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INDIANAPOLIS — The Indianapolis Colts have received a good deal of praise, and rightfully so, for their ability to find talented playmakers through the NFL Draft in recent seasons.

But perhaps one of the more underrated parts of the scouting process is the ability to uncover the unheralded gems — the guys who don’t have the luxury of being a draft pick — and seeing them also compete for roster spots year in and year out.

The Colts, as it turns out, have been among the league’s best in this area now going on two decades.

Last year, the team decided to keep linebacker Skai Moore and safety George Odum coming out of training camp and the preseason, which represented the 20th straight season in which the Colts have had at least one undrafted rookie free agent make their initial 53-man roster.

So about this time each year it’s become a tradition to ask: will the Colts make it 21 straight years in 2019?

For an outsiders’ perspective, Bleacher Report’s Kristopher Knox last month assigned grades to all 32 teams based on their 2019 undrafted free agent haul; the Colts received a “B,” and Knox was especially intrigued by Georgia State wide receiver Penny Hart. He wrote:

“Hart is the highlight of Indianapolis’ UDFA class, and he could be a legitimate offensive weapon in year one. He has the speed to stretch the field as a fourth or fifth receiver, and he brings ability as a return specialist. He averaged 19.9 and 17.6 yards per kick and punt return, respectively, in 2018.”

We’re yet to really see Hart in a practice setting with the Colts due to the fact that he sat out rookie minicamp, OTAs and veteran minicamp with an undisclosed injury. But we’ll be sure to keep an eye out for him whenever he is able to return.

But who are the other candidates hoping to catch the coaching staff’s eye and make the Week 1 roster as undrafted rookies? Here are some capsules on the rest of the bunch, courtesy of Colts Communications:

» Ashton Dulin, wide receiver: Dulin, 6-1, 215 pounds, played in 39 career games (29 starts) at Malone University and compiled 189 receptions for 3,188 yards and 28 touchdowns. He also carried the ball 53 times for 387 yards and three touchdowns. As a returner, Dulin totaled 77 kickoff returns for 1,847 yards and three touchdowns and five punt returns for 33 yards. He finished as the program’s all-time leader in receptions, receiving yards, all-purpose yards and kickoff return touchdowns. Dulin ranked second in all-time receiving touchdowns and third in total touchdowns in Malone history. As a senior in 2018, he earned numerous awards, including Great Midwest Athletic Conference Offensive Back of the Year, G-MAC Special Teams Player of the Year, First Team All-G-MAC, Second Team All-Super Region 1 (as a return specialist) and was a nominee for the Harlon Hill Trophy (Division II College Football Player of the Year). In 2018, Dulin started all 10 games and caught 61 passes for 984 yards and 11 touchdowns. He registered 13 rushes for 120 yards and one touchdown as well as 28 kickoff returns for 836 yards and three touchdowns. Dulin ranked second among all players in Division II and led all wide receivers in NCAA football (FBS, FCS, DII or DIII) with 194.7 all-purpose yards per game. His three kickoff return touchdowns were the most in Division II. In 2017, Dulin earned First Team All-G-MAC honors after starting all 10 games and compiling 59 receptions for 1,050 yards and 10 touchdowns. He started all nine games in 2016 and caught 50 passes for 825 yards and four touchdowns. As a freshman in 2015, Dulin saw action in all 10 games and tallied 19 receptions for 329 yards and three touchdowns.
» Cole Hedlund, kicker: Hedlund, 5-9, 162 pounds, saw action in 35 games at North Texas (2018) and Arkansas (2014-17) and converted 33-of-46 field goals and 142-of-145 PATs. In 2018, he made 19-of-22 field goals and 51-of-54 PATs to rank 24th in the nation in scoring with 108 points. Hedlund was a First Team All-Conference USA selection and was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award, which annually recognizes college football’s top kicker. Prior to transferring to North Texas, he spent four seasons at Arkansas, where he converted 14-of-24 field goals and 91-of-91 PATs. As a redshirt freshman in 2015, Hedlund tied a school record for PATs made in a season (58) and was one of four SEC kickers to make all of his PATs (minimum of 50 attempts).

» Hale Hentges, tight end: Hentges, 6-4, 254 pounds, saw action in 58 games (27 starts) at Alabama and compiled 15 receptions for 124 yards and six touchdowns while playing primarily as a blocking tight end. As a senior in 2018, he played in all 15 games (nine starts) and caught four passes for 34 yards and three touchdowns while serving as one of the Crimson Tide’s four permanent team captains. Hentges was selected as the SEC Scholar Athlete of the Year by the conference’s coaches and earned CoSIDA Academic All-District honors. He was also a finalist for the Senior CLASS Award and a semifinalist for the William V. Campbell Trophy, which recognizes an individual as the absolute best in the country for his academic success, football performance and exemplary community leadership. Hentges saw action in all 14 games (13 starts) in 2017 and tallied seven receptions for 75 yards and three touchdowns. In 2016, he appeared in all 15 games (three starts) and collected three catches for 10 yards. As a freshman in 2015, Hentges saw action in 14 games (two starts) and caught one pass for five yards.

