INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard on Friday held his annual pre-draft press conference — this time in video form. What did he have to say about the upcoming draft, free agency moves, the quarterback position and many more topics?
» This year's "virtual draft" will be different, for sure, but the Colts are more than ready to go to get the job done: The COVID-19 pandemic has led to all kinds of temporary changes worldwide, which is certainly no different when it comes to the NFL Draft, which will be held next Thursday through Saturday in a "virtual-only" format, in which all team and league personnel and the prospects will be required to participate via video conference from their own homes.
In any other year, the Colts' scouting and coaching staffs would be hunkered down together in the team's draft room, but whether they're physically together or utilizing technology to meet, Ballard is confident that there's isn't going to be much of a difference one way or another.
The team's preparation for the draft has (mostly) been the same, and the team will continue having open dialogue throughout the process next week in order to select the best prospects possible.
"Our team, our group of scouts, they've been unbelievable in this process," Ballard said. "Not one of them have flinched once — they've not blinked. Any change, anything that's happened, they've found answers to. And I'm fortunate — I am fortunate — to have the group that I have with me and around me.
"They've solved problems along the way and found ways for us to be able to communicate, keep our process the same way," Ballard continued. "We've actually grown. There's a lot of things that I think we've figured out here over the last three weeks that we like, that we're going to continue to do going forward."
In terms of his individual plan for the draft, Ballard said he'll be based in his basement, where the team has applied all sorts of failsafes to ensure things run smoothly, including the installation of a generator for backup power, and a backup internet connection — just in case.
And, if all else fails?
"At the end of the day, I'll pick up my phone and call in the pick," Ballard said with a laugh.
» Like head coach Frank Reich, Ballard applied the phrase "unique opportunity" when addressing the signing of free agent quarterback Philip Rivers: The Colts officially announced the signing of Rivers, 38, an eight-time Pro Bowl selection, on March 21, giving the offense a veteran playmaker at the quarterback position who had previous success working with Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni when they were on the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers' coaching staff.
While the Rivers signing, and the price tag he's carrying for his one-year deal, aren't typical of the moves Ballard has made during his now fourth year with the Colts, he acknowledged that "the quarterback position's a little bit different," adding, "I think this situation was a little bit unique."
What made it unique, Ballard said, wasn't just the fact that Rivers, who he considers a "potential Hall of Fame quarterback," hit the open market and had that familiarity with Reich and Sirianni, but that the team's cap situation in 2020 allowed for it to carry the hefty salaries of both Rivers and now-backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
"Every other guy that we've acquired has really fit into our mold," Ballard said. "For the most part, we've stayed pretty disciplined with what we want to do."
» Sticking with the quarterback position, Ballard is well aware the team doesn't currently have anybody signed there past 2020 — but he isn't sweating it: Rivers, Brissett and Chad Kelly are the quarterbacks currently on the Colts' offseason roster, and all three of them see their Colts contracts expire after the 2020 season.
The Colts have all sorts of options to address the future of the position: If Rivers is the answer in 2020, perhaps he could be brought back for another year; maybe Brissett, with another year under his belt, could be brought back as the permanent starter in 2021; Kelly could continue to develop in Reich's system and be a viable option in a year's time; or the Colts could utilize the draft or free agency to find the future at quarterback.
Whatever the case may be, Ballard cautioned, as he has many times, that "you can't force the quarterback position."
"Especially in the draft," he said. "I think history's shown that. It's gotta be the right guy, the right fit for us, and for our staff and for our organization. So I don't know when it's gonna happen: maybe this year, maybe next year, maybe two years from now. I don't know. And I'm not gonna force it — much to everybody's dismay, and it might drive everybody nuts, but I'm not gonna force that issue. When we decide to take one up that we think's going to be the future guy of this franchise, you gotta be right."
» Trading the 13th-overall pick to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was an "easy decision:" While one might assume Ballard, who is known to collect as many picks as he can each year, might've thought twice about giving away such a valuable commodity in that 13th pick, he said Friday it really wasn't that difficult a decision.
"I thought it was very easy," Ballard said.
Buckner, who just turned 26, was named to his first Pro Bowl in 2018, and was named Second Team All-Pro in 2019. The Colts this offseason circled that three-technique spot up front defensively when looking at areas in which they wanted to improve, and they got one of the best young players in the league at that position in Buckner, who has 262 career tackles (38 for a loss) with 28.5 sacks, 11 passes defensed, seven fumble recoveries and three forced fumbles in his first four seasons in the league.
"He's got everything we stand for – high character, he's a producer," Ballard said. "He's durable, he's got the character (and) he plays a premium position in this defense. It was an easy decision, easy decision.
"I know the 13th pick is a high price, but we haven't made a lot of big moves like this and a chance to acquire a player of this caliber with is character, I thought it was a no-brainer," Ballard said. "Matter of fact, I held my freaking breath, praying that it was going to get done. I couldn't be more pleased about getting this young man into this organization and I think you will see the same things I see here going forward."
» The Colts like the depth at wide receiver in this year's draft, but they also like what they have returning: Could this be a historic draft class at wide receiver? That's what many outside experts are predicting, and even despite the fact the Colts now don't have a first-round pick, there's still a chance for the team to find an immediate playmaker at the wideout position with one of its seven picks across rounds 2-6.
As of Monday, the wide receivers being projected to be selected by the Colts in the second round included Arizona State's Brandon Aiyuk, Clemson's Tee Higgins, Notre Dame's Chase Claypool, Baylor's Denzel Mims and USC's Michael Pittman Jr., among others.
"There is a lot of depth at wideout in the draft," Ballard said. "We feel very good about that at every level from guys we think can start to guys that we think can play significant roles."
But let's not forget the fact the Colts were snakebitten with injuries at the wide receiver position in 2019, and most of those key players at the position are back and healthy for the start of 2020, including No. 1 wide receiver T.Y. Hilton, 2019 second-round pick Parris Campbell and third-year receiver Daurice Fountain, who was having a promising training camp before suffering a season-ending ankle injury before he could even get started.
"Getting T.Y. Hilton back healthy again, getting Parris Campbell healthy again, having Zach Pascal — it's not like where it's a complete void at the position," Ballard said. "We do think we have some talented guys there."
» The team is still deciding whether to pick up safety Malik Hooker's fifth-year option: Hooker, who was taken with the 15th-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, is entering his fourth season with the Colts in 2020.
The team faces a May 4 deadline to decide whether or not to pick up Hooker's fifth-year option that is afforded to all first-round draft picks; if they decline to pick up the option, Hooker becomes a free agent at the end of this season.
"Yeah, we have a little time," Ballard said. "When I get through the draft, we'll sit down and we'll talk about the direction we're going to go there."
Hooker has played in 34 games with 33 starts for the Colts in his first three seasons, collecting 117 total tackles (one for a loss) with seven interceptions, 11 passes defensed and two fumble recoveries. He played in 13 games last season, and had 51 tackles (one for a loss) with two interceptions and three passes defensed.
The Colts last year picked up the fifth-year option on center Ryan Kelly, their first-round pick in 2016.