The Chicago Bears will meet with Chris Ballard, director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs, on Wednesday. Ballard is considered the top candidate for Chicago’s open general manager position and today turned down an interview request from the New York Jets.
If the meeting this week goes well, Ballard may soon be announced as the team’s next GM.
Ballard is considered one of the better scouts in the NFL and is widely regarded as a people person, one that meshes well with folks of all different types of personalities and backgrounds. One NFL source called Ballard one of the best scouts in the league, which is high praise.
Yet to gauge Ballard’s potential as a general manager, one must sift through the verbal accolades to find proof of his competence. The Bears have trailed the Green Bay Packers for nearly two decades in talent evaluation and acquisition, so the Chicago’s next GM must have a keen eye in scouting, particularly in the NFL draft.
Ballard began his NFL career as a scout for the Bears in 2001, covering the Southwest region until 2011, with a focus on Oklahoma, Louisiana and Dallas.
In 2001, the first of many picks from Ballard’s scouting area was fifth-round offensive tackle Bernard Robertson from Tulane. In 2002, Robertson started five games for the Bears yet je was cut at the end of the season. Robertson’s three-year NFL career ended after the Bills waived him the following year.
In 2002, Chicago drafted S Bobby Gray out of Louisiana Tech. In four years with the Bears, Gray started 13 contests, amassing 88 total tackles and one interception. Gray retired in 2005.
Ballard’s pride selection came in 2003, when the Bears took CB Charles Tillman in the second round. Tillman spent 12 years in Chicago, earning two Pro Bowl trips along the way. He’ll go down as the greatest cornerback to ever play in the Windy City.
In 2004, Ballard scouted Chicago’s first-round selection, Oklahoma defensive tackle Tommie Harris. In eight NFL seasons, Harris was named to three Pro Bowls and he was the engine of the Bears’ 2006 Super Bowl defense.
Also in 2004, Chicago selected CB Nathan Vasher in the fourth round. The following year, Vasher led the NFL with eight interceptions, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.
Bradley was a bust, catching just 38 passes in four seasons with the Bears. Benson’s career is looked upon negatively but when he was healthy, the powerful running back carried Chicago’s offense. Had Benson not been hurt in the first quarter of Super Bowl XLI, the outcome may have been much different.
Harris was an outstanding selection. He played eight years in the NFL, four in Chicago, where he earned a second-team All-Pro selection in 2010. Harris now serves as safeties coach for the Bears.
In 2006, Chicago took S Danieal Manning in the second round and DT Dusty Dvoracek in the third. Manning played five strong years for the Bears, starting 56 games. He was named first-team All-Pro in 2008.
Dvoracek was a bust. He missed two full seasons due to injury and was knocked out of a third campaign after just one game.
In 2007, the only Ballard pick was fifth-round safety Kevin Payne from Louisiana Monroe. Payne started one full season for the Bears, during which he had four interceptions, but his career lasted just three years.
In 2008, Chicago hit pay dirt on another Ballard player, Tulane RB Matt Forte, who will go down as the second greatest running back in franchise history.
The Bears also used a fourth-round pick in 2008 on safety Craig Steltz, who was a special-teams stalwart for six years.
In 2009, the club used a third-round pick on WR Juaquin Iglesias from Oklahoma, and a fourth rounder on DT Henry Melton from Texas. Iglesias was a bust and didn’t catch a single pass in his two-year career.
Melton, on the other hand, has developed into one of the best pass-rushing defensive tackles in the league and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl in 2012.
In 2010 and 2011, the Bears had limited picks due to the Jay Cutler trade and no players from Ballard’s area were selected in either draft.
Yet Ballard also played a big role in the substantial signings of QB Jason Campbell and RB Michael Bush, neither of whom played up to his contract. The Bears that offseason also acquired QB Josh McCown, CB Kelvin Hayden and WR Eric Weems, amongst others, while re-signing Steltz, TE Kellen Davis and CB Tim Jennings.
Jennings repaid the team by earning Pro Bowl trips the next two years in a row.
As director of player personnel in Kansas City, the Chiefs’ first draft pick with Ballard on board was Eric Fisher, the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft. Fisher has been a colossal bust his first two years in the NFL, allowing 14 total sacks at left tackle, per Pro Football Focus.
So what does it all mean in terms of Ballard’s potential as the Bears’ next general manager?
First and foremost, he’s had many more hits than misses, particularly as a scout. He obviously has a good eye for evaluating talent in the draft, which is key for any NFL GM. Yet his veteran personnel moves leave a lot to be desired, which raises concerns about his capacity to supplement the roster through free agency. The last thing the Bears need is more free-agent signings like Bush, Campbell and Jared Allen.
Yet if the Bears are going to commit to building through the draft, as it has been done in Green Bay the past 20 years, Ballard appears to be the guy for the job.
In addition, his job history is unique in comparison to most NFL executives. Ballard began his career as a coach, spending seven years at Texas A&M Kingsville, working as a wide receiver and secondary coach, and then as defensive coordinator. That type of on-field experience is one of the many reasons Ballard is so highly regarded in league circles.
Finally, Ballard understands Chicago Bears tradition, having worked for the organization for more than a decade.
Phil Emery showed up and fired the head coach of nine seasons after a 10-6 campaign, then unceremoniously kicked Brian Urlacher to the curb. That absolutely destroyed the locker room, which is why we saw a 5-11 team with no heart this year.
Ballard’s history with the organization almost assures he won’t come in and immediately piss off the entire team.
Ballard may not be the perfect candidate but for all the reasons mentioned above, he looks like the right executive to lead the Bears into the next era.
Jeremy Stoltz is Publisher of BearReport.com and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. He is in his fourth season covering the Chicago Bears full time. Follow Bear Report on Twitter.