In just his second year as the general manager, Chris Ballard has put the pieces in place for the Indianapolis Colts to be a force in the AFC for years to come. It’s a big reason why they’re playing the Chiefs in the Divisional Round.
Those pieces were fully on display in the Colts’ 21-7 Wild Card victory over their division rival Houston Texans. Linebacker Darius Leonard had a game-high 13 tackles and a pass breakup, offensive linemen Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith helped hold the Texans defensive line to one tackle in the backfield, and running back Marlon Mack rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown. Seven of the 16 Colts players who recorded a tackle in the game were drafted in 2017 or 2018, since Ballard has been in charge.
In the last two drafts, players the Colts have added include Mack, Nelson, Leonard, Smith, Malik Hooker, and Nyheim Hines — all of whom played a pivotal role in turning their 1-5 start on the season into a 10-6 record and the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs.
Last year alone, Indianapolis drafted 11 players and they all made the roster. Half of those players ended up being key contributors for the team.
That includes two first-team All-Pros: Nelson, who was the only player on the Colts to play 100 percent of the team’s offensive snaps this year, and Leonard, a leading Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate.
The Colts’ work isn’t even close to being done when it comes to what this roster could look like in the near future. That’s the scary news for the rest of the AFC: The Colts are ahead of schedule.
The Colts have resources to keep building their roster — and a GM who knows what he’s doing
Indianapolis is projected to have a league-leading $123 million in cap space according to Over The Cap.
The Colts also have the Jets’ second-round pick this year. They traded down last year so the Jets could draft Sam Darnold with the third overall pick in the draft. Overall, they have nine draft picks in 2019.
Indianapolis has draft picks, cap space, and Andrew Luck under contract for the next three years — a contract that will become more valuable as the cap incrementally rises year after year. As it currently stands, Luck’s deal ranks eighth in average yearly salary behind players like Kirk Cousins, Matthew Stafford, and Derek Carr. His contract is already a bargain, especially after his Comeback Player of the Year-type season following a shoulder injury that kept him out for all of 2017.
Ballard’s reign as the general manager is a blessing for the Colts considering the state that former general manager Ryan Grigson left the roster in. Grigson won the Executive of the Year Award in 2012 for drafting Andrew Luck with the first pick and selecting T.Y. Hilton, but his time as the general manager was largely a mess.
Grigson made big-time moves that backfired, like trading a first-round pick for Trent Richardson (who rushes for 977 yards in 29 games with the team) and signing defensive lineman Arthur Jones to a five-year, $30 million deal that only made it three years.
Grigson did take center Ryan Kelly in the first round the year before he was fired, but Ballard has ratcheted up Luck’s protection. Outside of taking Nelson and Smith, Ballard was able to find a solid depth signing in guard Mark Glowinski who played 100 percent of the snaps against the Texans. He’s also found success signing not big names, but guys who flopped for other teams (like Eric Ebron and Margus Hunt) and became important members of the Colts.
Where can the Colts get better as team?
The Colts aren’t a dominant football team, but they don’t have any real holes either. This is team that rallied from 1-5 to win 10 of their last 11 games, including the playoffs. They showed growth throughout the season and now get a chance to continue adding major assets in the offseason.
For starters, while the defense ranked 10th in DVOA this season, Indianapolis could stand to inject the unit with more talent — particularly the pass rush and secondary.
Indianapolis ranked 19th in the league in sack percentage (6.6%) and 14th in the league in opposing yards per attempt (7.4). Those numbers certainly aren’t bad, but the team has the cap space and draft capital to get players that can help boost those next season (hello DeMarcus Lawrence, maybe?). The latest mock draft on this fine and dandy website has the Colts taking University of Miami defensive tackle Gerald Willis.
The Colts could also bring in an impact receiver across from Hilton. Their passing game is formidable, but the players they have don’t really scare teams on an individual level. Adding more firepower to an offense that’s already performing at a high level would give the Colts what they need to take the next step.
No matter if they win or lose against the Chiefs, what the Colts are doing is extremely impressive. They’re in the Divisional Round of the playoffs after winning just four games in 2017 and breaking in a new coach in 2018. Frank Reich wasn’t even who the Colts were originally going to hire — he was a replacement for Josh McDaniels, who backed out after accepting the job and starting to fill out a staff. A second-choice head coach with one of the youngest rosters in the league usually spells disaster, but this season has been a roaring success for the Colts.
This is a team that’s going to continue to get better as some of these rookies — two of which are already All-Pro caliber players — continue to settle into the league. Luck is a big part of the Colts’ rebound, but this season has been a good reminder that even the best players need help. And considering what Ballard has already done, there’s no doubt he will continue to get Luck that help.
Watch out, AFC South. Watch out, AFC. Watch out, NFL. A monster is growing in Indianapolis.