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Colts’ investment into offensive line goes beyond first-round pick Ryan Kelly

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Ryan Kelly

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The Indianapolis Colts believe they got their man – Andrew Luck’s center, to be more precise – when they used the 18th overall pick in the April draft on Alabama’s Ryan Kelly.

“He was really our targeted player for months,” general manager Ryan Grigson offered.

We’re not going to temper the enthusiasm surrounding Kelly’s addition to the roster. Not after watching and wincing as Luck adjusted to the nuances and varying degrees of effectiveness of five starting centers during his first four seasons.

But the fact is the Colts might have gotten much more than that elusive anchor to their offensive line before the three-day, seven-round draft ran its course.

For the first time since 1983, they used four draft picks on offensive linemen. At the very least, the influx of young talent boosted the quality of depth at the position.

In a best-case scenario, Grigson and his personnel staff found another starter – or two – to develop along with Kelly.

After watching his team go through its open minicamp practice at Lucas Oil Stadium earlier this month, owner Jim Irsay noted the offensive line had been “strengthened majorly.”

He was talking about Kelly. And third-round tackle Le’Raven Clark. And fifth-round tackle-guard Joe Haeg. And seventh-round center Austin Blythe.

It’s too soon to predict the makeup of the 53-player active roster for the Sept. 11 opener against Detroit. That process essentially begins July 26 when the Colts report to Anderson University for the start of training camp.

Shortly thereafter, the pads come on and the hitting commences. That’s when offensive line coach Joe Philbin will get a more accurate gauge what he’s dealing with.

The Colts are expected to keep eight, perhaps nine, offensive linemen on their active roster. No one should be surprised if three are reserved for draft picks. Maybe even four.

The group made a nice first impression with Philbin.

“The work ethic has been excellent,” he said. “The guys have been coming in here early and staying late. They are really an attentive group.

“One of the things when you evaluate prospects to bring them into your organization you want to find out how passionate they are about football and how much they love the game.”

Kelly drew the majority of the attention as the Colts waded through their offseason workouts. Luck described his new locker room neighbor – it’s no coincidence the team gave Kelly a locker adjacent to his new QB – as “smart . . . conscientious . . . tough.

“I think he’s got a little ornery in him. He’s a little bit mean, which is great.”

But again, no one should dismiss the possible impact of the entire rookie quartet.

Remember what Irsay said after the draft?

“Obviously the offensive line has been strengthened in a major way,” he said. “It gives us a lot of options in terms of who we want to play guard, who we want to play tackle.

“It gives us a lot of flexibility.”

It appears the Colts will allow Clark, a 51-game starter at Texas Tech including the last two seasons at left tackle, to develop at right tackle. At this point, that’s as Joe Reitz’s backup. It would seem the long-term view is as the starter.

First things first, he insisted.

Clark’s expectations?

“Definitely to make the team,” he said. “Definitely try to get a job.

“As a rookie class we’ve picked things up pretty well. We’ve definitely taken some strides.”

Blythe started 51 games at Iowa, the vast majority at center. He was one of three finalists for the Rimington Award, given to the nation’s top center, and spent much of the offseason working behind Kelly, the Rimington recipient.

Haeg’s development figures to be most interesting. At North Dakota State, he started 31 games at left tackle and 29 at right tackle.

“No guard in college,” Haeg said.

His first offseason as a pro has required some adjustment.

“Actually playing a decent amount of guard,” he said. “I’m still going back and getting some tackle reps, but I’ve sort of been the utility guy, moving all around.

“It’s something I’m embracing. You always want to be as available as possible, especially being a young offensive lineman. Being versatile is huge.”

Four-fifths of the projected starting unit appears set – Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, Jack Mewhort at left guard, Kelly at center and Reitz at right tackle. Included in the mix at right guard are incumbents Jon Harrison, Denzelle Good and Hugh Thornton, who missed the offseason work while rehabbing from an injury.

Maybe Clark eventually pushes Reitz. Maybe Haeg injects himself into the equation at right guard.

Maybe the 2016 draft class will be viewed as much more than Ryan Kelly.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51