INDIANAPOLIS – Chris Ballard spent a good portion of his annual pre-draft conversation with the media Friday discussing the topic that’s worked the Indianapolis Colts’ fan base into a lather.
Ballard holds seven picks in next week’s draft, including the 42nd overall, and this seems to be one of those no-brainer scenarios. Let’s follow the common-sense steps:
1. the Colts acquired quarterback Matt Ryan in a trade with Atlanta, believing he was an upgrade over Carson Wentz, who they had traded to Washington.
2. they view Ryan as a two-year answer and guaranteed the final two years of his contract at a cool $54 million.
3. Michael Pittman Jr. emerged as a top-end receiver last season, but no other returning wideout had more than 13 catches and 173 yards in ’21. Take a bow, Ashton Dulin.
4. Ballard has engineered an aggressive offseason that has addressed needs at quarterback, edge rusher, cornerback and safety. But things actually have worsened at receiver. While Ballard resisted the urge to add a veteran free agent, Zach Pascal signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. There’s still some level of interest in bringing back T.Y. Hilton for an 11th season – “We’ll still have some talks with T.Y.; I think he can still play,’’ Ballard said – but any decision might hinge on how the draft unfolds.
5. the answer to restocking the position rests with the draft. Draft analysts agree it’s a deep crop of wideouts. As many as seven could be selected in the 1st round and another half-dozen in round 2. There almost assuredly will be a quality prospect on Ballard’s draft board when the Colts are on the clock Friday evening.
Sometimes it’s not complicated.
It’s not that Ballard doesn’t value the position.
“You want as many playmakers as you can get,’’ he said. “Do we need to add? Yeah, we do.’’
The most prudent way to add them, Ballard believes, is through the draft.
We would argue he should have signed a proven veteran at this point of the offseason to ease the overriding need going into the draft, but he isn’t even remotely interested in getting involved in the escalating demands of the top-tier receivers.
Only quarterbacks are commanding more.
Remember, Tyreek Hill is making an average of $30 million per year following his trade from Kansas City to Miami, and Davante Adams is at $28 million annually following his relocation from Green Bay to Las Vegas. Nine receivers are earning more than $20 million per season.
San Francisco’s Deebo Samuel appears to be next in line.
“It depends on where you’re at,’’ Ballard said. “Do you make that go-for-it move where you’re giving up the farm for a wideout and then paying them inordinate amount of money?
“I’ve always thought the really good defenses – the really good defensive coordinators – find a way to take them out of the game. They can. It doesn’t make them any less valuable, but they find a way.’’
His preference? Draft and develop.
Ballard has used six of his 45 draft picks since 2017 on wideouts, including a pair of 2nd-rounders: Pittman in 2020 and Parris Campbell in ’19. He hit on Pittman, but injuries have forced Campbell to miss 34 of 49 regular-season games and limited him to 34 career receptions.
“To me, it’s easier – I don’t know if it’s easier – but to find a guy in the draft and let them develop,’’ Ballard said. “They don’t always hit right away. I was part of drafting Tyreek Hill. Tyreek was great right away as a returner, but it took a few years for him to come on as a wideout. Adams in Green Bay, it was year 3 or year 4. You can go back here: Reggie Wayne. Reggie Wayne was like year 3.
“But it doesn’t mean they can’t play and help you, and you can play winning football with them. Sometimes it just takes time. And then balancing that out versus what you have to pay, you’d rather have to go get your own.’’
Ballard was asked why he and Frank Reich steadfastly endorse a returning receiver group that includes Mike Strachan (two catches, 26 yards as a rookie), Dezmon Patmon (two for 21 in two seasons) and Dulin (18 receptions, 243 yards, two TDs in three seasons).
“Everybody is scared of the unknown,’’ he said. “They’re scared of the unknown so they just think, ‘Well, let’s just go get somebody else.’ That guy is unknown, too.’’
The depth at receiver – not only this year, but in recent drafts as well – is undeniable. But it’s made it difficult to adequately assess the individual talent and project how that will transfer to the NFL.
“There’s 75, 80 guys that have caught 80 balls for 1,000 yards,’’ Ballard said, “but in our league the coverage is tighter, it’s more physical, especially at the line of scrimmage. What you’re seeing in college football, they get a lot of free releases that they don’t get in our league . . . the access they have and then the tempo they play at.
“The hardest thing to see (is) how they’re going to make the transition: how are they going to handle press coverage, how are they going to handle cloud coverage, how are they going to adjust? It’s a hard position to make the transition, but guys do it.’’
Ballard’s bottom line on the draft and wideouts?
“I always say this: It’s the most over-graded and over-drafted position in the draft,’’ he said. “I don’t know if it’s ever been easy.
“If you look at the history, it’s never been an easy position.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.