INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard today held his annual year-end press conference, in which he gave his thoughts on the 2020 season, as well as the future ahead for the team. What did he have to say about the quarterback position, including Philip Rivers' prospects for 2021, pending free agents like T.Y. Hilton and Xavier Rhodes and more?
You can watch that entire session above, but here are some top takeaways:
» The Colts would like to have veteran quarterback Philip Rivers back in 2021, but both Rivers and the team are taking a month to figure out their plan moving forward: After spending the first 16 seasons of his illustrious career with the San Diego/Los Angeles Chargers, Rivers this past offseason signed a free agent deal with the Colts. The hope was that his familiarity with head coach Frank Reich's offensive system — Reich and offensive coordinator Nick Sirianni spent several seasons on the Chargers' coaching staff with Rivers a few years back — coupled with one of the best offensive lines in football, as well as some talented offensive weapons, would lead to more productivity out of the quarterback position in 2020.
The Rivers' signing ended up being a huge success. He started all 16 games and completed 68 percent of his passes for 4,169 yards with 24 touchdowns to just 11 interceptions, for a quarterback rating of 97.0. He helped lead the team to an 11-5 regular season record and a spot in the playoffs, where Indy would fall to the Buffalo Bills, 27-24, in the Wild Card Round.
Rivers proved he still had plenty left in the tank this season, but the 39 year old has reached the point in his career where he's going to head into each offseason and weigh his options; Rivers has said recently his two options moving forward are to return to the Colts in 2021 or retire and achieve his dream of becoming a high school football coach in Alabama.
For their part, the Colts, according to Ballard, would certainly welcome Rivers back next season if he decided to give it another go. But the team also is going to take some time to weigh its own options at the all-important quarterback position; eventually, the team will understandably want a long-term answer there.
Ballard said he told Rivers the two sides will take a month to figure it out and then move forward from there.
"Do I think Philip can still play? Absolutely, I do," Ballard said. "Philip and I had an hour talk (on Wednesday). He's going to take time. And we are going to take some time. We will meet here in about a month and figure out which way we are going to move forward. Philip has to figure out if he still wants to play. So, we need to go through that process.
"Do I think Philip Rivers is a winning quarterback that we can win and go to the Super Bowl with? Absolutely, I do."
» Ballard has been impressed with rookie quarterback Jacob Eason, but the team could also possibly explore adding another QB in the draft: Speaking of the quarterback position, with Rivers and veteran backup Jacoby Brissett set to become free agents, that leaves 2020 fourth-round pick Jacob Eason as the only QB currently on the roster heading into the offseason.
The 23-year-old Eason certainly looks the part at 6-foot-6 and 231 pounds, and he has a rocket of a right arm to boot. But 2020 just wasn't the ideal year to try to bring along a rookie quarterback; thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, all NFL teams were forced to cancel their rookie minicamps, all on-field work during the offseason workout program and their entire four-game preseason schedules. So when teams reported for training camp, they were primarily focused on getting ready for the start of the regular season, and not necessarily spending a ton of time trying to develop younger players like Eason, who were deeper on the depth chart.
Eason would spend the entire season on the 53-man roster as the No. 3 quarterback behind Rivers and Brissett. Although he was a healthy scratch for all 16 regular season games, as well as the Wild Card Round matchup against the Bills, Ballard said he came away impressed with Eason's ability to absorb everything happening around him.
"We like what we've seen from Jacob. We think we really have a really good young talent in Jacob Eason," Ballard said.
"We liked him when we drafted him. We think he's really talented," Ballard continued. "It was such a different year to really evaluate him in the bullets. We still have to go through that with Jacob. But let me tell you this about Jacob Eason: he kept his mouth shut and he worked. He was in a great quarterback room with a lot of experience and got to take all that in."
So while Eason is certainly still in the mix moving forward, the Colts also could explore the possibility of taking another quarterback in the NFL Draft this year.
Indianapolis currently has the 21st-overall pick in the first round of this year's draft, but Ballard isn't confident that one of the top four or five quarterbacks in this year's class will be there when the Colts go on the clock.
"t's a good class. I'll say that: It's a good class," Ballard said. "They all get pushed up now. I think we are seeing it. They all get pushed up. A little bit of luck has to come into play."
Then again, Ballard cautioned, the team doesn't have to take a quarterback in the first round, either.
"Go back and look at first-round quarterbacks drafted over the last 10 years — it is not an exact science," Ballard said. "Everyone thinks you just take one and you are going to fix the problem.
