The 2018 Colts won nine of their last 10 regular-season games, then a playoff game before bowing to the Chiefs and league MVP Patrick Mahomes in the divisional round. That was good. The future in Indianapolis looks even better.
Just look at the equivalent of a royal flush that GM Chris Ballard, coach Frank Reich and the Colts carried into the 2019 offseason.
• Nine figures in cap space ($101.52 million at the start of free agency).
• Three of the first 59 picks in the draft, and six of the first 135.
• A healthy Andrew Luck, for the first time in three offseasons.
• A 2018 draft class headlined by two First Team All-Pros going into Year 2.
Lots of GMs would go hog wild in that situation—and some, like the Eagles and Rams, have used similar circumstances to great success very recently, through splashy moves that get everyone’s attention. How the Colts would handle their situation was one of the big questions entering the offseason.
So what did the Colts do? Their major foray into the initial phase of free agency was a one-year deal with a receiver who washed out of Carolina. Their biggest contract given to someone on the outside was a two-year deal with a 30-year-old pass-rusher. And their big move in the draft was a trade out of the first round.
Suffice it to say, the cable sports networks haven’t done a lot of segments on the Colts in the last couple months. Which is just fine with Ballard.
“I’m not a big believer in momentum,” the GM said as he was finishing up work on Friday. “I don’t want us to be a momentum team. Every year you have the ability to say, ‘Man, we’re gonna start it over.’ And look, there’s so much noise in this league. It’s a noise-driven league. And I get it. But you’ve got to tune that out. And Frank and I have to do the best we can do, and Jim [Irsay] included, to help our football team continue to move forward.”
During our conversation detailing the Colts’ offseason plan, last October 15 came up repeatedly. That was the day after a loss to the Jets (yup, the Jets) dropped Indy to 1-5. Ballard’s record at that point was 5-17, he’d endured the Josh McDaniels mess months before, and questions were lingering, at least on the outside, about Andrew Luck’s health.
It seems like a long time ago. It wasn’t.
Ballard believes it was the organization’s ability to stay the course that led them out of the pro football woods. And just as the Colts didn’t overreact in that situation, they weren’t going to overreach with the bevy of resources they had in front of them in January.
Offseason? What offseason? We’ve got plenty to dig through in this week’s MMQB. Including:
• A look at why an NFL draft lottery would work, why it might not and why it probably won’t happen anytime soon.
• Inside what will be discussed at the owners meeting this week in Key Biscayne, Fla., including a potential rules change to a rules change.
• More on the Jets’ tumultuous week.
• How analytics paved the way for the Rams to get the “defensive Cooper Kupp” in this year’s draft.
• Why Rob Gronkowski’s potential return would be more complicated than you might think.
But we’re starting with an inside look at the way one of the NFL’s best general managers captained the offseason of a team that’s very clearly on the way up.
Ballard’s draft board was big—too big for his liking—in 2017, his first spring with the Colts. It shrunk last year. It shrunk again this year. And that has nothing to do with his feelings on the ’17 class versus the ’18 class versus the ’19 class.
It’s simple progress.
“I’d say this year we had 170 players on the board [for 2019], which is way down from where it was before,” Ballard said. “I think last year we were at 220, I can’t even remember the number from my first year. But yeah, it makes it easier to navigate when you have fewer names that you know fit what you want. I think when we really get it right, and we get it down to about 125, 150, that’s when we’ll have really honed down exactly what a Colt is for our schemes.
“And not only from a player perspective, how he’s going to fit on the team, but also from a character perspective.”
If you look at Indianapolis’s draft class, the names aren’t buzzy. After dealing down, they got Temple corner Rock Ya-Sin at the top of the second round, then TCU DE Ben Banogu 14 picks later. Parris Campbell, because he’s a receiver and from a big college program, had some name recognition at 59, but after that there were a whole lot of names that you probably didn’t hear much about on Twitter in April.
Of course, that was the case with Darius Leonard and Braden Smith—a First Team All-Pro linebacker and Indy’s starting right tackle, respectively—last year.
All these guys have come from that shrinking draft board, and I think Ballard would argue his success was a result of the board coming down in size. As he sees it, the more names he can take out of consideration, the more unified, in thought and action, the whole football operation is.
“The longer you’re together with your staff and the more time you spend with them, the more you’re going to understand what they want,” Ballard continued. “At the end of the day, that’s our job. We’re not drafting for our egos. We’re drafting to find players for our coaches who fit their schemes and fit what they want. I think it just gets better each and every year.”
