Colts’ Joe Haeg sees value in position versatility
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – There is what amounts to assigned seating in the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line meeting room.
Starting left tackle? That seat belongs to Anthony Castonzo.
Starting left guard? This one’s yours, Quenton Nelson.
Starting center? Plop down, Ryan Kelly.
The rest? Musical chairs, and that’s especially true with Joe Haeg.
“I’m an offensive lineman,’’ he said.
But maybe something more?
“I kind of want to get a little bit of big-man tight end in,’’ Haeg added with a smile. “I think my ball skills would be universal out there. We’ll see.’’
Trust us, we won’t be seeing that. The Colts’ tight end position is ably manned by Jack Doyle, Eric Ebron and, perhaps, Erik Swoope.
However, Haeg’s generic self-description is well-founded. His first two NFL seasons have been nomadic. The 2016 fifth-round draft pick has started 29 of 31 games and spread them among three positions: 20 at right tackle, seven at right guard, two at left guard.
He started at right guard, right tackle and left guard in ’16, becoming the first rookie to start three positions since Kyle Turley in 1998.
Now, as the Colts move into the next-to-last week of their organized team activities, Haeg’s resume actually is expanding. He’s been learning the ropes at center.
“Joe is really versatile,’’ coach Frank Reich said. “He can play all five positions; he can snap the ball. That’s a big deal, just to be able to play center and snap the ball and have the smarts to make all the calls that we make in our scheme.’’
For Haeg, the offseason has been about teaching a young dog – he’s 25 – new tricks. His experience at center amounts to infrequent reps during practice. He was the emergency center last season, and was placed on high alert in week 4 at Seattle when rookie Deyshawn Bond – starting in place of the injured Kelly – suffered a season-ending quadriceps injury on the second play of the game. Adam Redmond stepped in and finished the game.
“Never,’’ Haeg replied when asked how often he’s played center at any level. “I did two one-on-one reps last year at the end of the season. That was all right. I blocked it fine, but it’s just I didn’t snap it that well.’’
The more he’s done it, the more comfortable he’s become.
Training camp figures to determine who plays where among the non-locked-in starters. During offseason work, free-agent pickups Matt Slauson (right guard) and Austin Howard (right tackle) have worked with the first unit. Jack Mewhort and second-round draft pick Braden Smith are in the mix at right guard and Denzelle Good might emerge as the swing tackle. Jeremy Vujnovich and Le’Raven Clark provide additional proven depth.
Haeg? He seems destined to be the next Joe Reitz, which isn’t a bad thing in the least.
“Joe Reitz was a huge influence on me when I first got here,’’ Haeg said. “Just being able to see a guy like that, being able to go in in any situation.
“If you can play multiple positions, you can help out in any spot that needs to be helped out, switch positions in mid-game if that’s what it needs to be.’’
Reitz is one of the Colts’ recent rags-to-riches stories. The Hamilton Southeastern H.S. standout entered the NFL as an undrafted rookie and tight end prospect with the Baltimore Ravens in 2008. He moved to offensive tackle and eventually was signed off waivers by the Colts in 2010.
In seven seasons with the Colts – he was on the practice squad for ’10 – Reitz appeared in 73 regular-season games. He started 44 games, failing to start at least once only at center.
During his career, Reitz earned nearly $10 million.
Versatility, Haeg agreed, “has value.’’
“In a perfect world,’’ he added, “(remaining at one position) would be awesome. But the nature of football, especially in the NFL, it’s a long season and injuries are going to happen. The main thing is I just want to be out there playing. I knowing center makes that happen, I’m all for it.
“Whatever the team needs you to do, you do.’’
In Haeg’s case, that has meant moving from spot to spot during a game. Positional flexibility is essential on game day when only 46 players are available. Generally, the Colts dress seven offensive linemen on game day.
“The first game I started was San Diego,’’ he said. “Started at guard, switched to tackle. At Denver last year, was at guard, went to tackle. Probably been five or six games where I switched.
“It’s like a curveball during the middle of a game. It’s fine. You just go out there and do what you’ve been taught to do and stick to your fundamentals.’’