» Sterling Shippy, defensive tackle: Shippy, 5-11, 295 pounds, played in 34 games at Alcorn State (2016-18) and totaled 94 tackles (42 solo), 32.5 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks, two passes defensed, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. In 2018, he was a Second Team AFCA All-America selection after appearing in 13 games and registering 38 tackles (17 solo), 14.5 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks, one pass defensed, one fumble recovery and two forced fumbles. Shippy saw action in 11 games in 2017 and tallied 17 tackles (eight solo), 3.5 tackles for loss, half a sack and one pass defensed. In 2016, he played in 10 games and finished with 39 tackles (17 solo), 14.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.

» Shakial Taylor, cornerback: Taylor, 5-11, 175 pounds, saw action in 21 games at Kansas (2017-18) and compiled 55 tackles (46 solo), 1.0 tackle for loss, three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), eight passes defensed and one forced fumble. In 2018, he appeared in 12 games and finished with 33 tackles (28 solo), 1.0 tackle for loss, three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), five passes defensed and one forced fumble. Taylor played in nine games in 2017 and recorded 22 tackles (18 solo) and three passes defensed. He played the 2016 season at Mesa Community College, where he saw action in 11 games and collected 42 tackles, half a tackle for loss, one interception and 18 passes defensed. In 2015, Taylor played in 11 games at South Dakota State and tallied seven tackles and one pass defensed.

» Tre Thomas, linebacker: Thomas, 6-1, 221 pounds, played in 51 games (24 starts) at Colorado State (2014-18) and totaled 218 tackles (111 solo), 18.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, one interception, six passes defensed and one fumble recovery. His 51 career games tied for fourth in program history. In 2018, Thomas saw action in all 12 games (10 starts) and compiled 101 tackles (42 solo), 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, four passes defensed and one fumble recovery. He appeared in all 13 games (one start) in 2017 and registered 41 tackles (23 solo), 2.0 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one interception and two passes defensed. Thomas played in all 13 games (10 starts) in 2016 and tallied 38 tackles (22 solo), 7.0 tackles for loss and 1.0 sack. In 2015, he appeared in all 13 games (three starts) and collected 38 tackles (24 solo) and 5.0 tackles for loss. Thomas redshirted as a true freshman in 2014.

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The oldest player in the National Football League is officially returning for another season.

The Indianapolis Colts kicker have signed a one-year $3.875 million deal with 46-year-old kicker Adam Vinatieri.
This will be the Yankton, SD native’s 24th season in the NFL.

The deal was first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter on Friday.

A four-time Super Bowl champion, Vinatieri made 23 of his 27 kicks this season, but struggled in the team’s AFC Divisional Round playoff game loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, missing two kicks, including one from 23 yards out. Previously, Vinatieri had been 97-for-97 in his career on kicks of 23 yards or fewer.

Undrafted out of South Dakota State in 1996, Vinatieri spent the first decade of his career with the New England Patriots before joining the Colts in 2006. With the Pats, Vinatieri became the first ever player to decide two Super Bowls with game-winning field goals against the St. Louis Rams at Super Bowl XXXVI and again against the Carolina Panthers at Super Bowl XXXVIII.

Vinatieri is the NFL’s all-time leader in points scored (2,598) and field goals made (582) and is the only player in NFL history to score 1,000 points with two different teams.

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INDIANAPOLIS – They are saying one thing, but doing another. The Indianapolis Colts say they are trying to win this year. But what are they doing?

They are punting.

They have been punting for months now, and as any football coach will tell you, punting is the right play at times. For the Colts, this could be the right time. It is dichotomy we are hearing, not outright double-talk, when General Manager Chris Ballard says on Sunday, “You can’t take these years for granted, and we will put a team out there that will go out and try to compete to win,” and when coach Frank Reich says one day later, “Every decision that we make is a win-now decision.”

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Ballard and Reich were saying those things in direct response to questions about the team’s latest punt, a towering blast that land out of bounds: the release of defensive end John Simon on roster cut-down day Sunday. Simon was the Colts’ most effective defensive end this preseason, and arguably their best defensive player – for sure their most disruptive defender – a year ago. Simon is 27. He has not lost a step. He is in his prime right now.

But the Colts aren’t playing to win right now.

Understand, they aren’t playing to lose. They’re hoping to win this season, but they’re not planning for it, and there’s a difference. Planning to win this year would mean including John Simon on this roster, even if it means giving up on a younger player whose tomorrow looks more promising than his today. And here, I’m talking about rookie Kemoko Turay and second-year pro Tarell Basham. They also play defensive end. Today they don’t play it as well as John Simon, but tomorrow? Things could change tomorrow.

Let’s not make this all about John Simon though, OK? The media tried to do that with Ballard on Sunday, peppering him with questions about the unexpected release of the Colts’ most effective defensive player, until someone apparently crossed a line by asking Ballard if there was “any worry (about) the message it might send to the locker room.”

Ballard, who earlier had professed great affection for Simon – “I’m close with John Simon. He’s one of my favorite guys and favorite players,” he had said – ended the Simon line of questioning with this answer:

“Look,” he said, “John Simon is a great player without any question, but we didn’t just release (Dwight) Freeney or (Robert) Mathis and 14.0 sacks.”