And while the 2019 Colts offseason didn’t do much to move the needle nationally, it has provided more evidence that Ballard, Reich and company are synergizing what the scouts value and what the coaches want. The draft board was one sign. There were plenty of others. Here are a few, in Ballard’s words:
Not wilding in free agency. The Colts had two big-ticket free agents as targets, seen as fits for their defense. But they had limits on how far they’d go to get them, and no plans to pivot and spend the cash elsewhere just because. As they thought it might, prices on those two spiraled. Indy walked away from the bidding. The Colts weren’t going to overpay. And they weren’t going to reach on someone they were lukewarm on.
“It’s just not the way I believe you do it,” Ballard said. “The way we do our contracts, we’re always going to have cap space. It’s just our philosophy and how we structure things. Just in terms of cash spending, I don’t know the exact amount off the top of my head, but I think we’re in the middle of the league right now. And that’s what we really pay attention to—what kind of cash are we spending year-to-year.
“It’s important to be fiscally responsible, especially when you’re building it. You want to leave yourself flexibility for when these young players come due, so we’re able to take care of them and make them Colts for their careers.”
Zeroing in on Funchess and Houston. The Colts did spend. They got Carolina free agent WR Devin Funchess on a one-year, $10 million deal, and signed Chiefs edge rusher Justin Houston to a two-year, $24 million contract. The former was driven by the coaching staff, while the latter was moved along by Ballard’s institutional knowledge of a player he’d worked with for four years in K.C.
The two moves addressed what the Colts saw internally as their two biggest needs for 2019—a difference-making receiver and an edge rusher—which allowed the team to enter the draft without having to press at either of those positions. Ballard’s belief, based on his knowledge of Houston’s health, is that the Colts will be able to get more out him with the help of Rusty Jones and the strength staff. Likewise, the hope is that Funchess can be the guy Ballard saw on tape in 2017 and early ’18.
Maybe more important, the team maintained flexibility long-term at both spots, something that’s particularly interesting when you think about what could be coming at receiver in the 2020 draft. “We think next year’s receiver class is pretty good,” Ballard said, before doubling down. “It’s gonna be really good.”
Emphasis on defense, and speed on defense in particular. After the Funchess signing, Ballard and Reich really saw just one more to-do item on their offensive checklist—an explosive wideout, which wound up being Campbell). That pushed the focus for the draft over to the defensive side.
“We wanted to make sure we added somebody who could affect third down—that was Banogu—and then also get more athletic ability and speed at linebacker,” said Ballard. “And look, Darius played great, Anthony Walker played good football for us last year and he’s a young player, as did Matt Adams, as did Zaire Franklin, the guys that we had. The young players played good football.
“But we totally revamped that position from just two years ago.”
The roots of what Ballard was looking for actually trace to the Tony Dungy Colts—coordinator Matt Eberflus runs a version of that Tampa 2, and Ballard helped build another version for years in Chicago. And as you might remember, those Colts defenses could run. These Colts should be able to as well.
Banogu and sixth-round pick Gerri Green were sixth and seventh, respectively, among defensive ends in the 40 at the combine. Third-rounder Bobby Okereke was 10th among linebackers, and fourth-rounder Khari Willis posted a strong time (4.52) for a safety. Ya-Sin would be the outlier here—but even with him, Indy had a faster time (mid-4.4s) than the league did (4.51) at the combine.
Playing the board. In the outstanding in-house production the Colts did on their draft, a nice little nugget emerged from April 17. The scene had the Indy staff in a draft meeting, and Ballard said to the room, “The debate probably ought to be Banogu vs. Okereke.” Someone then asked, “Who do we take?” Ballard responded, “Take both of them.”
The Colts did, and got them 40 picks apart—which is a staggering gap until you go back to the fact Indy’s board is small and pretty independent of what everyone on the outside is discussing. That’s how, in the end, Ballard wound up with both the guy he thought could affect third down and the athlete at linebacker he considered in the middle of the second round.
“We kept talking through Banogu and Okereke, it just got to the point where it was like, man, it’d be nice to get both of them,” Ballard said. “The draft’s funny. I mean, of course I pay attention to where people might take them and where they might go, but we never set our board on that. We set our board on how we see it for the Colts, and where we would take them and how they fit. It worked out for us.”
