INDIANAPOLIS — The week of July Fourth each year can be one of the slower periods of the entire NFL calendar, as teams have wrapped up their offseason workout programs and are pretty much good to go for — and eagerly awaiting — the start of training camp.
So how'd Chris Ballard spend his time last week? He decided to give this writing thing a try.
The Indianapolis Colts general manager was utilized by the vacationing Peter King as a guest writer for his weekly "Football Morning in America" column, which dropped today on the NBC Sports website.
You can read the entire piece by clicking here, but here are a few notable takeaways from Ballard's piece:
» Ballard went into great detail about the Colts' draft process, using second-round pick Rock Ya-Sin as a prime example. The Colts have a few key traits they look for when selecting a cornerback, and Ballard said Ya-Sin had all of them coming out of Temple: size and length, instincts and ball skills and toughness.
» Ya-Sin was first evaluated by Colts area scout Mike Derice, and going into the Senior Bowl this year the team believed he would be selected somewhere in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. After an impressive week of practices and interviews in Mobile, Ala., however, Ya-Sin shot up the Colts' board. "He was getting better every day, and Derice developed a strong conviction about his belonging on the Colts," Ballard said. "We made sure to interview Ya-Sin at length because we put a big emphasis on knowing a player's character and story. The story leads us to the answers that we're trying to find out about each guy."
» Ballard had said this previously, but Ya-Sin was in consideration for the Colts' pick in the first round at No. 26 overall before the Washington Redskins came calling. Indy sent that selection to Washington for the Redskins' second-round picks in 2019 and 2020, and thanks to the St. Patrick's Day trade with the New York Jets last year that netted them three second-round picks (two in 2018 and one in 2019), the Colts knew they'd still have a good shot at getting a guy like Ya-Sin early in the second round. But what Ballard revealed in this FMIA column was just how close the Colts came to trading back again from the No. 34-overall pick, as those in the room also had their eyes on "a specific safety" that they thought could make a successful transition to cornerback. But Ya-Sin was just too good to pass up at 34th overall, both in terms of his talent and his football character, and Ballard ultimately decided to select him at that spot.
» As we learned during Colts Production's video series "With The Next Pick," the Colts' scouting and personnel staff doesn't shy away from giving its opinion, good or bad, on any player that lands on its board throughout the evaluation process. This is an approach fostered directly by Ballard, and he goes into great detail into the "why" behind it in this column. He considers the Colts' draft room "the Room of Candor," comparing it to a similar process executed by those at Pixar Studios as it continually evaluates the projects it's working on. "They aim to put smart and passionate people in a room with an emphasis on problem solving," Ballard said. "Similarly, in our version, it's a room for honest conversation, where everyone has a chance to present their case, ask questions, and speak to the abilities of each player." Titles mean nothing in these meetings, which translates to better, more honest, discussions on each prospect. Ballard says assistant general manager Ed Dodds, college scouting director Morocco Brown, pro scouting director Kevin Rogers, analytics whizzes John Park and George Li and area scout Jamie Moore are particularly tremendous in this setting.
» Ballard also praises the Colts' coaching staff, led by Frank Reich, for its role in the draft process. "Reich is tremendous on draft day," Ballard writes. "He has a lot of faith in our scouting group and allows us to work. He will also give us his opinion and allows our scouts to challenge him. His open mindedness really is special."
» "The power of Sundays" is also a major theme of Ballard's FMIA column. He discusses the on-the-field part of the job that is so visible — the effects of wins and losses — but since becoming the Colts' general manager, Ballard has really taken note of how his team makes an impact in the community. He discusses the tragic death of Colts linebacker Edwin Jackson, and how Jackson's family has kept his spirit alive through the Edwin Jackson 53 Foundation, which awards scholarships to college students "who have a similar sense of service as Edwin." "Edwin had the gift of being able to connect with people and make them feel inspired when he visited with them," Ballard wrote. "He continuously used his platform for all the right reasons and changed the lives of those who needed it the most."
» Among the many, many fans who have impacted Ballard and the Colts in recent years are Tyler Beikes and Bryce Clausen. Beikes, now 14, has a life-threatening heart defect and will eventually need a heart transplant, but his attitude and courage have been an inspiration for the entire Colts organization. Ballard talks about how seeing Beikes on the sideline before last year's game against the Dallas Cowboys inspired a hobbled T.Y. Hilton, who was legitimately a gametime decision with an ankle injury, to suit up and play that day; Hilton had five catches for 85 yards and the Colts shut out the Cowboys, 23-0.
» Clausen, meanwhile, was born in January 2018 and was diagnosed with Krabbe disease, a rare genetic neurological condition. "The only way to save the babies born with the condition is early testing," Ballard wrote. "Unfortunately, at the time of Bryce's birth, the State of Indiana had not yet adopted a uniform screening protocol to help identify the disorder. The Clausen family understood what that meant for their youngest child — their time with him was going to be short." Clausen's parents, Joel and Andrea, wanted to create lasting memories with their family, so they created a "greatest hits" list of experiences they wanted to cross off. On that list was attending a Colts game as a family, which they were able to do Nov. 25 for Indy's matchup against the Miami Dolphins. Ballard met the family before the game and "was blown away by their faith and strength." Sadly, Bryce passed away in April 2019. His parents were already working with state lawmakers to give others born with Krabbe disease the resources they needed to live as long as possible, however. And beginning Jan. 1, 2020, all Indiana newborns will be tested for Krabbe disease thanks to "Bryce's Bill."
» King each week lists his "10 Things I Think I Think," and, of course, Ballard followed suit this week. Among the things Ballard thinks he thinks: the best coaches he have been around in his life are his grandfather, David Green; former University of Wisconsin head coach Barry Alvarez; former Chicago Bears head coach Lovie Smith; Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid; Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator; Rod Marinelli; and Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Also making the list? Reich and Colts defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus.
» Ballard also thinks he thinks going away for training camp remains a critical piece to a team connecting with its fanbase in ways it can't replicate on gamedays. The Colts last year began holding training camp at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield, Ind., where all practices are free and open to the public. While many other teams have shifted away from this approach in recent years, Ballard believes the positives involved for the entire organization and its fanbase are just too good to pass up. "Young fans are able to get an autograph, shake hands, catch a football, and make a connection that will last a lifetime," Ballard writes.
» Legendary Colts running back Edgerrin James also belongs in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Ballard makes a convincing argument to back up that claim. "I have absolutely zero impact on who gets in the HOF," he writes. "But I know what a great football player looks like, and to me, James was the definition."