to 10 slots, I don’t see enough spread there unless there’s a huge separation in the talent to say you don’t take the need.”

The Colts are not without needs on offense. A running back to succeed Frank Gore would be a nice late-round pickup. (Ballard did not indicate whether talented but troubled Oklahoma running back Joe Mixon was on their board). Another tight end is also a strong possibility, given the departure of Dwayne Allen. This is not considered a strong offensive line draft, but the Colts just spent four picks there a year ago.

“It excites me because it is a good defensive draft and we do want to add some players defensively,” Ballard said. “But saying that, there’s some good offensive players, too. I don’t want to ignore the fact those guys are going to play and start and be good players in the league also. If there’s an offensive player at a position that can really help us and make a difference, we’ll take him.”

There probably will be. That’s the nice thing about the talent available in this draft. Or perhaps it’s the problem with the Colts: too many needs.

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