INDIANAPOLIS — Every once in a while, Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay reminds he has on-the-job experience in about every facet of the organization, including general manager.
Irsay understands the importance of letting his hires do their jobs, but sometimes timely input can be helpful.
When Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor was falling closer to the Colts’ 44th overall selection in the second round of Friday’s NFL draft, general manager Chris Ballard was debating with his scouting staff about whether they could land the Badgers’ all-time leading rusher.
Enter Irsay with an encouraging endorsement.
“There was a group of about six or seven players at 34 that we were kind of talking through and Jonathan (Taylor) was in that group,” Ballard said of the Colts’ initial second-round pick. “Then all of a sudden it was at 36, 37 we started talking and actually Mr. (Jim) Irsay said, ‘Chris (Ballard), y’all have been talking about this guy and how much you love him. Y’all need to go get him.’ So at that point, we became aggressive and worked out a deal with Cleveland.”
The Colts traded a fifth-round pick to the Browns to move up three spots and select Taylor at 41. It's the first time Ballard has drafted a player from his alma mater. He was drinking from a Wisconsin mug during the Zoom video conference.
Ballard loves to make draft-day trades, but they’re usually to move back to collect picks. The fourth-year GM has done that in each of his Colts drafts. But Ballard showed this year that he’ll deal the other way if the situation presents itself. That boldness started before the draft, when he dealt the team’s first-round choice at No. 13 overall to San Francisco to acquire All-Pro defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.
Losing a selection to grab Taylor didn’t hurt the Colts, either. Ballard traded back 10 positions in the third round to reacquire a fifth-round pick from Detroit at 149, 11 spots higher than the previous fifth-round selection, in addition to swapping sixth-round picks to move up 15 spots to 182.
Taylor joins a Colts offense that ranked seventh in rushing last year and has one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. The workhorse back, who will split carries with 2019 leading rusher Marlon Mack, is already being mentioned as a potential top candidate for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
“I mean look, he is a unique talent and anytime a unique talent starts to fall a little bit – at that point, we were like, ‘Man, we need to go get the player,’” Ballard said. “We knew there were other teams behind us that could’ve coveted him. I don’t know what the guys in front of us – I don’t know that. But we got (three) picks away and we decided to go get him and to be quite honest with you we got the fifth back in the next trade we made and it is a higher fifth.
“So to me, he is too unique a talent. There is nothing worse on draft day than all of a sudden you say, ‘This guy is really going to make us better and help our football team.’ And then he goes the pick in front of you.”
Taylor brings a physical, downhill style to complement the speedy Mack, a fourth-year pro coming off his best season with a career-high 1,091 rushing yards, his first 1,000-yard season. Mack has missed six games due to injuries the past two seasons and is entering a contract year, so Taylor not only provides a solid 1-2 punch, he’s security at the position beyond 2020.
Ballard spoke of how Taylor and USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr., selected at No. 34, bring toughness to the locker room.
“It’s funny, in the draft room you will hear it a lot – reliable and tough,” Ballard said. “We want tough, reliable guys – show up every week, compete, teammates can count on them. That wins. That wins over time and we have done a good job of that. We have a great locker room. We have great guys.
“I’ll tell you a story, I haven’t talked to Marlon yet but (head coach) Frank (Reich) texted Marlon – I mean look, we just drafted another good back. Marlon is a special kid man. He’s a special teammate. He knows that Taylor is going to make us better and he is going to make Marlon better. It’s just, ‘Let’s go man. Let’s go win.’”