MOBILE, Ala. —The Indianapolis Colts are well represented down south this week in Mobile, Ala., where the nation's top senior college prospects are getting their chance to compete and begin stating their cases to teams across the league at the annual Senior Bowl.
With the 2018 NFL Draft now just three months away, the Colts, led by second-year general manager Chris Ballard, are getting a prime opportunity not only to see these top prospects battle it out on the practice field and in a game setting, but they can also take advantage of some face-to-face time and really get to know what make these guys tick.
Ballard on Wednesday chatted with us about a multitude of topics, including the importance of the Senior Bowl, what's immediately on the horizon for the personnel staff, how the new coaching staff will be involved in that process, free agency and the value of the No. 3-overall pick:
Walker:How beneficial is this Senior Bowl experience to you and your player personnel staff, because obviously you get a chance to see these guys in a practice setting, but you can also just sit down and talk to them and figure out who they are as people. How beneficial is this experience?
Ballard: "The Senior Bowl, and Phil Savage and his crew, that they put on, (they) just do an outstanding job making sure everything's organized, detailed, getting a good set of players here for us to evaluate. And it's critical because it's apples-to-apples; it's really the first time where we can see a group of players play against for-sure NFL talent. And the ability to see them live, see them compete on a daily basis, take NFL coaching, all that is very important. And then we get a chance to really interview them — sit down, there's no time limit on how long we can interview them, and that time we get one-on-one with them with our scouts and with the player, that really allows us to dig into him and find out what he stands for and what he's about."
Walker:The NFL Scouting Combine has its advantages, and everybody loves the drills and all that — the interviews — but it seems like that's the advantage here, is that personal time you get to spend, not only face-to-face, but in practice — these guys have pads on, it's not shorts. All the All-Star games are beneficial, I'm sure, but I'd imagine this one in particular with the talent level would be the most beneficial.
Ballard:"Because the talent level's equal. That's the good news — that's what you're really getting to see. It's almost like watching a minor league (baseball) game, a Triple A game where they're about to step up into the Major Leagues. So that's really beneficial for us."
Walker:Then Saturday's the big game, and you get a chance to see the players take what they've learned on the practice field and apply it to a game. I don't think it gets any more critical than that when you guys preach, 'Practice, practice, practice; play like you practice.' How important is that game on Saturday?
Ballard:"We study it. We'll study it, we'll break it up and cut it and slice it and dice it and watch every player and every snap he plays. We'll watch every snap from practice and see if it translates when he gets in 11-on-11 situations in-game."
Walker:A lot of work to be done with your draft preparation in the next few weeks and building the board and all that – have you gotten a good feel of this draft class yet, and is there anything unique about this class or that has stood out to you so far?
Ballard:"I say there's players in every draft; I do that every year. I always laugh when people say, 'Well, it's not a strong draft in this… .' There's always good players. You just have to go find them. And we'll do that. The college season's up, so now we'll go into February and have our February meetings, which are big for us. We'll meet for 18 straight days and we'll grind through each player and we'll watch tape on every player, and we'll get an initial stack of our board, and then we'll go the combine and spring workouts and April meetings, and include our coaches in that process, and then get to our final board when we get to April."
Walker:Free agency comes before the draft, and with a little bit of cap room, a lot of moves could be made. How do those moves in free agency affect what you might do in the draft?
Ballard:"I've said this all the time: we want to grow our own, and we want to build with homegrown Colts guys we draft. So we'll be very selective. You know, we were pretty active in free agency last year, and I'm not saying we won't go out and plug some holes — you want to try to plug as many holes as you can going into the draft so you're not driven for a need. But, saying that, we want to make sure we're a good drafting team, and you've got to be very careful in free agency. It's a short-term fix a lot of times, and then when you're trying to really build a program, guys that come from different programs, it takes them a while to get assimilated in."
Walker:Hop into the 2017 season: have you had a chance to kind of evaluate things, look at the game film? Obviously the record is what it is, but is there anything you're encouraged with moving forward?
Ballard:"Look: it's a black-and-white business in our league. It's wins and losses, and we didn't win enough games. So at the end of the day, that's what it comes down to. What am I proud of? I'm proud of the way our guys competed. There wasn't one time when I watched the tape where I didn't feel like we were giving the effort that we needed to give — and that's a good thing. With a new coaching staff we're going to have some schematic changes on both sides of the ball, and that's going to affect some of what we do going forward. When we get the new coaching staff on board, we'll let them have a chance to tell us what they want to do, take a look at our players from last year, and then we'll move forward from there."Walker:T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle are down in Orlando right now preparing for the Pro Bowl. What has it meant for you to see those guys step up — especially a guy like Jack, it's his first-career selection; he's starting to get the recognition I think he deserves.
Ballard: **"Well, T.Y. has been a consistent performer his whole entire career, and he did it again this year. Jack Doyle — I'm very proud of Jack. When I walked in the door, that was one of the first things I wanted to get done was to make sure we got a contract extension (for) Jack Doyle. He's everything we want to stand for: he's hard working, he's loyal, he's a good player. And he loves the game of football, and his teammates love him, and that's important. You can't buy a locker room; you have to build and you have to earn your respect in that locker room, so for Jack to be able to make the Pro Bowl, that was a big statement for him and what he stands for, and I'm very proud of the kid."
Walker:You've been very busy since you took the job; second year for you. Do you feel like you have some solid footing now after you take on a job of this magnitude, and it's something you've been building for your whole career — do you feel like you have a little bit more solid footing now?
Ballard:"When you get to go in, you're going 500 miles an hour when you first take the job just trying to figure out people in the building, what everybody does. You can watch the tape and know who a player is, but you really don't know what they're doing within the scheme. So a year into it, knowing where we're going, getting some processes in place of where we're going has been good. Once we get our new staff on board, it's going to be fun — it's going to be fun for Colt fans. We're going to build something pretty special."
Walker:Then talking about your staff — they've been on the road the last few months, obviously, since the start of the college season. But what's their schedule like now? How busy are they? Take me through what they're going through, and what they're going to be going through the next couple weeks. I'm sure it's a lot of evaluation and a lot of trying to state their cases as they try to get the best players they can on this roster.
Ballard:"I think we've got a very good scouting staff. I'm very proud of them; very talented group of men. From Ed Dodds, who's really stepped up here, especially when I've been on this coaching search, Rex Hogan, Morocco Brown, Matt Terpening and all of our scouts, they've stepped up and done a lot of great work for us. So they'll finish up these all-stars (games), they're doing a lot of interviewing, finish up their evaluations for our February meetings. And then we get into February it becomes prove-it time when they go from being scouts' players to Colt players, and at that point that's how we start stacking the board. And then they'll go out and they'll continue to dig on the road and make sure we're getting the type of people we want to get."
Walker:I know you're not going to tip your hand, but you've got a high draft pick — unfortunately — but you've got a high draft pick, so that's an asset. A lot of fans are asking us about the possibility of trading down or what you do with that pick. What kind of asset is that No. 3 pick, and what opportunities are there?
Ballard:"Well, look, you get a chance to get a very good player at No. 3. Do I want to be there ever again? No. It's the first time I've been this high in the draft, I think, since (2005) when I was in Chicago. So we don't want to get that high again. But, saying that, we've got to take advantage of the situation. We think there's some very talented players at the top of the draft we'll have a shot to get."
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