And it’s true. Ballard is correct. Have I written that the Colts released “a Pro Bowl defensive end”? Nope. I wrote: They released their “most effective defensive end.” Which they did. And teams not hoping to win, but planning on it, they don’t release their most effective player at any position. Simon had 2½ sacks in the preseason, and not against players soon to be released, but against actual NFL offensive linemen.

But again, this topic is bigger than Simon, whose release is merely another example of the Colts’ stated intention on the 2018 season. And their intention is to punt.

Hey, good things can happen on a punt. The punt team tracks the ball, does it not? Hopes to down it inside the 5-yard line, or better still, hit the returner and force a fumble and get the ball back. Like I say, punting doesn’t mean surrender. But it does mean: punting.

It means desperately needing skill players on both sides of the ball but waiting for the third day of the three-day 2018 NFL Draft to start grabbing them, stockpiling five picks in the first two rounds – and using every damn one of them on building-block pieces closer to the line of scrimmage.

It means needing a receiver so badly that the Colts picked up an inexpensive Eagles cast-off, Marcus Johnson, on cut-down day Sunday – but never brought in former Dallas Cowboys star Dez Bryant, far and away the best available receiver, as a prospective free agent. Signing Dez would have been a significant upgrade in talent in the Colts receiving room but a risk in their locker room, and teams playing for tomorrow make the choice the Colts made.

This is not about Dez Bryant, either. It’s about every single big-money free agent available this offseason, none of whom signed with the Colts. Not any. The Colts entered the spring with $70-plus million in cap space – more than 29 of the other 31 NFL teams – and made Denico Autry, who recorded five sacks in 16 games last season in Oakland, their biggest investment at $17.8 million over three seasons.

Coincidentally, Autry plays defensive end. Guess how many sacks he had in the preseason? One-fifth as many as John Simon: 0.5.

Point is not: Simon is better than Autry. Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t – it’s close. But the point is: The Colts had so much cap space, and they have so many needs for mega-talent, but they went for pieces, for fits. Autry is a piece. Eric Ebron (two years, $15 million) is a fit at tight end.

Finding a big-money free agent to sign with Indianapolis in March, after a 4-12 season and before quarterback Andrew Luck’s return, would have meant overspending, and the Colts wouldn’t do that. Which is sensible for a team not seriously pursuing a postseason berth.

And the Colts aren’t pursuing the 2018 NFL playoffs. Not seriously. They’re thinking about next season, maybe even the year after that. Ballard has said repeatedly that he wants young players, and he wants to give those young players the chance to develop. Development takes time, and the Colts obviously think they have it.

Do they? Tough call, it really is. In the NFL you’re only as good as your quarterback, and the Colts have that position on lockdown, with Jacoby Brissett a tremendous backup and, of course, Andrew Luck a top-flight QB when healthy. Quarterbacks play longer than almost everyone else – New England’s Tom Brady is 41, New Orleans’ Drew Brees is 39, and Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers just became the highest-paid player in NFL history at 34 – so this fact isn’t everything. But it’s something:

Next week, Andrew Luck turns 29.

The Colts have a quarterback, which means they have window – and while it’s not exactly closing, the window is open right now. And the Colts are aiming less for today, more for tomorrow.

Say what you want. Say that it makes sense, what the Colts are doing, and there’s certainly an argument to be made that it does. But there’s also this argument, and it’s not an argument, really. More like a fact:

After reaching the 2014 AFC title game, when Luck was 25, the Colts’ last three mediocre-turned-disastrous seasons backed this franchise far, far away from Super Bowl contention. And by punting the 2018 season, the Colts just pinned themselves deeper.

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Two days after fill-in starter Oren Burks suffered a shoulder injury during pregame warm-ups, the Green Bay Packers traded for an inside linebacker.


Luck gives himself passing grade for preseason
While Andrew Luck wouldn’t assign a letter grade to his preseason performance, the Indianapolis Colts quarterback says he earned a passing grade. Saturday’s final preseason game included a touchdown pass to Eric Ebron.

The Packers acquired Antonio Morrison from the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for cornerback Lenzy Pipkins, the teams announced Sunday.

“Antonio is obviously an experienced linebacker,” coach Mike McCarthy said Sunday. “If you look at the youth of the group, it’s something we felt we needed to add.

“These things don’t just happen overnight. We’re very young at that position.”

Burks, a third-round pick, had moved into a starting role after Jake Ryan blew out his knee the first week of training camp. The rookie from Vanderbilt started the first two preseason games and was slated to do the same on Friday at Pittsburgh, where he was hurt before the game even started.

McCarthy indicated the Packers were looking to add linebacker depth even before Burks’ injury, which he said Sunday was “better than we anticipated” and “should not be a long-term deal.”

“It’s a position that we wanted to add experience to,” McCarthy said. “And definitely [we have] some young guys there that we feel good about.”

Third-year pro Blake Martinez, who tied for the NFL lead in tackles last season, was the only inside linebacker on the roster with any NFL experience after Ryan was placed on injured reserve.