Not getting swayed. This goes back to an early conversation that Reich and Ballard had, about 15 months ago: “We really talked about building up the core group of young players. We had to be able to do that. And we said, it’s going to take us at least two drafts, sometimes it takes three, to really replenish with a good core group.”
This is Ballard’s third draft in Indy, and Reich’s second. So they’re starting to get there. But both wanted to avoid any feeling that anyone had arrived. Right from the start of the offseason, tough discussions began on individual players, and sober assessments of the roster were given.
“I’m just really proud of everyone in the organization,” Ballard said. “It’s easy to jump ship when you’re 1-5. Everybody could’ve been getting ready to blame everybody, running for cover. Nobody did that. Everybody stayed focused on the task at hand. And then going into the offseason, nobody’s feeling satisfied with where we’re at.
“I don’t want us ever to get a feeling of, ‘Let’s exhale’ or ‘We’re where we need to be.’ There’s always room for improvement, there’s always room for growth. You have to question, you have to ask, you have to be willing to critique each other. That’s how you get real growth each and every year.”
Ballard’s also aware of the advantage he’s working with here: “Andrew’s a great player.” That we barely mentioned Andrew Luck to this point underscores the strength of what’s being built in Indy—a group that should be the strongest surrounding Luck since he came out of Stanford in 2012.
It hasn’t happened because the Colts chased headlines with all that capital. It’s thanks to the infrastructure, from the depth of Reich’s staff to strength of Ballard’s scouts (assistant GM Ed Dodds has star potential) to the cogent plan they’ve stuck to, getting the Colts closer to the eight-man rotation they want on the D-line, the athleticism they covet at linebacker, and the speed they want all over.
Could the Colts have spent wildly? Sure. Could they have recklessly moved up the draft board? They had the currency to do that too. Thing is, doing either would ignore not just that they were 1-5 in October, but also what got them to 10-6 from there.
“In this league, the sky is always falling. It just is,” Ballard said. “If you pay attention to it, it will absolutely gut your program out. And I think it goes both ways. Either the sky is falling, or you’re the greatest thing on earth. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is how we handle things internally.”
On that count, so far, so good.
NFL DRAFT LOTTERY: PROS AND CONS
We discussed this on the podcast last week, and the more I think about it, the more I like the idea of an NBA-style draft lottery for the NFL. I’m not sure how the mechanics of it would work. I do know that it would add another interesting night to the calendar for a league that’s always looking to fill all of our time with football.
I do not think NFL decision-makers agree with me.
I ran an informal poll on Wednesday morning, and got responses from 13 GMs or top decision-makers. Ten said they’d vote against the league adopting a draft lottery. Three said they’d be for it. A few pieces of reasoning from those guys:
• “I would be in favor of it to keep anyone from attempting to tank for a player like Andrew Luck, Tua [Tagovailoa] next year, etc.”
• “I like the formula we have now. I think it’s fair, keeps the league competitive, allows for teams to bounce back after a bad year. So it keeps fans engaged. It’s worked as far as I’m concerned. I don’t see a reason to change it.”
• “It would be an interesting night—another really good day of NFL drama and content. I’m not smart enough by any means to design it, but after [the NBA lottery] last night it has to be on the radar of a lot of influential people in the NFL.”
• “I just think the worst team should pick first.”
One veteran member of the competition committee told me the idea of a lottery hasn’t really come up in his time with the group. But it’s fair, I think, to ask whether or not it should. And with the next two draft classes expected to include quarterbacks worthy of going first overall—Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert in 2020, and Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence in ’21—the topic will come up.
So here, after talking to a couple team president types, are some pros and cons on why it might or might not work.
The obvious: It could take away a race to the bottom, and erase regret in other cases. Consider that if the Browns hadn’t botched a field goal against St. Louis late in 2011, the Rams, and not the Colts, would have had the first pick in 2012. Then the Rams get Andrew Luck and trade Sam Bradford (who was very highly thought of then) for a haul. Does Jeff Fisher thrive? If Luck crushes it, and the team contends, does it stay in St. Louis? All of that rode on the Browns screwing up. Another example: A three-game winning streak in early 2017 cost the Jets the three second-round picks they spent to trade up for Sam Darnold. In both cases, it’s hard to objectively say the teams were better off winning games. A lottery could eliminate that.
