Chris Ballard has spent two years constructing a team that is in the AFC playoffs’ divisional round Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs (4:35 p.m., NBC). The Colts were 4-12 in his first season as general manager and started 1-5 this season. Indianapolis has won 10 of its past 11 games, including last weekend’s wild-card round victory over the Houston Texans.
Here’s what Colts fans should know about Ballard:
Ballard played quarterback in high school in Southeast Texas, but his only Division I shot came at Wisconsin, and he soon realized his only chance to get on the field was at receiver. The Badgers were struggling in the late 1980s under then-coach Barry Alvarez, and legend has it Ballard once tried to fight fans who were ridiculing the team.
“I can’t vouch for this story, but legend has it they had to escort Chris from the bleachers because he was wanting to fight everybody,” remembered Jay Norvell, Ballard’s position coach at Wisconsin.
Injuries shortened Ballard’s playing career, but he served as a student assistant as a senior.
Ballard spent seven years on the coaching staff at Texas A&M-Kingsville, a Division II program. He worked with receivers and defensive backs before becoming the defensive coordinator. Ballard worked with three future NFL players and Al Harris, the Kansas City Chiefs’ current secondary coach.
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Ballard broke into the NFL as a Chicago Bears scout in 2001. He primarily covered the Southwest and played a role in Bears teams that won four division titles and earned a Super Bowl XLI appearance (which they lost to the Colts).
“It just fit me,” Ballard has said. “I liked being on the road. I liked evaluating, really digging into who a player was as a person, figuring out how he was gonna fit.”
Chicago obtained these key players during that time: running back Matt Forte, cornerbacks Charles Tillman and Nathan Vasher, defensive lineman Tommie Harris, receiver Brandon Marshall and tight end Martellus Bennett.
In 2012, Ballard was promoted to Chicago’s director of pro scouting.
He spent four seasons in Kansas City starting in 2013, the fist two as director of player personnel and the next two as director of football operations. He assisted general manager John Dorsey.
The Chiefs finished 2-14 in 2012, and Ballard was part of a roster overhaul that saw them improve to 11-5 and earn a wild-card playoff spot the following season. Kansas City acquired these Pro Bowl performers between 2013-16: linebacker D.J. Alexander, receiver Tyreek Hill, tight end Travis Kelce and cornerback Marcus Peters. The Chiefs also obtained free agent quarterback Alex Smith in 2013.
Ballard’s first coaching search was strange, to say the least. He chose New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and the team announced an introductory news conference. McDaniels abruptly withdrew from the spot, leaving the Colts scrambling. Ballard restarted the process and hired Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich.
One week before the start of the 2017 season, Ballard traded receiver Phillip Dorsett, a first-round pick entering his third season, to the New England Patriots for quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Brissett’s experience had been limited to three games during Tom Brady’s four-game suspension in 2016. Brissett played in the Colts season opener and started the rest of the season.
Ballard also stuck with undrafted free agent Rigoberto Sanchez over veteran free-agent signing Jeff Locke at punter.
The GM traded the third overall pick in the 2018 draft to the New York Jets for the No. 6 pick and a couple of second-rounders. Ballard drafted guard Quenton Nelson at No. 6, and he is an All-Pro as a rookie. That deal also included the pick that yielded right tackle Braden Smith.
On the eve of this season, Ballard cut veteran linebacker John Simon, a top defensive holdover from the 2017 season. Ballard decided he would go with Anthony Walker, a second-year player who was injured much of his rookie season, and second-round draft pick Darius Leonard, who led the NFL in tackles and is an All-Pro.
The Colts are likely to have nine picks in the seven-round 2019 NFL Draft. Each Colts pick is in the bottom eight of each round. As a result of the Jets trade, they own another second-round pick, which is 34th overall. The Colts are expected to receive a fourth-round compensatory pick after losing receiver Donte Moncrief.
If Ballard wants to spend in free agency, he has more maneuverability than anyone in the league (more than $123 million, according to overthecap.com).
This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: NFL playoffs 2019: What Colts fans should know about Chris Ballard