Colts pay for not caring about positional value
General manager Chris Ballard was hired in 2017 by the Indianapolis Colts with the premisse to build a sustainable winner after decades of relative subpar rosters and great quarterback play, from Peyton Manning to Andrew Luck. Two years later, Luck's sudden retirement changed the course of the franchise, so it was fair to give Ballard time to recover, adjust his plan and move forward. Three years after Luck's decision to stop playing football, it's time to question Ballard's roster-building approach, and his lack of care for positional value is hurting the Indianapolis Colts.
The franchise has five players under contract with salaries above $ 15 million on average per year. Three of them are a defensive tackle (DeForest Buckner), an offensive guard (Quenton Nelson), and an off-ball linebacker (Shaq Leonard). No one can argue that those are not good players. But when those are the team's best players, something is wrong in its essence — and that's before considering that running back Jonathan Taylor, selected in the 2020 second round, might get an extension next offseason.
In his first draft as the Colts GM, in 2017, Ballard selected a safety in the first round — Malik Hooker, who left for the Dallas Cowboys after his rookie contract. Had he opted for a player from a higher positional value, Ballard could have ended up with cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey or Tre'Davious White, or edge defender TJ Watt.
In 2018, the draft happened before Luck's decision to retire. Therefore, it's impossible to blame Ballard for not taking Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson with the sixth overall pick. The executive decided to take the best player available, independent of positional value, and got Quenton Nelson. When a team has that vision, it becomes inevitable to pay the player if he succeeds. So, it's a two-way problem: first, you use high draft capital, and second, pay a top-of-market contract to a player who might be good (and Nelson is), but won't be as impactful as the investment suggests.
If the Colts had based their decisions strongly weighing positional value, they could have drafted cornerback Jaire Alexander, offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, or wide receiver D. J. Moore. It's more acceptable to take an off-ball linebacker in the second round, so the Shaquille Leonard pick is understandable, but it's a questionable decision to use the team's resources to give him almost $ 20 million in yearly average.
Colts contracts with APY above $ 15 million:
QB Matt Ryan 30M
DT DeForest Buckner 21M
G Quenton Nelson 20M
ILB Shaq Leonard 19.7M
RT Braden Smith 17.5M
Another big investment from Ballard was a trade before the 2020 NFL Draft. He traded the 13th overall pick to acquire defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and immediately gave him an extension worth of $ 21 million per year. While Buckner is one of the best interior defensive linemen in the league, the original pick could have been used to select Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Tristan Wirfs, or A. J. Terrell — and any of them would be significantly cheaper.
By the end of the day, the quarterback situation is the most important. And Ballard's lack of aggression might cost the team an opportunity to trade for established veterans such as Tom Brady or Matthew Stafford — but here the main reason was the choice, not the plan, as they have invested in the position by signing Philip Rivers and trading for Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan.
When looking at the Colts' depth chart, it's shocking how below average at best the roster is at the most valuable positions. And, except for wide receiver and one of the edge spots, the investment has been timid.
Quarterback: Matt Ryan (acquired for a 3rd-round pick)
Left tackle: Matt Pryor (acquired for a late-round swap)
WRs: Michael Pittman, Parris Campbell, and Alec Pierce (all drafted in the second round)
Edges: Kwity Paye (first-round pick), Yannick Ngakoue (acquired for Rock Ya-Sin)
Cornerbacks: Stephon Gilmore (signed as a free agent, 10M APY), Brandon Facyson (signed as a free agent, 3.8M), Kenny Moore (claimed off waivers from the Patriots in 2017)
The lack of investment and precision when doing such investments in premium positions have been the biggest problem throughout Chris Ballard's tenure. He has added many great players to the Colts, but if he wants to have success, he needs to do it in the right spots.