Jeff Saturday ‘loves’ Colts’ recommitment to prioritizing O-line

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WESTFIELD, Ind. – During this on-going remaking of the Indianapolis Colts, two figures intently watching practice Tuesday morning offered a reminder of what was and what needs to be.

Jeff Saturday and Ryan Diem, pillars of an offensive line that was so instrumental in the franchise’s decorated past, stood side-by-side and looked on as Andrew Luck worked behind his latest – and arguably best – collection of linemen.

“I love the offensive line and what Chris Ballard has done to add and really bolster that offensive line for Luck,’’ offered Saturday, a five-time Pro Bowl center during his 13-year career with the Colts and in town to handle his post-NFL chores as an ESPN analyst.

“They’ve got some nastiness to them. You can see it. There’s some chippiness in practice, protecting guys.’’

Considering his football pedigree, Saturday is eager to see whether the offensive line pieces are finally in place.

For too long, management seemed to address Luck’s most critical supporting cast – his offensive line – with semi-indifference. There were too many mid-level free agents (center Samson Satele and guards Mike McGlynn and Todd Herreman). Former general manager Ryan Grigson invested heavily in free-agent tackle Gosder Cherilus (a five-year, $35 million contract), but his body failed him.

The Colts addressed their substandard offensive line with six draft picks from 2012, Luck’s first season, through ’15, but only one – guard Jack Mewhort in ’14 – came in the first two rounds.

That lack of commitment changed in 2016 when Grigson snatched center Ryan Kelly with the 18th overall pick in the draft. It went to another level in April when Ballard used the 6th overall pick on guard Quenton Nelson and one of his four second-round selections on guard Braden Smith.

Saturday’s eyes lit up as he considered the Colts’ obvious reset on upgrading their offensive line and on better enabling Luck to do what he does best. With left tackle Anthony Castonzo, the projected starting group features three first-round picks and, at some point, a second-rounder in Smith.

“You’ve got to make a stand and say, ‘Hey, this is my priority. We’re going to be a physical football team. We’re going to establish the run. We’re going to protect our quarterback. Then we’ll let the skill guys do what they do,’’’ Saturday said.

“When you put an emphasis and a priority on the offensive line and what they’re going to establish, the whole team’s going to thrive.’’

Remember the Colts’ ultra-successful run in the 2000s? There was Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne and Edgerrin James and Dallas Clark and Joseph Addai.

But there also was a no-nonsense offensive line that was one of the NFL’s best. Saturday, Diem, Tarik Glenn, Jake Scott and Ryan Lilja set the tone. Then-general manager Bill Polian made certain his franchise QB played behind a stellar line.

“It’s like anything,’’ Saturday said. “When you make it a priority, it shows up that way. Our priority when we were here was you protect Peyton at all costs. Protect him because you’ve got to run the ball effectively with Edgerrin or Joseph or Dommie Rhodes. Or you protect him in pass blocking.

“That was the way we were set up. Go out and do your job.’’

In 70 regular-season games, Luck has been sacked 156 times. Since his arrival in 2012, the Colts have allowed a league-high 691 QB hits.

“Man, he’s got hit a bunch,’’ Saturday said.

Manning routinely was among the least-sacked quarterbacks in the league; and yes, his quick release was a major factor. But let’s not dismiss that offensive line.

“We played with a nastiness,’’ Saturday said. “Some of us weren’t large people, but we got after you for 60 minutes. We were going to play nasty and we were going to protect our guys.

“That’s the mentality they’re getting back to and what will ultimately be the decider for this group.’’

Listen to Kelly, a player the Colts hope develops into Jeff Saturday 2.0.

“I think we’re just a mean group,’’ he said, adding that means “when a defensive line comes up and they see us walking to the line of scrimmage, they know, ‘OK, these guys are going to pepper us every single time.’’’

Not surprisingly, Nelson has made a strong first impression with Saturday.

“Brother, you look at him and so far he’s looked like the 6th pick should,’’ he said. “When you talk about an impact of what a kid can do and the mentality of what he can do – the way he runs, the physicality, the way he carries himself – it’s impactful.

“Then you put him next to Castonzo and Kelly. Hey, you’ve got two other first-rounders. Good gracious, they’d better be good.’’

The appearance of Saturday and Diem was brief, but the idea was for it to have a lasting impact. Saturday addressed the team after practice, imploring the new Colts to emulate the older Colts and maximize every day on the practice field.

“He did a great job of reminding us today . . . yeah, you work hard, try to get good plays and scheme things,’’ Reich said. “But at the end of the day, it’s about players bringing a trust and a juice and an enthusiasm to the field, to the meeting room.’’

While moving forward, Reich and Ballard are intent on recapturing a slice of the past that involves adding players similar to Saturday and Diem.

“From day 1 sitting down with Chris, there is a commitment to getting our kind of players, Colts players,’’ Reich said. “High-character, tough, tough, tough, tough, high character, team-first (guys).

“Certainly Jeff Saturday is all of those. I just don’t think you can underestimate how important that is. I’ve been it for 30 years. I believe in it. You’ve just got to be committed to those kind of players on this roster.’’

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