The content: The NBA lottery drew a 3.9 rating last week. By NFL standards, that would be bad. It’s half the Pro Bowl’s number. But consider that it wasn’t far off from the number posted by Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals (5.8), which aired right afterward. And it was just about even with the number posted by Game 7 between the Raptors and Sixers (4.0). An NFL lottery wouldn’t draw what a conference championship does (Patriots/Chiefs had a 31.2), but if you put it all together, it’s fair to assume it would probably be some multiple of the NBA lottery. Which would add to a big audience.
The calendar/hype: The league could put the lottery a week after the Super Bowl—as part of the never-ending quest to fill our calendar with football—and use it to start building up the combine, and introducing the draft class to those who don’t watch the college game. The idea of it … is very, very NFL.
There’s rarely a player worth tanking for. That’s just the makeup of the NFL compared to the NBA. Luck would be one of a few examples—Peyton Manning and John Elway would be a couple others. Most years, there’s genuine debate over who should go first overall, and difference in opinion from team to team. Also, in the NFL the value across the first round is better. Everyone can get difference-makers. Those are much fewer and farther between in basketball, making the gap between the first pick and, say, the 10th pick potentially cavernous, giving NBA teams real reason to be intentionally bad. And of course, having superstars for those teams is paramount.
Tanking in other areas. If the lottery is weighted like it is in the NBA, there’d be motivation for, say, the 14th and 15th worst teams in the NFL to wave the white flag at the end of the season, increasing their chance at making a big jump up the board. Or, if you decide only to make, say, half of the 20 non-playoff teams (there are only 14 in the NBA) eligible, a team might want to lose at the end of the year to get in the bottom 10, which would be a problem. So the issue you’d create could involve not just bad teams, but mediocre ones.
The current system is not broken. While the NFL has never stayed stagnant just because something has worked in the past, there really hasn’t been a tanking issue in pro football. So there’s not a baseline reason to change. And if the league wanted to add lottery-style content, one executive brought up this idea: Do away with the tiebreaker rules for the draft, and instead have the order for teams that finish with the same record established by a drawing. Yes, people would watch.
OWNERS MEETING AGENDA: PASS INTERFERENCE, OVERTIME, CHINA
The NFL’s owners converge for a one-day meeting in Key Biscayne, Fla., on Wednesday (there are committee meetings on Tuesday), and there’ll be some attention on Patriots owner Robert Kraft and Jets owner Christopher Johnson, for obvious reasons. But there’s also business to attend to. Here are a few things to watch for:
• The league will vote to empower the competition committee to tweak the new review process on pass-interference. Officiating czar Al Riveron is about three-quarters through his visits with NFL coaches, and he’s heard concern from them over the number of stoppages that would come from having a replay official in charge of OPI and DPI in the final two minutes of the first half and the game. “They’re worried this could turn into a foul-shots-at-the-end-of-the-game situation,” said one league source. So ahead of the division conference calls Riveron does with coaches in the spring, the owners will vote to give the competition committee the latitude to put it on the coaches to challenge those penalties—and only those penalties—inside each of the two-minute warnings. The committee would then act based in part on the final feedback from coaches.
• The Chiefs are going to discuss their proposal on overtime—tabled at the annual meeting in March—which would give each team at least one possession. The likelihood is that there is no vote on the proposal, because it doesn’t seem to have enough momentum to pass at this point.
• The owners will vote on making an investment in the Chinese market. There are signs of growth in football interest in a place where every major sport on the planet has been looking to make a dent. Back in March owners were briefed on the planned creation of a four-team domestic league in China.
• Also on the agenda: the site of 2021 and ’23 drafts. Both could be awarded on Wednesday. Why not 2022? From what I understand, it’s based mostly on what teams have bids and planning in place, and there are cities that have sketched out doing it ’21 and ’23, but there’s no bid ready to go for ’22. As for who could get it, it’s worth mentioning that Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Houston and Kansas City bid and lost out on ’19 and ’20. (Next year’s draft will be held in Las Vegas).
• A few weeks back, the NFL held a summit with offensive and defensive line coaches in Atlanta—largely because some of the league’s injury data showed that progress in those areas was flat during training camp. So the league is planning to outlaw four drills from NFL practices, two of which are the Oklahoma drill and “bull in the ring.” While those don’t really exist in the NFL anymore, the league believes it can set an example that lower levels of the game will follow.
We’ll be on site at the meeting and have you covered from down there.
