INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Colts general manager Chris Ballard on Monday held his annual end-of-season press conference at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.
Let's jump right into some of the top takeaways from the nearly 50-minute session with the media:
» Ballard's approach to free agency this offseason isn't going to be much different than his first two offseasons.
The Colts reportedly have among the most cap space available in the NFL, but Ballard won't let that get in the way of his approach of building the roster through the draft, No. 1, and then ensuring that when he does go down the free agent path, he's very judicious about who he's bringing into the locker room.
"We will continue to explore every avenue," Ballard said. "We put a value on a player. When it gets out of our reach, I just think we are comfortable enough to sleep at night saying that we are going to find an answer. Sometimes it might not be the household name that everybody wants us to sign and that's OK, I get it. But we are going to find an answer. Whether it's in that first window of free agency or maybe it's the second window, maybe it's the draft, maybe it's after the draft, maybe it's at the cut down day, there's times to acquire players at all points in the season."
Ballard said the team "dabbled into free agency" last offseason and didn't find many matches, but acknowledges that could change this time around after the Colts went 10-6 during the regular season and advanced to the Divisional Round of the playoffs with a fully healthy franchise quarterback in the mix, as well as young, talented defense.
"Do I think we are an attractive place? Absolutely, I do," he said. "Do I think the health of Andrew (Luck), the success of the team and the presence of Frank Reich, do I think those are all going to be encouraging factors to be a more possible attractive destination, absolutely I do."
» Ballard said the way Frank Reich handled his failed decision to go for it on 4th and 4 in overtime Week 4 against the Houston Texans was when he knew he had really struck gold with his new head coach.
The Colts were able to bounce back from an 18-point deficit with less than seven minutes remaining in the third quarter of that game, eventually tying the score at 31 late in the fourth quarter and forcing overtime.
Facing a 4th-and-4 scenario from Indy's own 43-yard line, Reich elected to go for it instead of punt it away and force a likely tie. Andrew Luck's pass attempt to Chester Rogers fell incomplete, however, and the Texans were able to get into range to attempt, and nail, a game-winning 37-yard field goal as time expired to escape Lucas Oil Stadium with the win.
After that game, Reich told reporters of his 4th-down attempt: "We're not playing to tie. We're going for that 10 times out of 10. That's just the way it's got to roll."
Ballard on Monday talked about how much that conviction — which Reich also shared with the team in the locker room after that game — meant to him.
"I'll never forget, sitting up in the box, I said, well, one thing about Frank, he's got conviction, he's going to rip it," Ballard said. "Then he's in the press conference with all of you, and he owns it. This is what I stand for, it's what we're going to do. A lot of people get up when things don't go their way, and they try to spin it. They try to spin it. Frank, I knew from that point on, he had the locker room, he had them. Because he believed in them and he supported them and he took the bullet for them. That's the beautiful thing. That is a unique thing in our profession. It just is. Look, sometimes God does things for you that you don't deserve, and I feel very fortunate that Frank's our coach."
» It was also that Texans game in which Ballard first got the sense that Andrew Luck was "truly back" after missing the entire 2017 season due to shoulder surgery.
Luck in that game tied a franchise record with 40 completions, broke the franchise record with 62 passing attempts, set a career-high with 464 passing yards and had four passing touchdowns with no interceptions.
But Luck was especially "cold blooded," as running back Nyheim Hines put it, in the second half, as he completed 20-of-25 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns in the final two quarters alone to completely close off that 18-point deficit and force overtime.
"I knew it was going to take some time," Ballard said of Luck. "He hadn't played. He had to play the game again. He was in a new offense, new players. He had to play the game. I felt like the second half of the Houston game there was some 'Wow' moments with Andrew. You saw little flashes of it before that, but the Houston game, that second half when he brought us back, that's when I thought you really saw him come back.
Even after a spectacular season overall from Luck — he set career-highs in pass completions (430), pass attempts (639), completion percentage (67.3) and passer rating (98.7) — Ballard believes No. 12's best football is still in front of him, however.
"We have not seen the best of this kid yet. Unequivocally," Ballard said. "We're fortunate to have him as our starting quarterback. This city's and this team is fortunate to have him, and I don't think we've seen the best of him."
» Ballard is discussing Adam Vinatieri's possible future with the Colts soon, and it'd take a huge offer for the team to trade off backup quarterback Jacoby Brissett.
