Assessing the Colts during the offseason: Offensive line

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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - AUGUST 07: Offensive tackle Jack Mewhort #75 of the Indianapolis Colts against the New York Jets during a preseason game at MetLife Stadium on August 7, 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – By any standard, the Indianapolis Colts weren’t good enough in 2016.

The only bottom line that matters: finishing 8-8 (again) and missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1997-98.

“We understand that 8-8 in not good enough and that’s on me,’’ coach Chuck Pagano said. “This is a winning culture, it is a winning organization and we didn’t achieve the goal and we all know that.’’

It’s going to take significant personnel changes during the offseason if the Colts are going to return to relevancy. That includes prudent investments in veteran free agency, which begins March 9, and further bolstering a flawed roster through the April 27-29 draft.

Before we consider outside solutions, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts.

Today: Offensive line

  • Under contract: OT Anthony Castonzo, G Jack Mewhort, C Ryan Kelly, OT Joe Reitz, OT/G Joe Haeg, OT/G Denzelle Good, OT Le’Raven Clark, C Austin Blythe, OT Jeremy Vujnovich, G Adam Redmond.
  • Pending free agents: G Hugh Thornton, C/G Jon Harrison (restricted).
  • Looking back: The group was better in ’16 than it was in ’15. That’s the textbook definition of a backhanded compliment. Of course the offensive line was better. How could it not be?
    But we’re not here to rehash the travails of ’15. Some things are better left in the past, and that’s one of them.
    While there’s no denying there was improvement in an area that’s long been an organizational eyesore, it still wasn’t good enough. The pass protection – and let’s not absolve running backs and tight ends of blame – allowed 128 hits on Andrew Luck and Scott Tolzien, second only to Cleveland’s 140. The Browns, it’s worth noting, were a league-worst 1-15. Luck was sacked 41 times, matching a career high despite missing one game with a concussion, which was a result of being driven to the ground after delivering a pass against the Titans in week 11.
    For the glass-is-half-full crowd, the Colts got their act together over the second half of the season. After allowing 31 sacks in the first eight games, the number dwindled to 13 over the final eight.
    For the glass-is-half-empty group, hits-per-game on the QBs actually rose as the season unfolded: 9 per game in the final eight after 7.75 in the first eight. Make of that what you will. That might be a reflection of Luck doing a better job of avoiding sacks rather than his protection improving.
    We won’t offer excuses for the uneven play, but there were reasons. That Luck would be working behind a young O-line was a given after Ryan Grigson used four of his eight draft picks to address the position: center Ryan Kelly (round 1), tackle Le’Raven Clark (3), guard/tackle Joe Haeg (5) and center/guard Austin Blythe (7). Each started at least one game.
    Kelly provided the interior stability that’s been missing. He was one of 11 rookies across the league to start all 16 games and didn’t give up a sack. Haeg was the first rookie since the Saints’ Kyle Turley in 1998 to start at three different spots. In four games, including the last three, Ryan, Haeg and Clark started.
    Injuries also impacted continuity and efficiency. Left guard Jack Mewhort missed five starts, the final three with an injury to his left knee. Denzelle Good started 10 games at right guard, but missed six with a concussion and back injury.
    The mixing and matching resulted in coordinator Rob Chudzinki using seven different starting combinations. The group’s early growth was impeded not by youth, but by left tackle Anthony Castonzo struggling mightily. He eventually got his act together.
    While stats often are misleading, we’ll still point out a couple. First, Luck joined Peyton Manning as the only QBs in team history to be part of an offense that featured a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher (Frank Gore) and 1,000-yard receiver (T.Y. Hilton). Manning did it in eight consecutive seasons. Also, the O-line helped Gore end two droughts. He became the first Colt since Joseph Addai in ’07 to rush for at least 1,000 yards and the first since Vick Ballard in ’12 to tack up a 100-yard game. The latter snapped a 61-game dry spell. Finally – and this belongs in the take-it-for-what-it’s-worth category – Pro Football Focus ranked the Colts’ offensive line 25th.
  • Looking ahead: The future appears bright, but some decisions must be made. Is Haeg a guard or tackle? Let’s make up our mind, for his sake. Is Clark, a healthy inactive for eight games, the answer at right tackle? If so, that would answer the Haeg question.
    Let’s keep in mind management believed it possessed a viable right tackle in Good, a four-game starter at that spot as a rookie in ’15. He was a guard in year 2.
    It’s also worth noting the coaching staff did Haeg no favors last season. While he was just trying to keep his head above water as a wide-eyed rookie, the Colts moved him around: eight starts at right tackle, four at right guard, two at left guard.
    “He’ll do whatever and he’ll roll up his sleeves and go to work,’’ Chudzinski said. “I’ve never heard him complain. He doesn’t say much as far as (moving around) goes. It’s really, really unique to have a rookie that can go do that. I’ve never been around that where a guy can play all those different positions.
    “He’s not perfect. It has not been perfect. We’ve got a lot of work to do with him as well as all those young guys. But it’s a promising young group. It’s just going to take time.’’
    We’ll be keeping our eye on the status of Reitz. Despite his ability to start multiple positions, he turns 32 in August. He’s under contract through ’17 with a modest salary-cap hit of $2.5 million, but the team’s youth movement might include moving on without the popular Hamilton Southeastern H.S. product. We believe Reitz still has value. We’ll see if management agrees, or opts to clear $2.5 million in cap space.
  • Offseason priority: Moderate.