The first part of Colts general manager Chris Ballard’s process was easy. Take a roster that was a wreck and methodically acquire upgrades each year through the draft.
Andrew Luck‘s sudden retirement was a blow to the Colts immediate chances to win, but provided Ballard a little more cover and time. Fans retired their expectations for wins as Adam Schefter’s tweet breaking the Luck story circulated, and Ballard netted another year to get things a little more right.
The Colts just ended Ballard’s fourth season with a thud in Buffalo, and in that moment his job got tough. Expectations are for the Colts to take another step forward, and that requires Ballard say goodbye to some of the good pieces he’s gathered in favor of upgrades that might provide a championship or regression.
Anyone can take bad to mediocre, and most GMs can manage an evolution from mediocre to good. Very few can elevate a team from good to great. Remember Bill Polian, one of the best GMs to ever do it, won just a single Super Bowl. Fans can crap on Ryan Grigson all they like, but his first three teams went to the playoffs with 11-5 records. It was when he shoved his chips into the middle of the table to go from good to great that the wheels came off the cart.
And Ballard’s job just got a little more difficult a few minutes ago as left tackle Anthony Castonzo announced his retirement. Castonzo was the final bridge to the Polian era – a first round pick in the 2011 draft. Now, Ballard only has three players he inherited remaining on the active roster – T.Y. Hilton, Jack Doyle, and Ryan Kelly. That’s how quickly rosters morph in the NFL.
Left tackle is one of those spots where a great player is needed to win a championship. Quarterback, lockdown corner, and edge rusher are others. Right now, the Colts can’t claim a check in any of those boxes. They also don’t have a reliable deep threat wide receiver with free agent T.Y. Hilton migrating from dynamic to useful, if he returns.
The Colts have a lot of good and some great, but not at the spots where you would like it. Quenton Nelson is a dominating left guard. Braden Smith and Ryan Kelly are really good at right tackle and center. DeForest Buckner is behind only Aaron Donald, the NFL’s most disruptive defensive player in the league, at defensive tackle. Philip Rivers is a hall of good quarterback – one of the best non-elite QBs in NFL history.
Maybe Nelson slides over to left tackle and Ball State alum Danny Pinter takes over the left guard spot he vacates. That would fill one spot internally. If Nelson is a hall of fame guard, maybe he can be a pro bowl left tackle. Who knows? They pay Ballard the big bucks to solve riddles like that.
Now is the time for Ballard to press forward to find upgrades despite knowing those he is leaving himself vulnerable to potential downgrades as he shoots for a championship.
The Colts assets are enviable. Castonzo’s $16-million for 2021 bring the Colts cap space to more than $70-million, although some of that could be gobbled up quickly as free agents like Rivers, Hilton, Justin Houston, and Denico Autry may be re-signed. That still leaves a significant chunk of cash to throw at free agents.
The Colts also have seven picks, including the 21st overall pick, in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Nowhere is an upgrade more necessary or more difficult to acquire than at quarterback. GMs understand all too well that winning a championship requires a stud QB. Rivers is to be lauded for a variety of attributes, but his lack of wheels and reliable deep ball put the Colts at a disadvantage against the Bills, Chiefs, Ravens, and Browns (the four remaining playoff teams from the AFC.
But Rivers brings two massive positives – reliability (he has never missed a start) and intellect (he avoids sacks and picks with equal dexterity). He also just finished leading the Colts to the playoffs – a place Jets castoff-in-waiting Sam Darnold has never been in three seasons and may never go, despite many Colts fans coveting him. Matthew Stafford is another oft-discussed potential target for Ballard. He is winless in three trips to the playoffs.
See what I mean? It’s easy for us to have answers, but Ballard will either sink or swim in large part because of decisions he makes in two months when free agency opens. His kids will either stick around Indy and grow up here – or will be forced to move elsewhere if Dad makes a spate of ill-advised moves.