MOBILE, Ala. —It's apples to apples.
While Chris Ballard and his Indianapolis Colts scouting staff enjoy pounding the pavement and watching college games and practices throughout the fall, the Senior Bowl remains the cream of the crop as far as the evaluation process for the upcoming NFL Draft goes.
Last year at this time, the Colts were without a head coach, they were holding the No. 3-overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and their roster was full of holes. But after a week in Mobile, Ala., Ballard and his staff came away with a list of several prospects to really zero in on in the following weeks — players they were convinced could come in and contribute right away.
Three of those players, all on the defensive side of the ball, ended up being selected by the Colts in the second round of the draft — and all three would, in fact, contribute right away: linebacker and 2018 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year favorite Darius Leonard, as well as defensive end Kemoko Turay and defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis.
This time around, the Colts, as a whole, are much more stable. Frank Reich led Indianapolis to a 10-6 record and a postseason appearance in his first season as head coach, and a very successful 11-player haul in the 2018 NFL Draft, as well as a couple key hits in free agency, have set Ballard up with a solid foundation for depth and talent for years to come.
But stability doesn't translate into complacency for the Colts this week in Mobile. This week's action — which includes practices, informal and formal meetings with prospects and then Saturday's Senior Bowl game — gives Ballard and his crew the chance to head back to Indianapolis with another list full of potential playmakers to choose from for April's 2019 NFL Draft.
"(They) just do an outstanding job making sure everything's organized, detailed, getting a good set of players here for us to evaluate," Ballard told Colts.com at last year's Senior Bowl. "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."
This year's Senior Bowl squads are being led by the coaching staffs of the Oakland Raiders (North team) and the San Francisco 49ers (South team). To Ballard's point, the practices from Tuesday through Thursday will be a critical evaluation point for scouts looking to see not only who stands out from the start, but who can take coaching and use various tips and drills to improve their stock throughout the week.
But that's the on-the-field aspect. The off-the-field aspect — which includes numerous conversations between members of Ballard's scouting staff and the prospects themselves — can be just as important.
"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," Ballard said. "That really allows us to dig into him and find out what he stands for and what he's about."
The Colts will take everything they've gathered from the past few months of scouting — including the 2018 college season, as well as the postseason all-star games and various interviews and questionnaires — into their February meetings, a non-stop, 2 1/2-week marathon for the team to start building and tweaking its big board for the 2019 NFL Draft.
"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," Ballard said. "And then (the scouts will) 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."
Keep it tuned to Colts.com for exclusive coverage from the 2019 Senior Bowl.