In place of Burks, the Packers started undrafted rookie Greer Martini and also used practice-squad member Ahmad Thomas against the Steelers.

Burks said his shoulder popped out of place.

“I didn’t really think much of it,” Burks said. “Knew something was wrong, obviously, but I’ve never had any shoulder issues before, so I didn’t really know what I was feeling or any kinds of things like that. Good evaluation, good feedback from the MRI and things like that. Like I said, just taking it one day at a time, trying to get rehabbed and get back as soon as possible.”
While running back Ty Montgomery left Friday’s game with a foot injury, he said he was fine and that “I’m not injured.” However, there is concern about backup offensive lineman Kyle Murphy, who started at right tackle against the Steelers. He sustained a right ankle injury and was seen Sunday in a walking boot.

Morrison, a fourth-round pick from Florida in 2016, started all 15 games he played in last season and made four starts as a rookie. The Colts switched from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense this season, and Morrison fell to the third string.

Pipkins made the Packers’ 53-man roster last season as an undrafted free agent. He appeared in 12 games, mostly on special teams, making one start at cornerback and playing a total of 112 defensive snaps. The Packers loaded up at cornerback in the offseason, signing free agent Tramon Williams and using their first two picks on Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson.

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The pass-happy nature of college football has made finding NFL-ready interior offensive linemen more difficult. That’s what made Quenton Nelson so valuable to the Indianapolis Colts in the NFL Draft.

General Manager Chris Ballard explained Thursday his decision to rebuff trade offers and draft Nelson, a guard from Notre Dame, sixth overall.

“(That kind of player is) hard to find,” Ballard said Thursday on PFT Live, noting that colleges employ fast-tempo pass-first offenses more frequently than the NFL. “You don’t find them as ready-made in the draft as we used to.”

Ballard also heard from someone he trusts — former Notre Dame line coach Harry Hiestand — that Nelson is a cut above.

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More: Check out some of Quenton Nelson’s nastier blocks

“He’s a big man that can move,” Ballard said. “(Hiestand) had made a comment to me that (Nelson) could be the best of all of them. He’s consistently productive. He’s consistently dominant. When you see him practice, you see the same thing. That’s when you know you have the chance to have something really special.”
Ballard acknowledged the Colts got calls from teams wishing to move up to No. 6 once they were on the clock.

“We started getting a couple calls, and I just (said), ‘Turn in the pick,’” the GM said, adding that they likely turned it in before the TV networks covering the event wanted.

Ballard added that addressing the offensive line has been a focus this offseason. They have added veterans Austin Howard and Matt Slauson, and also drafted guard Braden Smith in the second round.

“This year, going in, we knew we wanted to address the offensive line,” Ballard said.

He added: “I thought (left tackle Anthony) Castonzo played one of his best seasons (in 2017).”
Indianapolis Colts first round draft pick Quenton Nelson met with the media today April 27, 2018. Clark Wade/IndyStar

What Ballard also addressed:

Defense: “We’re going to be young, especially at inside linebacker and cornerback. There’s still some areas that need to be addressed.”

The Colts drafted linebackers Darius Leonard (second round), Matthew Adams and Zaire Franklin (both seventh round).

Andrew Luck: “He’s doing everything we’re asking him to do. He’s got a program specifically laid out that puts his timeline to be back at training camp. He didn’t want to skip a step.

“I don’t know if he skipped a step last year, but he felt the pressure of coming back. … He couldn’t get back right.

“He looks the best I’ve seen him. His body looks great. His arm feels really good. He’s just taking it step by step.”

Team culture: Ballard noted that coach Frank Reich and strength coach Rusty Jones will develop players and keep them healthy because the NFL is “a battle of attrition.”

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INDIANAPOLIS – Four weeks have passed since the bad football mercifully stopped and the coaching search quickly commenced. The Indianapolis Colts fired Chuck Pagano an hour after the season finale on New Year’s Eve; three days later, in Foxboro, Mass., General Manager Chris Ballard was sitting down with his first candidate.

He’ll have to wait one more week before officially naming Josh McDaniels Pagano’s successor.

The Patriots’ offensive coordinator has a work conflict, of course. He’s in Minneapolis scheming ways to attack the Philadelphia Eagles’ defense in Super Bowl LII.

From there McDaniels will descend on Indianapolis and embark upon the second head-coaching stint of his career, the aim being to do everything he did not the first time around. For starters: win.

Here are the remaining questions McDaniels and the Colts will soon have to answer:

1. This late in the coaching cycle, can McDaniels build a capable staff?

This is absolutely vital for McDaniels, and a factor Ballard has repeatedly stressed since taking over 12 months ago. The Colts want assistants who can develop young players and turn them into regular starters. It happened far too rarely under Pagano – in recent seasons, tight end Jack Doyle and cornerback Rashaan Melvin are two notable exceptions. But the gross lack of development, especially with high draft picks, has proven especially costly. That’s what leads to overspending in free agency. That’s what leads to four-win seasons.
At the outset of his coaching search, Ballard insisted that Pagano’s successor has “got to be able to hire a first-class staff that can teach and develop players. That’s what we’re going to be about. We’re going to be about teaching and developing players, and you’ve got to live through some bumps when you do that.”