"I promise you, we get the importance of the quarterback position, but the difference in just taking one and taking the right one is the key in our minds," Ballard continued. "We will explore it. We will examine it. We will go A-to-Z on it, I promise you. That position never leaves my mind and it's something we have to get fixed, but there's got to be a little bit of timing and luck that comes into play."
» Following the retirement of Anthony Castonzo this week, Ballard acknowledges the offensive line — both at left tackle and its depth — will need to be addressed this offseason: Earlier this week, Castonzo announced his retirement after 10 seasons as the Colts' starting left tackle. The 2011 first-round pick out of Boston College was about as sturdy as it gets protecting his quarterback's blindside, and Ballard said today it was a shame Castonzo was never selected to the Pro Bowl.
Taking a look at the roster heading into the offseason, the Colts do have some options to fill Castonzo's place at left tackle, but Ballard acknowledged Thursday there's plenty of work to be done — whether it's through the draft or free agency, or through developing some of the younger guys currently on the team — to address both Castonzo's departure, as well as the overall depth along the offensive line.
Among the options currently available include moving three-time First-Team All-Pro left guard Quenton Nelson over to left tackle. Ballard understandably wasn't ready to commit to that move, specifically, this early in the offseason, but with Nelson, two-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly, a solid right guard in Mark Glowinski and one of the top young right tackles in the NFL in Braden Smith, Ballard thinks the overall unit is in good shape moving forward no matter what moves they make.
"We have Quenton, Ryan Kelly, Braden Smith, Mark Glowinski, so we have four damn good offensive linemen right now," Ballard said. "We have some young ones we like in Danny Pinter and Will Holden, who we brought in late but held up pretty good against Pittsburgh. We know we have to make some additions to the offensive line. And I think you know Frank and I's opinions on the offensive line. We never want to go short. I believe in my soul that's where you win in this league, so it's something that we have to address. I feel that we have four really good starters, and a few of them are really special and some good younger players to work in the mix."
» The Colts have quite a few big-name free agents-to-be heading into the offseason, including T.Y. Hilton, Justin Houston, Marlon Mack and Anthony Walker: While Ballard doesn't typically make any declarative statements one way or another about the team's free-agents-to-be heading into the offseason, it's hard to ignore the big names on that list this time around. Here's what he had to say about a few of them:
• Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton: "He's always been a great player, but how he has grown, as a teammate — man, he's really special dude. T.Y. Hilton is a really special dude. Before we played Buffalo, I walked up and I said, 'I love you. I do.' T.Y. is not the most emotional guy but he gave me a hug. He knows … he's special, man, as a person, and as a teammate and as a competitor. As to his ability. T.Y. can still play. Whether it's at the level it was four or five years ago, as you get older, you have to find different ways (to get the job done). But I'll tell you this: T.Y. is smart, instinctive, knows how to get open and he still has value. We'll see how it works out here over the long haul. But we value T.Y. and we think he can still play. And he's been a great Colt."
• Running back Marlon Mack: "Marlon Mack's (season-ending Achilles injury) broke my heart. That sucked. That was hard. Really hard. And it was hard on him. But he's so tough minded. I watched him work his butt off here all season to get back. Marlon Mack deserves a contract, unequivocally. He deserves a good contract. I don't know if we are going to be able to do that here. Saying that, I'm not going to say that 'Marlon is not going to be back,' because I think he's really special as a player and I could just see a backfield of Marlon, Jonathan (Taylor) and Nyheim (Hines) and (Jordan) Wilkins be really special. So I'm not going to discount it. But I think Marlon Mack is a great player and deserves what he has coming to him. And he's even a better teammate, unselfish — everything you want."
• Cornerback Xavier Rhodes: "Xavier had a heck of a year; really bought into what we are doing. I give (cornerbacks coach) Jonathan Gannon a lot of credit for that. He had a relationship with Xavier from Minnesota. Xavier worked and bought into everything we're doing. I think we will wait and see how it works out here in free agency, but we like Xavier."
• Linebacker Anthony Walker: "I have a special relationship with Anthony Walker. Selfless. Team guy. Rare leader. I hope he gets into coaching one day or scouting. Mark my words on this: if Anthony Walker gets into coaching, he will be a head football coach in the National Football League. And if he gets into scouting, he'll be a general manager. He's brilliant — absolutely brilliant, and he's made of the right stuff. I know Anthony wants to play more. We value Anthony. We'll see how it works out. I want good for Anthony."