INDIANAPOLIS – First things first: Jim Irsay’s checkbook is always available to Chris Ballard.
That might seem hard to believe as the NFL heads into its third day of veteran free agency. While several teams are tossing millions at other teams’ castoffs, Ballard has spent a relative pittance: a one-year, $2 million contract to retain running back Marlon Mack and a one-year, $2.5 million deal to bring in defensive end Isaac Rochell. He’s also issued restricted tenders to wideout Zach Pascal ($3.384 million), tight end Mo Alie-Cox ($3.384 million) and safety/All-Pro special teamer George Odun ($2.133 million).
There clearly will be more additions in the coming days and weeks, but it’s possible few will move the needle. The Colts still have issues at left tackle (Irsay seems to favor addressing that in the April draft), edge pass rusher, cornerback and receiver (Irsay said “there’s an opportunity for us to get something done’’ with T.Y. Hilton).
Even though many of the top-tier free agents already have found a new home, Irsay insisted he won’t hesitate to invest heavily if Ballard comes to him with the request. He seems more than open to paying whatever it takes to bring in “another dynamic playmaker’’ on offense, perhaps a hybrid tight end.
The Colts also have the flexibility to do . . . something. They’re at least $37.6 million under the cap.
“No question,’’ Irsay said in a Thursday Zoom conference call. “I’m always ready to jump in there to win football games no matter what it takes. You can bet on that.
“But I think the great thing that Chris does is he walks away from deals and sometimes your best deals are the ones you don’t make. He has that sort of discipline’’
Ballard also has that sort of patience. There have been times a specific player has caught the attention of everyone in the building. No one questions the player’s talent, but the price tag might be a tad higher or inflated by other teams’ interest than Ballard’s limit.
Occasionally, the owner will ask his GM “maybe we put a sweetener in there’’ but Irsay noted Ballard usually responds, “‘No, let’s stay where we are. That’s where the deal should be.’ I really give him a lot of credit.
“Believe me . . . it’s very hard to find a guy like that who is really disciplined when you’re right at that 11th hour and trying to pull off a big trade and you want to do it and your head coach wants you to do it and (the) owner even wants to do it but you say, ‘No, let’s stay pat. We’ll be OK.’ I think that’s part of what makes him a great general manager.’’
And it’s what tests the patience of the fan base, which quite honestly never should be taken into account when building a roster.
Instead of giving into the urge and investing heavily in the free-agent market, Ballard and his staff have remained selective shoppers. They have allowed the expensive first wave to run its course, then looked for quality at a more reasonable price: Jabaal Sheard, Denico Autry, Justin Houston, Eric Ebron, Xavier Rhodes, T.J. Carrie.
You can argue with the approach, but it’s not likely to change. With Ballard calling the shots, the long term always will take precedent over short-term fixes. The Colts always budget with an eye two or three years down the road.
And they always – always – prioritize re-signing their own.
Since Ballard’s arrival in 2017, that’s meant doling out extensions for Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly, left tackle Anthony Castonzo, right guard Mark Glowinski, quarterback Jacoby Brissett, defensive tackle Grover Stewart, tight end Jack Doyle (twice), nickel corner Kenny Moore II, punter Rigoberto Sanchez, longsnapper Luke Rhodes, cornerback Pierre Desir, kicker Adam Vinatieri and defensive lineman Margus Hunt.
Retaining that group included roughly $154 million in guarantees. And that doesn’t include the four-year, $84 million ($39 million guaranteed) extension Ballard gave defensive tackle DeForest Buckner as part of the trade 12 months ago.
Whatever moves the Colts have made – or not made – thus far have been with an eye on taking care of their own. Hefty extensions loom for All-Pro linebacker Darius Leonard, right tackle Braden Smith and running back Nyheim Hines. All-World guard Quenton Nelson probably hits the lottery next summer.
Irsay insisted he’ll maintain “a level of commitment and greatness’’ with the franchise. His desire, as always, is to win multiple Lombardi trophies to sit beside the one the Peyton Manning-led group earned in Super Bowl XLI.
“That’s really important to me,’’ he said. “Guys, I really love to win. Maybe I just hate to lose too much. I’m in it to win football games and I’m going to do everything I can in my power to make that happen.
“So it’s never going to be a question of ‘Are the Colts committing enough dollars to winning football games?’ We’re always going to be out there trying to do everything we can for greatness on the field.’’
The balancing act that truly tests the fan base’s patience is blending free-agent signings with re-signing homegrown talent. The latter “problem’’ is a byproduct of hitting on several top draft picks. Being right with Leonard, Smith, Nelson, Hines and others means ponying up big second contracts.
“One of the most important things is signing your great players that are going into their second contracts,’’ Irsay said. “We did that in the era before with Reggie and Marvin and Peyton and Dallas . . . Tarik Glenn, Jeff Saturday.’’
A caveat on the Colts re-signing their own and how that impacts their approach to free agency: unlike previous regimes, Ballard prefers roster bonuses to signing bonuses. Roster bonuses increase the salary-cap hit in the first year, which obviously eats up more of the cap space. The latter allows a team to spread out the bonus over the life of the contract with a lower first-year hit, but carries the risk of dead money if the player doesn’t play out the contract.
Thus far, that approach has worked. The Colts are carrying roughly $237,000 of dead money, the second-lowest in the league. For perspective, consider some at the other end of the dead-money spectrum: Philadelphia ($39.9 million), the Los Angeles Rams ($39 million), Detroit ($41.8 million) and New Orleans ($25.5 million).
Fans and the media can argue with the approach, but it’s not likely to change.
It’s imperative, insisted Irsay, to maintain salary cap integrity “so you don’t get in a precarious situation down the road.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.