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2022 NFL Combine Notebook: T.Y. Hilton's Future, Chris Ballard's Approach To Free Agency

While Chris Ballard and Frank Reich's press conferences on Tuesday mostly focused on the Colts' future at quarterback, they also discussed T.Y. Hilton's desire to keep playing, the team's approach in free agency and what's next at a few key positions. 

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On Tuesday, we wrapped up what Chris Ballard and Frank Reich said about the Colts' future at quarterback. Read all about their comments here, and download the latest episode of the Colts Official Podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify for more. But for today's notebook from downtown Indy, I'm going to take a look at a few other important topics the Colts' general manager and head coach discussed on Tuesday – with an eye on the start of free agency in two weeks:

What's T.Y. Hilton's future?

After the Colts' season ended, T.Y. Hilton said he'd take some time to think about if he wanted to play another year or retire. On Tuesday, Ballard said he talked with Hilton a few weeks ago and the longtime Colts wide receiver expressed a desire to continue playing.

Ballard said he'd talk with Hilton – who is slated to become a free agent in March – again, but emphasized he still believes the 32-year-old still has juice left in the tank.

"T.Y. can still play," Ballard said. "I want to make that (clear) – unfortunately he got hurt for half the season, but T.Y. can still play. One, because he's about as smart as any player I've ever been around. I mean he just understands how to play the game even though his skillset might not quite be the same that it was three or four years ago, his instincts and his level of competence in terms of understanding what's happening, he knows how to play."

Hilton caught 23 passes for 331 yards with three touchdowns in 10 games in 2021, although his 8.9 yards per target was in line with his 2018-2020 average (9.0 yards per target).

"He still was showing T.Y. speed, T.Y. instincts and T.Y. leadership on the field," Reich said.

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What will the Colts' approach to free agency look like?

The Colts executed two significant trades in each of the last two years – in 2020 for DeForest Buckner and in 2021 for Carson Wentz – that, in addition to the 2020 one-year signing of quarterback Philip Rivers, were defining factors in the team's last two offseasons. But will Ballard's approach shift to eyeing expensive, multi-year contracts in 2022's free agency period?

"If an opportunity presents itself that we think is good, when we think we're getting a player of value at the right price, we'll do it," Ballard said. "Even if you have to overpay a bit, I'm okay with that."

For Ballard, though, overpaying is one thing – but over-committing is another. Keep that in mind when the NFL's free agent frenzy kicks off in mid-March.

"It's just when you straddle yourself with three years of guaranteed money because that's where free agency is going for the high price guys, and then you miss on it and leave yourself no out, then that strangles you going forward and we're going to have some players here going forward that we're going to want to keep," Ballard said. "So you got to balance that out."

Speaking of players the Colts want to keep – and the offensive line

After the season, Ballard was unequivocal about not moving Quenton Nelson from guard to tackle. On Tuesday, he was clear that the team not only wants to keep the All-Pro at guard, but keep him in Indianapolis for the long haul.

"We're going to want Quenton to be here," Ballard said. "Whether (an extension) gets done now, this year, next year, whenever, we'll eventually get it done."

The Colts do have a few other decisions to make along their offensive line in the coming weeks, with left tackle Eric Fisher, right guard Mark Glowinski, guard Chris Reed and tackle Matt Pryor all due to hit free agency.

Ballard said he thought Glowinski and Reed – who, for a period of the 2021 season, rotated at right guard – both played well, as did Pryor when he was needed to fill in at both tackle spots. And Ballard said he thought there was a seven-game stretch in which Fisher played well after he worked through his Achilles' injury, but then was tasked with fighting through a pec injury he suffered late in the season.

Internally, Ballard likes some of his options, including 2021 seventh-round pick Will Fries and interior lineman Danny Pinter, who did well filling in at times for center Ryan Kelly last season.

Check out photos of current Colts players on the field at the Combine. Stay tuned to Colts.com all week long for coverage of the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine.

Do the Colts need to add playmaking weapons on offense?

Ballard sees three playmakers on the Colts' offense – running backs Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines and wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. While emphasizing the Colts need to involve Hines more – he had a career-low 40 receptions despite a career-high 7.8 yards per catch in 2021 – Ballard said he would like to bring in some more playmakers, but offensive line remains a priority.

"We need to add some more weapons," Ballard said. "But, like at my core, you have to be able to block people, I mean you have to. I think one of the number one things for the quarterback to feel comfortable is he's got to feel protected."

As for the returning receivers on the roster, Reich said he hopes one of those guys – like Michael Strachan, Dezmon Patmon or Parris Campbell – emerges in 2022 into a guy on whom can be counted. And Ballard offered an overview of those players as well as Zach Pascal, who's set to hit free agency in two weeks.

"(Pascal) didn't quite have the season that I think he wanted to have or even we wanted him to have, but he was a great teammate, he played his role and played his role to the best he could this year," Ballard said. "Then when we get into the other wideouts with Patmon and Michael, we think they have upside but they've got to prove it like any other unknown player. Until it's proven – they've got to prove it, but we do think they have a good skillset to ascend.

"Then I don't want to forget about Parris either. I'm not quitting on Parris Campbell. Does it mean we're going to sit here and count on him to be our two or three right away? No, we will add competition to the position. But Parris Campbell is still a very talented guy. Unfortunate for the injury part of it, but the flashes have been really good with Parris. So hopefully we'll see it come to fruition. I mean the guy has worked and done everything he can do. He's just had some bad luck."

Final Thoughts

It's easy for teams to fall into the trap of feeling like they were a play here or a play there away from a disappointing season becoming a positive one. Maybe you feel that way about the Colts, who in 2021 lost four one-score games to playoff teams (Rams, Titans, Buccaneers, Raiders) and a fifth to the Ravens in overtime.

While Ballard acknowledged those games were missed opportunities to make Week 18 matter less than it did, he also said he's not approaching the 2022 offseason like those defeats mean change does not need to be made.

"To me that's fool's gold," Ballard said. "You're not really objectively evaluating what needs to be done. And I think the deeper we dig into it, I thought we had a really good football team. Ultimately we did not get done what we needed to get done, so improvements have to be made, and that's across the board. I don't want to just single out the quarterback position. There's other spots, too, that we've got to actively look to improve upon between now and September and October as we work through building the roster."

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