Assessing Colts’ needs in NFL draft: Offensive line

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. – No one should question what’s driving Chris Ballard these days.

It’s the April 27-29 NFL draft.

“We want to be a great drafting team,’’ the Indianapolis Colts’ first-year general manager said. “We want to have a sound structure and foundation in place where we’re producing players every year for the Colts.’’

The Colts hold seven selections in the seven-round draft, all in the first five rounds. Between now and the draft, we’ll examine some of the team’s more pressing areas of need.

Today: Offensive line.

  • Projected starters: LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Jack Mewhort, C Ryan Kelly, RG Joe Haeg, RT Le’Raven Clark.
  • Backups: G Denzelle Good, C Austin Blythe, G Brian Schwenke, T Jeremy Vujnovich, T Isiah Cage, G Adam Redmond, T Fahn Cooper.
  • Key stats: Again, we’ll give you two. 35 and 578. The first is the number of starting line combinations quarterback Andrew Luck has lined up behind in his 70 regular-season games. That’s ridiculous. The second is the number of QB hits the Colts have allowed since Luck’s arrival in 2012. That’s the most in the NFL over the last five seasons; the woeful Cleveland Browns are second with 545, according to NFL.com. That’s beyond ridiculous.

We can debate Luck’s complicity in the hits if you insist. Yes, he’s been known to hold the football too long while waiting for a receiver to break open downfield. But we would argue he avoids as many hits/sacks with his mobility as he creates with his stubbornness in the pocket, and the payoff is field-stretching completions.

Luck is the NFL’s $140 million QB. The Colts must do a better job of protecting their investment.

  • Level of concern: High. It will remain high as long as Luck is on the roster.
  • What about: T Cam Robinson, Alabama; T Ryan Ramczyk, Wisconsin; T Garett Bolles, Utah; G Forrest Lamp, Western Kentucky; G Dan Feeney, Indiana; T Tayor Moton, Western Michigan; T Roderick Johnson, Florida State; G Dorian Johnson, Pittsburgh; Dion Dawkins, Temple.

More about Ramczyk:

He’s 6-6, 314 pounds and the consensus best tackle in a draft that apparently lacks quality depth at the position. Ramczyk also is an interesting prospect. He was an all-state tackle as a high school senior in Wisconsin who turned down a few major college offers and decided to attend a technical school in Stevens Point. After a year away from football, Ramczyk’s itch returned. He enrolled at hometown Wisconsin-Stevens Point where he established himself as a two-time all-conference left tackle.

Ramczyk transferred to Wisconsin in 2015 and sat out that season before taking over as the Badgers’ starting left tackle in ’16. He started every game and was named first-team all-Big Ten.

That’s called rising to the level of your competition.

More from Ramczyk:

On transferring from Wisconsin-Stevens Point to Wisconsin: “It was an amazing journey for sure. Enjoyed every step of it, wouldn’t change a thing. Enjoyed my time at both schools and played some good football.’’

On his recovery from hip surgery in early January while addressing the media at the NFL Scouting Combine in February: “It’s been really good. It’s been positive. It’s been eight weeks of recovery now, really feeling healthy and I’ll be back in California training and rehabbing after this. (Recovery time) is like five months, so we’ll see. I should absolutely be cleared by training camp, hopefully OTAs.’’

On being one of the top tackles in the draft: “It’s a special thing. It’s an amazing feeling.’’

On possibly being moved from left tackle in the NFL: “I’ve heard a little bit of everything. Obviously I’m going to play the position the coaches want me to play, that’s going to help the team out the most . . . I’ve really heard everything from tackle to guard to center, so it’s been interesting.

“It would be a huge honor (to be the first offensive lineman drafted). But anywhere I go, it’s not a big deal. I just want to play football.’’

Final word:

The Colts’ offensive line is three-fifths set with Castonzo, Mewort and Kelly. The right-side, though, is an issue and remain so until the coaching staff determines which player is the better fit at guard and tackle. Haeg, a fifth-round pick a year ago, was one of the pleasant surprises. He started at both guard spots and right tackle, becoming the first rookie lineman since 1999 to start at three spots. If Clark, last year’s late-emerging third-round pick, is deemed the best option at tackle, then Haeg should settle in at guard and find competition from free-agent pickup Schwenke.

It’s always been misreported that the Colts haven’t addressed their offensive line since Luck’s arrival in ’12. They have. It’s just that too many of their personnel moves have failed.

For the first time since 1983, the team drafted four offensive linemen in ‘16: Kelly, Haeg, Clark, Blythe. Each started at least one game, and Kelly gave every indication he’ll anchor the line for the next decade.

But how does Ballard view the collection of linemen? He’s spoken highly of Castonzo, Mewhort, Kelly, Haeg and Clark, but also dipped into veteran free agency and added Schwenke to the mix.

The seven draft picks are precious, but one undoubtedly will be used to add another prospect to the meeting room. The last time the Colts didn’t draft an offensive lineman was in 2002.