Previewing the Colts’ offensive line ahead of training camp

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Anthony Castonzo #74 of the Indianapolis Colts runs off the field during the first half of a game against the Los Angeles Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on September 10, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – A season of great expectations awaits, as does a second summer at Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield.

They go hand in hand.

After three months of offseason work and a five-week lull, the Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park July 24 for the start of training camp. They’re on the practice field for the first time the following day.

Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team coming off a 10-6 season and wild-card playoff appearance, and considered by many observers to be one of the trendy picks to make serious noise in the postseason.

 Today: Offensive line

  • Starters: LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Mark Glowinski, RT Braden Smith.
  • Main backups: T/G Joe Haeg, T J’Marcus Webb, T Le’Raven Clark, C Evan Boehm.
  • In the mix: T Jackson Barton, C Josh Andrews, G Jake Eldenkamp, T Antonio Garcia, G William Poehls, Nico Siragusa.

Who’s the man?: The only folks who would argue the high-level performance of the offensive line in 2018 have an axe to grind. It came together as the season unfolded and was instrumental in Andrew Luck’s comeback season including 4,593 yards and 39 touchdowns – credit a protection scheme that allowed a league-low 18 sacks – and the Marlon Mack-led ground game being so much more than an afterthought.

Pro Football Focus took notice. It ranked the offensive line units heading into 2019 and listed Indy 5th behind Philadelphia, Dallas, Pittsburgh and the Tennessee Titans. No one was praising the group heading into ’18, not after it tested the durability of Jacoby Brissett by yielding a league-high 56 sacks the previous season.

So much of the credit for the dramatic improvement must be funneled to Chris Ballard and his personnel staff. They addressed an obvious area of need with a pair of early draft picks: Quenton Nelson, taken 6th overall, and Braden Smith, the 37th overall selection. Each was a rock by season’s end.

 But let’s not dismiss the old man of the group, or “Benjamin Button’’ as Anthony Castonzo described himself. The 2011 first-round draft pick is entering his ninth season and turns 31 in August, but there is no apparent drop-off in his game. In fact, Castonzo arguably is playing the best of his career.

“If anything, I’m still getting better,’’ he said. “It’ll be a sad day when I feel like I’ve reached my peak. It’s a downward hill from there.’’

Castonzo credits the specialized work of sports performance director Rusty Jones and his staff for enhancing his overall readiness.

“My body honestly feels better right now than it did my rookie year,’’ he said. “I have less pain everywhere. It’s exciting to be going into a season at age 30 possibly playing my best football.’’

And that brings us back to Castonzo’s impact on an otherwise youthful line. We’re not dismissing the immense contributions of Nelson, Smith, center Ryan Kelly or right guard Mark Glowinski. But we’re convinced Castonzo is the most indispensible lineman, and perhaps one of the top two or three most indispensible Colts.

The team wobbled badly as last season began. Remember the 1-5 start? Remember the 9-1 finish? The dramatic turnaround coincided with Mack returning from a hamstring injury and Smith being inserted at right tackle. But that’s when Castonzo returned from a hamstring injury suffered while training prior to training camp.

While Castonzo healed, the Colts struggled to replace him. First it was Joe Haeg, then Le’Raven Clark when Haeg flipped to right tackle. Castonzo’s return solidified Luck’s protection and bolstered the running game. With Castonzo starting the final 11 games, the Colts averaged 121.1 rushing yards per game and allowed just 8 sacks.

One issue moving forward is Castonzo’s future with the franchise. He’s entering the final year of his contract. It’s possible an extension will be arranged at some point, but that’s hardly a given.

“I have to play good football one way or the other,’’ he said. “Everything else kind of takes care of itself.’’

Better in year 2: To the surprise of no one, Quenton Nelson wasn’t satisfied with an epic rookie season. The lottery pick more than matched the hype by being on the field for all 1,136 offensive snaps, becoming the first Colts’ rookie lineman selected to the Pro Bowl since Chris Hinton in 1983 and being named first-team All-Pro.

The self-imposed challenge: Be better in year 2.

“I mean it was a good first year,’’ Nelson conceded, “but still have so much to improve on individually and as a team.’’

The Colts made massive changes to the offensive line coaching room, bringing in Chris Strausser and Klayton Adams, and complementing them with former positional guru Howard Mudd.

“They really work hard on the fundamentals and do a great job of teaching,’’ Nelson said. “They are very detail-oriented.’’

That’s the area of Nelson’s game he’s committed to improving.

“I think everyone can get better at their technique, just every day with the consistency of it,’’ he said. “For me, it would be getting my hands inside, keeping my elbows in in the run game and the pass game and really trusting and believing in my technique.’’

Complacency isn’t an issue, either individually or collectively.

“No, not at all,’’ Nelson said. “We don’t have big egos as an offensive line at all. All of us know we can improve so much.’’

Improvement in year 2: Braden Smith was tossed into the deep end of the pool when the Colts traveled to New England in week 5. He was a 41-game starter at Auburn, almost exclusively at guard. He spent his rookie offseason and much of training camp learning the NFL ropes at guard. Only when injuries ravaged the tackle position was Smith given reps at that spot.

That was the case in week 5. Smith became the fourth starting right tackle in five weeks, and once he dealt with the initial nerves, never wavered.

“Going in, you get those first few plays in and you kind of get your nerves settled and you go from there,’’ he said. “Honestly, I felt pretty comfortable at it, surprisingly. The first game I really played a full game (the Patriots), that was the Thursday night game so we hadn’t quite had any (live) practices. Just a walk-through.

“I was kind of like, ‘OK, let’s see what happens,’ Getting those first plays I was like, “I’m good to go.’’’

Smith admitted it was a challenge “going against some athletic freaks, so of course it’s going to be a new experience considering I’ve never really played tackle in a game since my sophomore year in college.’’

As well as Smith played as a rookie, he should greatly benefit from an offseason and camp totally committed to tackle.

Worth noting: The revolving door has quit spinning. For the first time since 2006, the Colts return their starting offensive line intact.

“It’s exciting because I know what Ryan Kelly’s calls sound like. I know what Quenton likes on a combination block,’’ Castonzo said. “It’s just playing with guys and being comfortable with the. It’s nice to have a little bit of continuity. Knock on wood, everything’s together right now.’’

Chris Ballard ensured that continuity by exercising the fifth-year option on Kelly’s rookie contract and signing Glowinski to a three-year, $18 million extension.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Bluezone Podcast:

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