That sentiment echoes Ballard’s stance on the coming free agency period: He’s long preferred building a team through the draft. But with roughly $85 million to spend, and holes darn near everywhere on his roster, it’ll be hard for Ballard not to address some, or plenty, of this team’s needs.
Colts insider Stephen Holder on what he learned about the next likely Colts coach from the Patriots’ locker room. Stephen Holder/IndyStar

And hiring that first-class staff might prove more difficult in February, a month into the coaching cycle. Plenty of sought-after candidates have already landed their next job. (At least six Pagano assistants have taken a job with a different team, notably offensive line coach Joe Philbin, quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer, wide receivers coach Sanjay Lal and special teams guru Tom McMahon.)

Reportedly, McDaniels has tapped veteran Dallas Cowboys defensive coach Matt Eberflus as his coordinator on that side of the ball, and ex-Raiders QB coach Jake Peetz as the offensive coordinator. Neither move can be made official until McDaniels’ hiring is official. Eberflus is well-respected across the league, even reportedly turning down an offer from the Cowboys to coordinate their defense in favor of joining McDaniels’ staff in Indy. Peetz is more of a wild card.

For starters, that’s a young triumvirate: McDaniels himself is only 41, Eberflus 47, Peetz 34. By comparison, Pagano was 57 last season, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski 49, defensive coordinator Ted Monachino 51.

Maybe it matters. Maybe it doesn’t. But it’s clear McDaniels isn’t making decades of experience an overriding factor in his coaching hires.

As for Peetz, the expectation is that McDaniels will run the offense, install the concepts and call the plays. Peetz will work closely with franchise QB Andrew Luck, whom the team expects back at full strength next season.

2. With new coordinators, how much will the schemes change?

Expect the Colts to slide from the 3-4 defensive front they employed (rather unsuccessfully) throughout Chuck Pagano’s six seasons and shift back into the 4-3 base they used throughout the Tony Dungy and Jim Caldwell eras. It’s the system the Cowboys have run under coordinator Rod Marinelli since 2013, the one Eberflus is familiar with. His expertise comes at the linebacker position, and that will be vital as the Colts alter their scheme up front.

The central question in all of this: Do they have the players for it?

Possibly. Vital in the 3-4 scheme are playmakers at the second level; it really only worked for the Colts in 2013, when Robert Mathis erupted for 19.5 sacks from the edge rushing position. The Colts – armed with capable if not spectacular outside linebackers in John Simon and Jabaal Sheard – aren’t getting anywhere near that kind of production these days. And the inside linebacking position was a huge weakness throughout the 2017 campaign.

Instead, at this juncture, the real strength of this average-at-best defense arrives up front. That fits the needs for the 4-3. Space-eating linemen Johnathan Hankins and Al Woods were the hidden gems of the Colts’ unit in 2017, under-the-radar Ballard signings who revitalized what had been a porous run defense for over a decade. The thinking if the Colts’ shift to the 4-3 base: Hankins and Woods would clear some lanes for Simon and Sheard (who would likely see time at defensive end) to get to the quarterback, a far more likelihood than those two shedding blockers in one-on-one situations.

A player to watch if the Colts do indeed make the switch: second-year linebacker Tarell Basham. An up-and-down rookie season ended on a relatively positive note for Basham, who stood out in pass rushing situations as well as on special teams. Basham starred in college as a 4-3 defensive end at Ohio, and prefers playing with his hand in the dirt. The Cowboys – with Eberflus on the staff – were very interested in Basham during last year’s draft, according to a league source. A move to defensive end in a 4-3 scheme might spark an uptick in production for Basham in Year No. 2.

3. Can McDaniels win over the locker room?

Do not discount the necessity of the new coach earning the respect of his players, particularly in this scenario. Publicly, there’s nothing Ballard emphasizes more often than the need for a strong locker room. There’s no strong locker room without a strong head coach. McDaniels knows this. He knows how rocky his tenure as the Broncos’ head coach unfolded. And he knows how Bill Belichick does it in New England.

Josh McDaniels
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Jan 13, 2018; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels on the sideline against the Tennessee Titans in the AFC Divisional playoff game at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports David Butler II, David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
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Josh McDaniels
Make no mistake: That Ballard, a second-year general manager, is handing his team over to McDaniels is a gamble. Outside of the optimal coaching incubator that is Foxboro, McDaniels hasn’t done a whole lot in this league.

In Indianapolis, he’ll have to first win Andrew Luck’s trust. But it won’t end there. Defensive veterans like Sheard – whom McDaniels worked with in New England – Simon, Hankins, Woods are next on the list. Earn their belief and the rest will follow.

“You can’t buy a locker room,” Ballard likes to say.

It’s clear McDaniels has his work cut out for him.

First up: the Eagles’ defense, and potentially McDaniels’ sixth Super Bowl ring with the Patriots.

Then he’s got a program to build in Indianapolis.

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Jimmy and Dee Haslam marched into unique NFL territory when they established the latest Browns World Order in January 2016.

