Notre Dame O-line tandem offers help where Colts need it
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A quick show of hands from teams in need of upgrading their offensive line this offseason.
Yes, we recognize the Indianapolis Colts, both hands pushed high and waving vigorously.
As much as anticipation increases with the (expected) return of Andrew Luck, so does the anxiety on whether he’ll line up behind an upgraded line or the same rag-tag bunch that has tested his durability – and that of Jacoby Brissett last season – since becoming the face of the franchise in 2012.
A quick refresher.
Luck, who missed all of 2017 with his right shoulder issues, has been sacked 156 times in 70 regular-season starts and routinely pummeled while delivering the football. Oft-times, the dozens upon dozens of hits have been more damaging than the sacks. Luck first injured his right shoulder in week 3 of the 2015 season at Tennessee, but persistent protection issues also have resulted in a concussion and injuries to other body parts.
With Luck out of the lineup last season, defenses turned their attention to Jacoby Brissett. He went down 52 times in 15 starts, the second-most sacks endured by a Colts QB. Jeff George set the standard, so to speak, with 56 in 1991.
Yes, the Colts have had – and have – protection issues.
Moving forward, the only givens on the ’18 offensive line are left tackle Anthony Castonzo and center Ryan Kelly. That leaves three-fifths of the unit still to be determined.
General manager Chris Ballard considers offensive line to be one of the deeper positions in this year’s draft.
“I think there’s some pretty good offensive linemen,’’ he said. “I think there’s some good depth, especially in the interior of the offensive line.’’
Two prominent answers to what’s been ailing the Colts since Luck’s arrival in 2012 developed their elite games 130 miles to the north, in South Bend.
That would be the Notre Dame tag-team of guard Quenton Nelson and tackle Mike McGlinchey.
According to Pro Football Weekly’s pre-draft rankings, Nelson is the top guard prospect and McGlinchey the top tackle.
NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock considers Nelson one of five “difference-makers’’ who also have zero off-field baggage. The small group includes Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, N.C. State defensive end Bradley Chubb, Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick and Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea.
“They’re five guys where you go, wow, you can plug and play,’’ Mayock said.
Nelson lacks neither size – he’s 6-5, 330 pounds – nor confidence.
“I haven’t really thought about whether I’m the best player in this draft or not,’’ he said, “but I believe I’m the best offensive lineman and that’s all I can control. That’s all I could control my four years of college (was) trying to be the best that I can be.’’
While some might devalue guards, Nelson believes the position is critical. He sees the havoc created by some of the NFL’s premier defensive linemen.
“I think I should be talked in that regard – the top-5 conversation – because you have guys that are dominating the NFL right now in Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, Fletcher Cox that have just been working on interior guys and you need to stop them,’’ he said. “I think I’m one of those guys.
“You talk to quarterbacks and they say if a D-end gets on the edge, that’s fine, they can step up in the pocket and they can throw. A lot of quarterbacks, if given the opportunity, can do that. That’s what I give is a pocket to step up in, and I think I also help the offense establish the run through my nastiness and establishing the run also opens up the passing game.
“So I think it’s a good choice.’’
Nelson being yanked off the draft board among the top-5 picks would be a rare decision. The last top-5 guard: Bill Fralic, taken second overall by Atlanta in 1985. Since 1980, there have been only 10 guards selected in the top 10.
The Notre Dame tandem also could join an elite group. Since 1980, offensive linemen from the same school have been taken in the first round just six times. The most recent: Alabama’s Chance Warmack and D.J. Flucker in 2013.
Nelson and McGlinchey have been fixtures for the Irish. Nelson started 36 games at left guard and his sidekick 39 games at left and right tackle.
“Mike McGlinchey is a great teammate, always trying to help everyone on the offensive line get better,’’ Nelson said. “Not self-centered at all, works hard and sets a great example of how things should be done.’’
McClinchey returned the praise.
“You’re probably not going to get a better teammate,’’ he said. “He’s a phenomenal player, phenomenal person. Cares as much as anybody in the building, works as hard as anybody in the building. When he gets into the meeting room, when he steps across those white lines, he’s a different animal . . . sky’s the limit.’’
Nelson prides himself on possessing a “nasty’’ gene.
“Yeah, I would consider myself a nasty player,’’ he said with a smile. “I would say a lot of guys that have been the best players at their position had that characteristic of being nasty. Larry Allen and guys in the NFL like Zach Martin, Brandon Scherff. Nasty football players and those are guys that I look up to and want to be like and play like, so I try to emulate that as best I can.
“I would say the nastiness probably comes from being the youngest (in his family) and getting picked on a lot. Had a lot of frustration to take out on the football field so, yeah, I want to play nasty. I play clean, though.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.