As it pertains to Vinatieri, Ballard said he has been texting with the 46-year-old kicker, and plans on meeting with him Tuesday to discuss the possibility of returning for a 24th NFL season in 2019.
Vinatieri in 2018 had a year for the ages as far as milestones are concerned, becoming the NFL's all-time leader in both points scored and made field goals. But he was also solid once again as the team's kicker, completing 23-of-27 field goals (85.2 percent) and 44-of-47 extra-point attempts (93.6 percent), including a 4-for-6 clip from 50 yards and beyond.
"Do I think he can still kick in the league and be a really good kicker? Absolutely I do," Ballard said of Vinatieri. "I'll just say this. He is as important a guy in that locker room . . . I don't know if I've been around a special teams player that has an much impact as Adam does in the locker room, from a positive standpoint. All of our young guys that come in get to see Adam Vinatieri work, rehab, prepare his body every year, be a pro, handle the hard times, handle the good times. All of that of what Adam brings, brings a lot of value to this team."
As for Brissett, Ballard said he had a lengthy meeting with the quarterback on Sunday, and expressed to him that despite the fact he's heading into the final year of his rookie deal as a talented player at a major position of need for many teams across the league, the Colts aren't planning on just shipping him off to the first suitor that comes their way.
"It would have to be right organizationally, and for him," Ballard said. "I want to do the right thing for the player, too, now. I want to do the right thing for Jacoby. Jacoby has too much value to us, not only as our backup quarterback who I think you can absolutely win with and I think he's a starter in the league, but also to the locker room. He is well-respected throughout the locker room by both sides of the ball — offensively and defensively."
» The Colts' personnel staff was elated at their 11-player haul in the 2018 NFL Draft. Now they're trying to strike gold again in 2019.
— The Colts picked two eventual First-Team All-Pros — guard Quenton Nelson and linebacker Darius Leonard — with their first two picks in 2018. Not a bad start. Nelson completely changed the culture for the Colts' offensive line (which allowed an NFL-low 18 sacks in 2018), while Leonard not only led the league in tackles, but he filled the stat sheet with sacks (7.0) and interceptions (2.0) (and pretty much every other important defensive category).
— Their third pick, Braden Smith, eventually became a solid starter at right tackle, despite the fact he was drafted as a guard. (Ballard admitted Monday he never really even considered Smith to be a possible tackle until he was convinced otherwise by both Director of College Scouting Morocco Brown and offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo.)
— Fourth pick Kemoko Turay had 4.0 sacks and was among the best rookies in the league at pressuring the quarterback.
— Fifth pick Tyquan Lewis missed the first half of the season with a toe injury, but showed plenty of flashes as a versatile piece up front as a starter the last half of the year, finishing with 2.0 sacks and eight quarterback hits.
— Sixth pick Nyheim Hines was a pass-catching machine out of the backfield in his rookie season (63 receptions for 425 yards and two touchdowns), and showed improvement as an interior runner, too.
— Seventh pick Daurice Fountain was able to stay the course and earn a spot on the 53-man roster by the end of the season, and looks to develop into one of the team's top wide receivers this offseason.
— Eighth pick Jordan Wilkins had one of the best yards-per-carry averages in the NFL (5.6) and heads into the offseason looking to continue carving out his role in the offense with fellow backs Marlon Mack and Hines.
— Ninth pick Deon Cain was on the fast track to being a top playmaker at the wide receiver position for the Colts when he suffered a season-ending knee injury during the very first preseason game. Cain is expecting to be good to go to continue where he left off in 2019.
— Tenth and 11th picks Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin each were key pieces of depth at the linebacker position, as well as on special teams, and should only get better with another offseason of work under them.
"I think you could tell the day we all got together that we were pretty excited about this entire class and that we thought we had done something pretty special," Ballard said of the feeling among his personnel folks when the draft wrapped up in the spring. "I think as time goes on they got to continue to prove it."
With (tentatively) nine more picks heading into the 2019 NFL Draft (including two second-round choices), and, of course, the chance that Ballard could deal for more choices like he did last year, the now third-year general manager wants to ensure they add a just-as-talented class this time around.
"That was kind of my message to them: 'Alright, we did it once, but now we got to do it again and then you got to do it again,' and that takes a high-level of commitment," Ballard said. "I am proud of our scouts for the work they did on each one of those players. I am proud of the players. I am proud of the character and what they stand for and what they will continue to stand for for this organization."