Le'Veon Bell, Antonio Brown fit Colts on field, but not off it

INDIANAPOLIS -- Follow along.

The Indianapolis Colts have the NFL's highest salary-cap space and have a need for a receiver. One of the NFL's top receivers personally tweeted Tuesday that he would like to be traded from the Pittsburgh Steelers. There's also the running back who didn't play a snap in 2018 because he was upset with those same Steelers about his contract situation.

Are you still following along?

The Colts will have nearly $120 million in cap space during free agency next month. Steelers receiver Antonio Brown wants out of Pittsburgh and running back Le'Veon Bell is expected to be wearing a different uniform next season.

It's human nature for fans to be yearning for players like Brown and Bell. Talent-wise, there's no question Brown and Bell would make the Colts a better team. Brown led the NFL in touchdown receptions with 15 last season and has six straight seasons of at least 1,200 yards receiving. Bell, who turns 27 on Feb. 18, has rushed for at least 1,200 yards in the past two seasons he's played.

But talent alone isn't what Colts general manager Chris Ballard looks at when it comes to assembling the roster. There's talent on all 32 NFL teams. That's why these players are in the league. However, character carries a lot of weight with Ballard and throughout the organization. The chemistry inside the locker room was one of the Colts' biggest strengths last season, and the last thing they want to do is disrupt it by taking a risk on a player.

The 31-year-old Brown's reputation took a hit when he reportedly skipped practices in the days leading up to Pittsburgh's Week 17 game. He also reportedly had issues with teammates.

Neither of those things would fly inside Indy's locker room.

Bell will likely come at a high price -- if the Steelers don't use the transition tag on him -- after he skipped last season by not signing his $14.5 million franchise tender. The Colts are also high on their young running backs -- Marlon Mack, Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins -- who are all still on their rookie contracts.

Ballard is not against signing free agents or making a trade, but the player has to meet high standards in those situations.

"We will explore every avenue," he said. "If we think from a free agent standpoint that we are going to go get one of the high-priced [players] -- we have a very strict criteria that he's going to have to fit. He's going to have to fit in the locker room. He's going to have to earn the high salary that he's making -- not only with his play, but with his impact and his presence within the locker room."

That approach is something Ballard learned while moving up the front-office ranks in Chicago and Kansas City, and it's one he will continue to preach as long as he's the general manager of the Colts.

He could have made a knee-jerk move following a 4-12 season in 2017 by acquiring a lot of players -- no matter the player's character or off-field baggage -- to try to fix a flawed roster. He instead remained patient, focused on the big picture and didn't deviate from his long-term vision. He stockpiled draft picks and signed free agents like tight end Eric Ebron and defensive lineman Denico Autry who fit the mold of what they want to establish in Indianapolis.

"Just because it might not be who the media is writing about and who the fans are talking about, that doesn't mean that guy isn't a really good player," Ballard said. "One thing I can't [stress] highly enough is our veteran leadership ... Tremendous, tremendous veteran leadership. I mean just tremendous, unselfish, understood the work ethic and what we wanted."

Talent helped the Colts overcome their 1-5 start last season to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2014. But it was leadership inside the locker room and a strong coaching staff that helped keep everybody together when some teams might have crumbled after winning only one game through the first six weeks of the season. The Colts won nine of their final 10 to finish 10-6, won their first playoff game (in Houston) and saw their season end in Kansas City the following week.

As the clock ticks toward the start of free agency on March 13, the Colts, led by quarterback Andrew Luck and a good, young nucleus, will likely be an attractive destination with their ample cap space. Just know that Ballard and his staff will look deeper than talent alone before committing that type of money to a player.

There's a max value on each player and there won't be any impulse shopping done by Ballard, because he doesn't want a quick decision made in March to hurt them next season or down the road as they continue to build the franchise.

"We will stay the course," he said. "In every other spot I have been in we have participated in free agency, too. I just think it's got to be the right fit. A lot of circumstances, first the player, we've got to want each other, that's part of it. He's got to want to be here and then we've got to be willing to pay the amount he wants and then he's got to fit the locker room. I think just because you have all this space, just look at the roster and look at the contracts that are going to be coming up over the next two- to three-year period and you are going to see -- eventually what you would like to happen is you are paying your own guys."