INDIANAPOLIS – The message has been clear since Chris Ballard’s first day on the job.
When it comes to roster building, Ballard is very stringent on a core belief.
“In this league, you win up front, you win on the O-line and the D-line,” Ballard said at his opening day press conference, in January 2017, upon being named General Manager of the Indianapolis Colts.
“If you aren’t good up front it’s very difficult to win in December football.”
Ballard has really never wavered from that philosophy.
Of the 17 draft picks Ballard has made in the first three rounds, 8 have gone to the offensive/defensive lines. That doesn’t include trading the 13th overall pick for defensive tackle DeForest Buckner last year.
In free agency, the Colts have been active in the trenches, too, handing out notable contracts to the likes of Justin Houston and Denico Autry. Those are two of the most lucrative contracts given by Ballard in free agency.
While this approach for Ballard was unlikely to change, it has been strengthened a bit.
Now that the NFL has adopted a 17-game regular schedule, Ballard’s focus on building proper depth in the trenches has been further emphasized.
“If you don’t have depth, you won’t survive,” Ballard says about the extra game added to the schedule this season.
Ballard’s actions this offseason backs that up, too.
Let’s say the Colts have this starting offensive line for the majority of the ‘21 season: LT-Eric Fisher, LG-Quenton Nelson, C-Ryan Kelly, RG-Mark Glowinski, RT-Braden Smith.
Behind those guys, the Colts have 6 different offensive linemen who have started a combined 115 games in the NFL. Three of them are free agent signings made by Ballard this past offseason. That’s experience the team didn’t have last season.
Did the lack of O-line depth in 2020 contribute to this activity? Definitely.
But the addition of a 17th game also played a role.
Look at the D-line, too.
Yes, the Colts aren’t bringing back Autry and Houston. But they also signed Isaac Rochell (9 career starts) and Antuwan Woods (32 career starts) up front, to go along with drafting Kwity Paye and Dayo Odeyingbo. Those moves means the Colts will likely be cutting a guy or two on the defensive line with a notable NFL resume.
Now that the regular season has grown by one game, that also was a reason why the Colts scaled way back in their spring work this offseason.
“I think Frank (Reich) and Chris both understand the challenges that are ahead with 17 games and were very fair with us,” Colts NFL Players Association rep Ryan Kelly said of the lighter spring work.
Challenges for the players, and slight adjustments to the method of building a roster—that’s part of how the Colts have altered things with the NFL’s schedule growing for the first time in more than 4 decades.