Colts GM Chris Ballard Takes His Shots in NFL Draft Deals

For the fourth year in a row, the Indianapolis Colts have traded down in the draft. Ballard loves to accumulate picks. He's been bolder this year, dealing a first-round choice for All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner last month, then trading up in Friday's second round to select Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor. But the GM insists he never tried to trade up into Thursday's first round.
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INDIANAPOLIS — Three years of trading down in the NFL draft defined Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard as someone who likes to make deals to stockpile selections.

This year, though, has been a bit of a surprise. Before the three-day virtual NFL draft began on Thursday, Ballard had already dealt his first-round pick, 13th overall, to San Francisco to acquire All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner. It was, in his words, “a no-brainer.” It was also unusually bold for him.

The real fun supposedly started Thursday, when Ballard was reportedly looking to trade back into the first round. As it turns out, that was merely speculation.

“We did not try to trade into the first round at all,” Ballard said in a late video conference call in the first hour of Saturday morning. “Matter of fact, I was eating popcorn and just hanging out from about pick 20 – 19 to 32. So there was no effort to try to get into the first round. Despite the reports out there that we were going to move up. There was no effort. We were comfortable where we were at.”

Seriously, the Buckner deal aside, it’s not Ballard’s M.O. to be so bold that way. He’s traded down in each of the previous three drafts, and it’s paid dividends.

But he didn’t sound too tempted to trade down from the 34th overall selection, when the Colts were first on the clock with the second pick in the second round on Friday night. The Colts stood firm and selected USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., a pass catcher with size that the team has lacked for years.

“We felt good about 34,” Ballard said. “We felt good about the players that were going to be there at 34.

“Then in terms of moving back, there were a couple things. I mean, that was kind of one of the surprises. I think early in the first round, usually you see a bunch of movement and I think this is the first time since like 2005 you didn’t see as many trades in the top-10. I think it just took all of us time to get comfortable. I think it picked up – started picking up today with more trades. But early in the second, we didn’t get any that we thought was worth the move down. I didn’t want to lose (Michael) Pittman and then when we decided to go up and get Jonathan (Taylor), that was the move up.”

In what qualified as another surprise, Ballard traded up three spots in the second round with Cleveland to take Wisconsin No. 2 all-time leading rusher Jonathan Taylor at 41. It cost him a fifth-round pick, but there shouldn’t have been any doubt he was going to get a fifth-round selection back later.

That he did in a deal with Detroit, giving up his third-round pick at No. 75 overall as well as his last pick in the sixth round at No. 197 to pocket the Lions’ choices at No. 85 in the third round, No. 149 in the fifth round and No. 182 in the sixth round. So he got that fifth-round pick back and moved up 15 spots in the sixth round, where he also has a selection at 193.

“Well look, that’ll be – just get used to it,” Ballard said with a laugh about extending his trade-down streak to four.

How confident was he about getting a pick back after landing Taylor?

“Pretty confident, yeah we’re pretty confident,” he said. “Our guys do a great job working the phones. And the league knows, they know we’re open. You don’t just move back to move back. You move back with a – you have to have a group of players that you still like. You don’t want to move back and then lose a player that you had targeted. We will never do that. If there’s one on the board and he’s our guy, then we’re going to take him. But if there’s a cluster of players that we like and it’s going to get us an extra pick down the line, then we’ll do it.

“I was trying to think back – I was telling them today about when we moved back, it was my first year here (in 2017), we moved back with Frisco (San Francisco) and then those two picks ended up being (running back) Marlon Mack and (linebacker) Anthony Walker. So, I mean, it gives you more shots, man. Those two guys are great pros.”

Mack, a fourth-round pick, was the Colts’ leading rusher with 1,091 yards last season, his first 1,000-yard season. Walker, a fifth-round pick, was the Colts’ leading tackler last season with 124 total stops.

So the Colts reconvene for Saturday’s rounds four through seven with four selections, one in the fourth (122), one in the fifth (149) and two in the sixth (182 and 193).

Remember the Colts’ first Friday selection at 34 was the result of a deal with Washington to trade out of the first round last year. And the Colts’ pick at 197 is the result of a compensatory pick swap with Miami that included sending the Dolphins center Evan Boehm before the 2019 season.

This means five of Ballard’s seven draft selections were previously owned by other teams. The two that always belonged to the Colts are 122 and 193.

That is, if Ballard doesn’t trade down again.