That’s when the Haslams turned the football operations over to Sashi Brown — a bright, young, personable lawyer whose background had never been in personnel. In establishing the structure that would give Brown final say over the 53-man roster, Haslam was telling the next coach he would fit in the structure that also would include Paul DePodesta, who also was hired in January 2016 and whose most extensive work background had been in baseball.

When Haslam hired Hue Jackson, he got the coach he targeted and the hot assistant on the market, but he also brought in a coach who was steeped in the traditional style and mores of football.

The Browns set out on a maiden voyage with a traditional coach working with a front office that would rely more heavily than it ever had on non-traditional statistical analysis, or analytics. In time, Jackson would learn that Brown had final say over not just the roster, but all personnel decisions — including draft picks.

Not even two years later, that structure is staring at a 1-24 record and a roster lacking in many key areas, but with five picks in the first two rounds of the 2018 draft. Jackson desperately seeks a win, while Brown continues to stand by the long-term approach that Haslam said would be a “multiyear rebuild.”

It was no secret when Brown was hired that the Browns would delve deeper into the analytics side of player evaluation. Vic Carucci, who worked in the team’s front office before rejoining the Buffalo News to cover the Bills for the 2015 season, immediately tweeted that Brown was heavy on analytics. Those who knew Brown concurred.

The question raised to Jimmy Haslam the night he announced the hiring was blunt: How could the Browns trust personnel judgment to someone whose background was not in personnel?

Haslam believed Brown could do it, pointing to Brown’s smarts and experience in different areas of the front office as a salary-cap expert and as legal counsel.

“He’s very smart, very organized, good at systems and processes and an outstanding team player. He’s also very strategic,” Haslam said on Jan. 3, 2016.

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Brown was one of former CEO Joe Banner’s hires — as the team’s general counsel. His responsibilities prior to 2016 included negotiating a $125 million renovation of FirstEnergy Stadium with the city of Cleveland, dealing with corporate partnership arrangements and working on Joe Haden’s 2014 contract extension. Brown arrived well-respected in Cleveland from his work with the Jacksonville Jaguars for eight years.

When the regime of former coach Mike Pettine and former GM Ray Farmer went south with a 3-13 record in 2015 and 3-18 finish going back to 2014, Brown stepped into the void.

The hiring of DePodesta as chief strategy officer was questioned by traditionalists but hailed by others who saw the move as groundbreaking and unique. DePodesta’s background in baseball was heavy in analytics. He was key to the “Moneyball” approach instituted in Oakland by Billy Beane, and portrayed by Jonah Hill in the movie. DePodesta’s approach stemmed from sabermetrics, a study of statistical records and performance begun by the legendary Bill James.

Some NFL teams had adopted the use of some form of analytics prior to 2016, but Haslam was not only willing to make it more a part of the team’s approach, he was clearly going to rely on it more than any team had before.

For the Browns, this would either be cutting edge, or the team would be cutting the edge off the cliff on which it had resided while enduring losing season after losing season.

Brown has said the team has not discarded traditional scouting, but is merely using an additional tool in analytics to help judge and find players. A scan of the team’s front-office personnel shows significant hires with analytics backgrounds, beginning with DePodesta.

Haslam explained DePodesta’s hiring this way: “His approach and ambition to find the best pathways for organizational success transcend one specific sport and his experience as a high-level sports executive make him a terrific addition.”

DePodesta’s role with the Browns was portrayed as one that would study the entire organization’s processes to determine if there were a better way to do anything. One of his guiding principles came from his time as a White House intern while in college: If we weren’t already doing it this way, do you think this is the way we would do it? Baseball people spoke highly of him, saying he was bright, involved, a good communicator and a good listener, and that his transition to football would not meet many hurdles.

He has largely worked behind the scenes since his hiring, but he has become involved in personnel. He said he would take an active role in evaluating quarterbacks, and his quote to ESPN Cleveland that the team did not consider Carson Wentz to be worthy of the second overall pick becomes more impactful with every game Wentz wins.

Ken Kovash is vice president of pro personnel. His background is entirely in analytics and numbers, and his title matches that of Andrew Berry, whose background is in scouting. Kovash and Berry are two of the few front office members in the draft room with Jackson, Brown and Jimmy and Dee Haslam when players are selected.

Director of scouting Mike Cetta first worked for Stats LLC and came to the Browns as an analytics intern.

Kevin Meers is a 2014 Harvard graduate who worked as a research intern for the Cowboys and Browns while he was in college; he is the team’s director of research and strategy.

Andrew Healy was hired from the analytics group Football Outsiders to be the team’s senior strategist of player personnel.

Dave Giuliani and Aditya Krishnan are football research analysts who work on analytics projects.

The more traditional football side includes director of player personnel Chisom Opara, director of college scouting Bobby Vega and director of pro scouting Dan Saganey. All have backgrounds in scouting or coaching. Senior personnel executive Ryan Grigson is the Colts’ former general manager.

They work along with 10 scouts, one scouting coordinator, two college scouting assistants and nine other scouting assistants. How heavily analytics weighs into decisions is tough to gauge in every instance; the same system that led to drafting Cody Kessler in the third round also led to drafting talented defensive lineman Emmanuel Ogbah in the second.