1. Happy trails to Chris Long, who was as interesting a guy as you’ll find in the NFL. He’s Howie Long’s son. He went to Thomas Jefferson’s school. He was the second pick in the draft. He played a long time for a sad-sack team in a small market. He got dumped by that team a few weeks after it announced its move to L.A. The next year, he won a Super Bowl with the era’s greatest dynasty, then came back the year after with another team to beat that dynasty and win another title. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro in the offseason to raise money for clean water in Africa. He’s been at times the only white face in the NFL players’ fight for social justice reform. He was a four-time Pro Bowl alternate but never played in the game. And his last honor as NFL player came after his final game, when he was named the NFL’ Walter Payton Man of the Year in February. That, I’d say, is a lot for a guy who just turned 34. Ex-NFL linebacker James Laurinaitis, who came into the league a year after Long, played seven years with him, captained the Rams defense with him, and wound up cut on the same 2016 day as him, texted me this on his buddy Sunday: “It was such an honor to share the huddle with Chris. Such a great teammate, a ball-buster, but a guy who approached the game the right way. Never questioned his heart. His willingness to face the noise when things were rough in St. Louis set a great example for me to do the same. It was with great joy I got to see him raise two Lombardis, but greater joy to see him do the things with waterboys and the youth education initiative that he’s done. He’s done much more away from what the public is aware of, and it’s because of his heart to use his platform for the betterment of everyone else that makes it an honor to call him a friend. Cheers to a hell of a career.” And here’s hoping Chris makes his next 34 just as unique as his first 34.
2. We detailed much of the acrimony within the Jets organization in Thursday’s Game Plan. So where do the Jets go from here? The process of finding a new GM will start in earnest this week. It’ll be led by owner Christopher Johnson. Coach/interim GM Adam Gase will be a part of it. And I’m told the team will not retain a search firm. The Jets can afford to be patient, of course, since there’s no competition for candidates. It’s worth mentioning that Johnson emphasized skills for communication and leadership—non-scouting attributes that go into unifying a building in a way the Jets have struggled to do over the better part of this decade. Gase did address his coaches this week and told them that the process wouldn’t drag out. But I don’t get the sense that there’s a rush to get someone into the building.
3. That said, if Eagles VP Joe Douglas is willing to come, and I’m the Jets, I offer him the job tomorrow. And not only because he’s really good, but also because he’s so connected, and could, in time, build the kind of robust staff that Chris Ballard has in Indianapolis (well-regarded Philly scouting directors Ian Cunningham and Andy Weidl followed Douglas there from Baltimore). If it’s not Douglas? Four names that should be brought up in any GM search (in alphabetical order): Tennessee’s Ryan Cowden, Indy’s Ed Dodds, Dallas’s Will McClay and Minnesota’s George Paton. Three of the four have been in the mix for a bunch of jobs the last couple years and the fourth, Dodds (who used to be Seattle GM John Schneider’s secret weapon), might be the fastest rising star in the scouting world.
4. Shoutout to Chiefs GM Brett Veach, who took advantage of the Jets’ sideways situation on Wednesday—New York had previously held firm on asking for a fifth-round pick for former first-rounder Darron Lee. In the aftermath of the firing of Mike Maccagnan, K.C. swooped in and got him from Gase for a 6. Is Lee the player the Jets hoped he’d be? He is not. Truth be told, he’s had a lot of growing up to do the last three years. But he improved in each of those years, and the Chiefs believe now thtat he’s one of the best cover linebackers in all of football. Lee, out of Ohio State, was the fastest linebacker at the 2016 combine, running 4.47 at 232 pounds. The Jets wanted a coverage type and took Lee after their desired target with the 20th pick, Florida safety Keanu Neal (whom they saw as a linebacker/safety hybrid), went at 17 to Atlanta.
5. The Rams have long been one of the most analytically driven teams in football, and data played a part in their first pick in April, Washington safety Taylor Rapp. Rapp’s college tape was universally loved by coaches and scouts, with his lingering issue being a bad 40 time. He ran 4.76 at his pro day, and the problem some teams were having was finding a successful safety who ran that slow. The Rams looked at it differently. Their analytics staff could find no correlation between a safety prospect’s success and his 40 time. What did they see as relevant for safeties, based on their data, was short-shuttle time—and Rapp’s 3.99 in the 20-yard shuttle was second among all players (the Rams also drafted the fastest guy in the short shuttle, Michigan CB David Long) and first among safeties. In fact, the team felt strongly enough about Rapp that he’d have been their pick at 31 had they stuck. So they saw the guy they referred to in the draft room as the “defensive Cooper Kupp” (similarly quick with great instincts, and a bad 40 time) as a no-brainer at 61.