Night net null Andrew Luck signed his $140 million contract extension with $87 million guaranteed in June of 2016. That same year, the Colts quarterback’
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Colts' impressive revival has GM Chris Ballard's fingerprints all over it


Colts' impressive revival has GM Chris Ballard's fingerprints all over it

Night net null Andrew Luck signed his $140 million contract extension with $87 million guaranteed in June of 2016. That same year, the Colts quarterback’s shoulder issues intensified to the point where he had offseason surgery and missed the entire 2017 season.When general manager Chris Ballard was hired in January of 2017, his top priority was to vastly improve the offensive line so his franchise QB would have the best chance to stay healthy and return Indianapolis to prominence. Things started rocky for Ballard with a 4-12 record last season. But with Luck's return to top form behind one of the league's best offensive lines, we can now say it.Mission accomplished. STEELE: Why Colts' turnaround looks familiarBallard knew that, in order for the Colts to be successful, Luck was the key, and protecting him was paramount. He was sacked 41 times in 2016, second most in the league, and things got worse for Luck's replacements last season with a league-high 56 sacks allowed.The Colts already had first-round picks from previous years in tackle Anthony Castonzo and center Ryan Kelly who were drafted by Ballard's predecessors, Bill Polian and Ryan Grigson, respectively. The new GM added solid guard Mark Glowinski off waivers in 2017, and then it was all about the O-line at the top of the draft this year. Guard Quenton Nelson was picked sixth overall, and tackle Braden Smith was taken in the second round. Both rookies are starting and playing well, and Nelson, now a Pro Bowler, is quieting the critics who wanted a player at more of an impact position when selecting so high.Well, Luck is certainly not complaining.With this talent infusion, Indianapolis' offensive line has turned into one of the league's top units. It has thrived even after the season-ending injury to veteran guard Matt Slauson, who was a free-agent signing by Ballard last March.With pass-blocking help from tight ends Eric Ebron, Ryan Hewitt, Mo Alie-Cox and Jack Doyle (now on injured reserve), the Colts have given up just 16 sacks this season, tied with the Saints for fewest in the league.WEEK 16 PLAYOFF PICTURE:Clinching scenarios | Analysis of seedingThe line and tight ends also have opened more holes in the running game. Two fourth-round picks of Ballard at running back — Marlon Mack last year and rookie Nyheim Hines — have been productive. Mack is coming off a 139-yard rushing day with two touchdowns in Sunday's shutout win over the Cowboys. He now has 755 rushing yards on the season, and Hines has run for 308 yards and caught 56 passes for 359 yards.Luck only had to throw for 192 yards against Dallas, but he's still the main man for Indy, as demonstrated by his eight straight games with at least three touchdown passes earlier this season. In new coach Frank Reich's offense, Luck ranks seventh in passing yards (3,951), 10th in QB rating with a career-high 98.4, and his 34 TD passes are second to Patrick Mahomes. The three-time Pro Bowler should have made it this year (the reputation of Tom Brady won out), but he and J.J. Watt will battle for Comeback Player of the Year.Along with the line help, the free-agent signing of Ebron has turned into a terrific move by Ballard in adding another weapon for Luck. Ebron was just selected to his first Pro Bowl on the strength of 59 catches for 662 yards and 12 touchdowns. (Getty Im

ages) Eric Ebron and Andrew Luck (Getty Images)The Dallas shutout shifted attention to a much-improved Colts defense that also has Ballard's fingerprints all over it, starting with rookie linebacker Darius Leonard. Ballard and his scouting department identified Leonard out of South Carolina State and picked him in the second round, and what a find he has been.Talk about a stat line — Leonard leads the Night net with 146 tackles. He has seven sacks, four forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception. Yet he was just snubbed for the Pro Bowl.Denico Autry, who has nine sacks to lead the team, was a Ballard free-agent signee, as was veteran defensive end Jabaal Sheard (55 tackles, 5.5 sacks). Linebacker Anthony Walker (103 tackles) was a 2017 fifth-rounder. Ballard also has restocked the secondary with 2017 first-round safety Malik Hooker, plus waiver claims in starting corners Kenny Moore and Pierre Desir.The Colts' defense under first-time Night net coordinator Matt Eberflus has improved from No. 30 to No. 10. Sacks are way up, from 25 last year to 38 this year with two games left, and turnovers have increased.Ballard still has some work to do with the roster, particularly at wide receiver. T.Y. Hilton is having another excellent season with 67 catches for 1,071 yards and six TDs, but the Colts could use another impact receiver.In analyzing Ballard's work, though, let's also remember how Josh McDaniels spurned the Colts in their search for a head coach. Ballard and team owner Jim Irsay then hired Reich in what has turned out to be a great move, as Reich is now a Coach of the Year candidate.Speaking of year-end awards, there are lots of excellent Night net Executive of the Year candidates, but if the Colts make it to postseason, Ballard deserves to be in the conversation.WEEK 16 PICKS: Against spread | Straight upOverall, it's been an amazing rebound from an awful 2017 and a 1-5 start this season. The Colts have won seven of their last eight, including a huge win in Houston that halted the Texans' 10 game win streak and then the whipping of the Cowboys to reach 8-6.A Colts victory over the Giants this week, coupled with a Chargers win over the Ravens, would send Indianapolis to Nashville next week needing to beat the Titans to earn a wild card. Luck's career record vs. Tennessee is 10-0. And the Colts could still win the division with two wins and two Texans losses.All of which is music to the ears of Ballard, who has orchestrated quite the turnaround in Indy.Jeff Diamond is a former president of the Titans and former vice president/general manager of the Vikings. He was selected Night net Executive of the Year in 1998. Diamond is currently a business and sports consultant who also does broadcast and online media work. He makes speaking appearances to corporate/civic groups and college classes on negotiation and sports business/sports management. He is the former chairman and CEO of The Ingram Group. Follow Jeff on Twitter: @jeffdiamondNight net.

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