But with certain players it’s not hard to see the influence analytics had on their arrival in Cleveland.

The signing of receiver Kenny Britt as a free agent to replace Terrelle Pryor shocked many in the NFL. Britt had his first 1,000-yard campaign in his eighth season when he had 1,002 yards a year ago. He is not a locker room leader, and he has had issues with previous teams. A small amount of institutional knowledge might have raised some red flags about giving Britt a rich and long-term contract, especially for a young team where veteran leadership is so important.
An over-reliance on analytics in player evaluation may have led to the hefty contract the Browns gave to free agent Kenny Britt. Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire
The Browns gave Britt a four-year deal worth $32.5 million, with $17 million guaranteed.

The most positive reviews on the decision outside of the Browns’ front office came from analytics websites. NumberFire.com said it was a “smarter move than you think” based on statistics like net expected points.

But traditional football folks said simply that Britt did not pass the eye test and was not worth the contract.

Several people familiar with the decision said that the assistant coaches — veteran receivers coach Al Saunders among them — did not know of Britt’s signing until it was announced. Had the coaches known they would have expressed their concerns.

Brown was asked at a Nov. 6 news conference if he consulted the coaching staff before signing Britt. His answer: “I’m not going to go back through all of our evaluation process. We have good processes internally.”

He then explained the decision.

“The reality of free agency is when you are a wide receiver that is a starting wide receiver in this league and you hit free agency, you are going to get paid,” Brown said.

Another choice who fits the analytics profile: QB Cody Kessler. He checked many analytics boxes. At USC, he was accurate, did not turn the ball over and stayed healthy.

But a traditional football coach would have looked at Kessler’s arm strength and size (listed at 6-foot-1) and raised red flags. There are exceptions, but most successful NFL quarterbacks are tall and strong-armed. Jackson himself said at a recent scouting combine that he believes a quarterback should ideally be at least 6-2. Kessler was generally rated as a sixth- or seventh-round prospect. The Browns took him in the third round. Jackson was left to explain it, and made his now famous “trust me on this one” statement as he overreached in defending a move he clearly didn’t make.

A trade that brought Brock Osweiler’s $16 million salary obligation to the Browns along with a second-round draft pick was hailed by analytics people as a smart way to use salary-cap space to obtain a high draft pick. Brown recently referred to creative trades, no doubt thinking of this one. The coaching staff had so few options at quarterback that they had to give Osweiler a long look, then decided after two quarters of preseason football that he could not play.

The decision to release cornerback Joe Haden also seemed to come down to analytics. Haden was highly paid ($11.1 million salary in 2017), but the front office saw him as the team’s third-best corner. Given that, it did not feel Haden was worth the money and released him — even though the team still has a need at the position and had the salary-cap space to keep him.

The Browns are not the only team using analytics. The Eagles, the team that acquired Wentz, have an analytics department run by Alec Halaby, the vice president of football operations and strategy. Credit for the Wentz trade, though, goes to owner Jeffrey Lurie and GM Howie Roseman.

New Orleans hired Ryan Herman, its first analytics guy, this year. In Jacksonville, Tony Khan, the owner’s son, is the senior vice president of football administration and technology. He created the team’s analytics department in 2012. But in the offseason, the Jaguars hired two crusty football guys in executive vice president of football operations Tom Coughlin and coach Doug Marrone.

In San Francisco, John Lynch and vice president of player personnel Adam Peters run the football side, and Paraag Marathe is the chief strategy officer and executive vice president of football operations. Denver’s director of football analytics is Mitch Tanney, but he’s one voice of many assisting John Elway.

Banner introduced analytics to the Browns when he was the team’s CEO. He believed in it, but he used it to supplement traditional scouting, not to override it. For example, Banner cited several analytics studies that showed arm length had nothing to do with a pass-rusher’s success, but he had trouble convincing coaches to buy into that. He also saw analytics studies that showed the perfect combination of player types to produce the best pass rush.

Under Banner, the scouting of college quarterbacks involved several key front-office personnel types sitting together every Friday and studying film of the top options. The final judgment before the 2014 draft favored Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr. But Banner was fired three months before the draft, and the Browns drafted Johnny Manziel with both Bridgewater and Carr still on the board.
The Browns have stockpiled draft picks in trades but keep missing out on elite QB prospects like Deshaun Watson. Gary Landers/AP Photo
The influence of analytics has been evident in the Browns’ decisions to trade down in the draft, which also meshed with Brown’s long-term philosophy of building a young team via the draft that could grow under a culture established by Jackson.

Those factors favored a trade out of the No. 2 overall pick in 2016 to restock a needy roster with more draft picks. The Browns traded the pick to the Eagles, who took Wentz, who is now playing at an MVP level. Analytics also favored trading out of the No. 12 pick in 2017 — dealt to the Texans, who selected QB Deshaun Watson — for more picks to continue stocking the roster.

Jackson has steadfastly refused to look back and comment on draft decisions. But it’s common knowledge that Jackson liked Jared Goff (who went one pick ahead of Wentz) in the 2016 draft.

