NFL general managers often say the five most important positions are quarterback, left tackle, edge rusher, wide receiver and cornerback. The players at those positions usually get the biggest contracts, too.
Indianapolis Colts General Manager Chris Ballard entered the offseason with reason to worry about four of those five positions. Quarterback Philip Rivers had retired. So had left tackle Anthony Castonzo. The Colts were set to lose defensive ends Justin Houston and Denico Autry, and wide receiver T.Y. Hilton was a free agent.
Managing the situation and finding replacements wouldn’t be easy. The Colts did have more than $70 million in salary cap room, one of the highest totals in the league, in the lead-up to free agency. But Ballard has a reputation for being methodical in his approach, careful not to overpay simply to fill a roster need.
As it turned out, Ballard’s patience paid off for the Colts, who were able to address all four of those positions while adhering to their bigger-picture approach. They also benefited from a bit of good luck.
Ballard never anticipated having a shot at quarterback Carson Wentz, whom the Colts acquired in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. He didn’t expect Kansas City to cut left tackle Eric Fisher, whom he knew from his time with the Chiefs and who was coming off an Achilles’ tendon tear. Ballard had to wait until the draft to see whether edge rusher Kwity Paye would fall to them at the 21st pick. And a slow-developing market for wide receivers helped the Colts retain Hilton on a one-year deal.
“You lose two defensive ends, Denico Autry and Justin Houston. You have Anthony Castonzo retire,” Ballard said. “You have Philip Rivers retire, so you know [there are] premium positions we have to fill. It’s unrealistic to know how we are really going to get this done. For Eric Fisher to be on the roster, that’s just a little bit of luck.”
One thing that has earned Ballard a reputation as one of the better general managers in football is his discipline. As a negotiator in contract and trade discussions, he drives hard bargains. He is willing to be gutsy — as evidenced by last year’s trade of a first-round pick for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and this year’s deal for Wentz — but he’s not going to overpay, and he definitely won’t go crazy in free agency. Ballard believes in building a roster through the draft, taking care of his best players when their contracts expire and making smart trades.
“Lord knows this is like a broken record,” Ballard said. “I think the world knows we are not against free agency by any stretch. [But] at the start of free agency, you have to be careful. You can create problems. We also knew that we have our own players that we want to take care of. You have to have some discipline. When it comes to building your team, you have some fiscal responsibility so you can make sure to get all the pieces that you need.”
How fiscally responsible was Ballard? Beyond Fisher, who signed a one-year, $8.3 million contract, the Colts signed six free agents on one-year deals worth $2.51 million or less.
“You have to take into account that Carson’s making a lot of money,” Ballard said. “In two years, we traded for Buckner and Wentz. Those are high prices, and we try to be cautious. They weren’t free agents, but they commanded top dollar on the market. . . . The rest of the deals were for lower-dollar free agents. And we were able to get our guys back, which we were happy about. We were able to get [cornerback] Xavier Rhodes back in the mix. [Cornerback] T.J. Carrie played a really good role for us last year. We got him back. So we thought we were able to plug some holes with some of the lower-dollar guys.”
Wentz was clearly the biggest — and riskiest — move for the Colts. The No. 2 pick in 2016 had a disastrous 2020 season for the Eagles, which culminated in Wentz being benched and coach Doug Pederson being fired. Philadelphia ultimately decided to trade Wentz, opting to build around second-year quarterback Jalen Hurts.
“We always put a price on a player,” Ballard said. “You know what you are willing to do. . . . To me, it’s no different in a trade. If you let yourself get intoxicated and just try to win, you are trying to get the player at all costs. We don’t do business that way. We thought we ended up working it out with Philadelphia where we both got what we wanted.”