As Chris Ballard walked out of his predraft news conference last week, he had one final thought for the virtually assembled media.
“Maybe we’ll talk early Thursday,” he said, followed by a knowing laugh.
Some NFL decision makers hide their intentions behind smokescreens, outrageous exaggerations and other forms of misinformation. San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, for instance, infamously threw into question life on Earth as we know it earlier this week rather than directly responding to a question about whether quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will remain on his roster Sunday.
Ballard prefers information overload.
There is maybe a 5% chance the Indianapolis Colts will trade up in Thursday’s first round of the NFL Draft. After trading for quarterback Carson Wentz, Indianapolis has just six picks this year, and Ballard is unlikely to deal more of them to move up for a single player.
Unless one of the five or six difference makers he estimates are in this class slips into a tier where he believes the cost is manageable.
Which is what makes Ballard’s parting line more than a throwaway joke. It’s a reminder nobody really knows what the Colts will do when they go on the clock with the 21st overall pick.
The smart money still is on a move down the board to pick up extra selections and potentially still land a left tackle or edge pass rusher who could start on Day 1. Those two needs stand out on a roster that otherwise looks like a playoff contender, but as he enters his fifth draft in charge of the war room, Ballard has made it clear he’s keeping all options open.
“They’re important,” Ballard said of the obvious needs. “I mean, both positions are important, but it’s kind of like what I told y’all with the quarterback position — just taking one to take one doesn’t mean you actually filled the need. You’ve got to take one and fill it with a good player, and that’s got to match up in the draft. So we’ll see what happens.
“At the end of the day, we are going to line our board up and we are going to take who we think is the best player at that point for our team.”
Following an unusually quiet free agent period — even for a team not prone to splashy headline deals — there’s an increased emphasis on this draft.
Ballard doesn’t feel the panic others are experiencing when it comes to the need areas. He still believes in young pass rushers Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis and pointed out veteran Justin Houston remains available on the free agent front.
At left tackle, he thinks the team added valuable competition with free agents Sam Tevi and Julie’n Davenport while noting Indianapolis’ focus will be on putting the best five players on the field. He also acknowledged there are big shoes to fill for whomever winds up playing the position.
“When you have a special player like Anthony Castonzo retire — let’s just talk about the left tackle position, because I don’t think he’s ever gotten enough credit for how really special he was as a player,” Ballard said. “He stood for everything we wanted to stand for, Anthony did, and he was good. I mean, I always thought he was a top-five left tackle in the league. I think we paid him accordingly. That told you what we thought of him, and he performed. So that’s not going to be an easy replacement.”
The good news is the Colts should have plenty of available options.
Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins and Texas’ Sam Cosmi are among the prospects with the athletic traits Ballard looks for who could still be available with Indianapolis’ first pick. Notre Dame’s Liam Eichenberg, North Dakota State’s Dillon Radunz and Stanford’s Walker Little could be options with the second-round pick at No. 54 overall, and BYU’s Brady Christensen, Florida’s Stone Forsythe and Northern Iowa’s Spencer Brown are among the prospects that could go in the third round or beyond.
It’s a deep class that already has drawn Ballard’s praise.
“It is a good offensive line draft, really good,” he said. “Maybe as good as I have seen in a while just in terms of the depth of it. Look, you want guys who are athletic, that have strength, that can play on the offensive line. What we are asking and what teams are asking them to do with all the zone blocking and pulls and in pass-pro — then you’re blocking these athletic freaks across from them. They have to have a certain amount of athleticism.
“It’s a good draft for the offensive line, and there is depth throughout the draft at that position.”
The same might not be true on the edge.
It’s hard even to find a consensus on the class’ No. 1 prospect. But Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari, Michigan’s Kwity Paye, Miami’s Jaelan Phillips, Penn State’s Jayson Oweh, Washington’s Joe Tryon, Wake Forest’s Carlos Basham Jr., Texas’ Joseph Ossai and Houston’s Payton Turner are among the pass rushers with the desired athletic traits who are widely expected to go in the first two rounds.
Deeper in the draft, options include Florida State’s Josh Kaindoh, Northern Iowa’s Elerson Smith and Baylor’s William Bradley-King.
Without a centralized NFL Scouting Combine and with few opportunities to meet with players in person, it’s been a tough year for talent evaluation. But Ballard is proud of the job his scouts have done, and he feels good about where the roster stands.
He also notes the draft isn’t the end of the road for talent acquisition.
“I like what we have on our team,” Ballard said. “We have work to do. I’m not sitting here saying we’re some Super Bowl-ready team. We have work to do, and that work will not end when the draft is over. We will still try to acquire the best players we can that can help us between now and into the season. I think I’ve said this ad nauseam, that player acquisition is not just the free agency (market) and the draft.
“There are other times that you can acquire players, and we’ll continue to go down that road and dig and try to find the right fits for us and fill every need we have.”