It makes sense that a traditional football coach would favor taking a big, strong-armed quarterback. The same would seem to hold true for Wentz. As one assistant coach in the league said when the Browns passed on Wentz: “They had to take the shot.”

The Browns took Kessler.

In the 2017 draft, Jackson had to fight hard to ensure that defensive end Myles Garrett was the first overall pick instead of quarterback Mitch Trubisky. The coaches saw Garrett as an easy decision, a guy who had elite talent compared to the question marks of the available quarterbacks. The front office saw the discussion as part of the normal process, with the right result.

With the Browns’ second pick in the first round, Jackson hoped for quarterbacks Patrick Mahomes or Watson, or safety Malik Hooker. When the pick arrived, Watson and Hooker were still on the board. The Browns again traded for more picks and took DeShone Kizer in the second round.

“I don’t think just trading down was the problem,” Brown said. “I think it is just purely evaluating.”

The problem is that failing at either can set a team back.

As time has gone on and the Browns have not won, the feeling that there is a disconnect between the front office and coaching staff has grown. A cursory glance at the experience of each group adds to that belief.

Jackson is a football guy. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and Saunders are longtime football guys. The coaching staff is made up of folks like this, though Williams’ son Blake, the linebackers coach, spent last year working in the analytics department of the NFL and Gregg Williams has said it’s up to him to learn if analytics can help him.

DePodesta has significant input, but he largely works from his home in La Jolla, California. Coaches see him on game days and perhaps one other day per week, which supports a viewpoint that he’s not around enough to make significant decisions.

The skepticism toward analytics comes in part because football is not like baseball, where the ability to decipher a player’s ability to hit a low-and-away curveball can be determined from thousands of at-bats and swings. There are many more variables in football, including within single plays where blocking and route options can change based on the defense.

Jackson fights for what he wants, but the notion that a coach without depth at cornerback would sign off on the release of Haden doesn’t make sense. Nor does the trade of Demario Davis, penciled in to be the team’s starting middle linebacker and now playing well for the Jets. Nor does the release of QB Josh McCown, who could have been invaluable in helping Kizer. Nor does the release of linebacker Karlos Dansby. Nor does the signing of Britt, or the non-signing of four now-former Browns two months after Jackson was hired.

The team’s decision not to retain safety Tashaun Gipson, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, receiver Travis Benjamin and center Alex Mack caused a flurry of criticism, in part because it followed the decisions of the previous regime not to keep players such as defensive end Jabaal Sheard or cornerback Buster Skrine. It also left the Browns needing to use the extra draft picks they’d stockpiled to replace the players who had departed.

Only Mack was intent on leaving Cleveland. The Browns had the cap room and wherewithal to keep all the others. The team tried to sign Gipson in 2014, but Gipson said the 2015 effort was to tell him “good luck.” Offers were exchanged with Schwartz. The bottom line: The team and players did not come to agreements to keep them off the free-agent market.

The front office had decided to rely on youth and emphasize the draft, and departed free agents brought compensatory draft picks. The team also would say that other players it released were past their prime, and as examples point to defensive lineman Desmond Bryant, safety Donte Whitner and receiver Brian Hartline — none of whom caught on with other teams.

And the front office would say that it used the connections of Williams and Jackson in decisions to sign other players. Jason McCourty played for Williams in Tennessee. Guard Kevin Zeitler was with Jackson in Cincinnati.

Losing, though, magnifies the mistakes and exacerbates tensions and differences, perceived or real. A 12-4 team may have arguments, but losing makes sores fester. After the loss to the Vikings in London, Jackson said the team had to play a perfect game to win, a revealing statement on the roster.

Nobody who has watched the team would argue that Jackson was wrong.

“At the end of the day, guys,” Brown said, “it is my responsibility to deliver a roster here that is talented enough to win week in, week out. And we haven’t done that yet.”

The failure two days after the return from London to get the paperwork in to complete the trade for quarterback AJ McCarron brought ridicule. Reports have circulated that the coaching staff is preparing to be fired.

Brown did not hide from the fact that losing can foment discontent. He pointed out it has been the Browns’ standard mode of operations in the past few years. Rebuilds lead to struggle, which leads to churning emotions, which lead to finger-pointing — and abandonment of continuity during the build for yet more change. Brown said it would be up to everyone in the facility to ensure disagreement does not cause irreparable division.

Jackson has insisted his relationship with Haslam is strong and the support remains. Brown said he doesn’t think in terms of being fired. But Haslam has shown zero hesitancy to make changes in his short tenure.
The bigger issue for the Browns isn’t how many people to fire, it’s how to proceed. A complete overhaul and housecleaning that leaves the same system in place won’t change how players are selected, or what players wind up on the roster.

Another restart would mean Haslam would be wiping out one of his fervent promises: That he’d be patient and would emphasize continuity with his handpicked choice to run football operations and a coach he pursued with vigor. Another restart would bring pain and talk of growth and all the other words fans are sick of hearing, especially “process.”

The process in place, though, has not worked in the first two years. Promises for the future may be borne out in the long run and the team may be able to build a roster that can sustain winning. But future promises do not erase 1-24 — or the stain that goes with it.