INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts are at least exploring the possibility of uprooting a player who might be a generational talent at one position and plugging him into a massive void at a more prime position.
Chris Hinton has been there, done that.
And with hindsight and more than a little selfishness guiding him, he’d suggest Quenton Nelson stay put.
The possibility of relocating the three-time, first-team All-Pro left guard to left tackle has been kicked around inside the Indiana Farm Bureau Insurance Football Center since Anthony Castonzo announced his retirement in January.
“I would make the move if you’re making the decision for the team,’’ Hinton said. “That’s a team decision, and Quenton will probably be a better tackle than anybody they can find right now.
“But if you flip it and ask what I would do personally? If I could go back in time, I would have fought my move from guard to tackle. I was a better guard.
“There is some parallel of having some immediate success at guard and being moved to tackle. But for selfish reasons, if I was in his shoes I’d fight it. I really would.’’
Hinton is the most decorated offensive lineman in the Colts’ Indy era – he’s a member of the team’s Ring of Honor – and probably trails only Hall of Famer Jim Parker in terms of top players at the position in franchise history. After being a central component of the Baltimore Colts’ 1983 trade that sent John Elway to the Denver Broncos, he was named to six Pro Bowls in his seven season – one as a rookie left guard and five after a move to left tackle.
The switch to tackle was made out of necessity. Sound familiar?
“We didn’t have a tackle,’’ Hinton said with a laugh.
Desperation might have sparked the move in year 2, but the Colts always envisioned Hinton developing into a top-level tackle.
He opened his rookie training camp at left tackle after needing only his senior season at Northwestern to establish himself as one of the nation’s top prospects at the position. Prior to that, Hinton moved from outside linebacker to tight end.
“I was a six-month offensive tackle,’’ he said of his Northwestern experience. “It was really spring through the fall, and that’s it.’’
Even so, the Broncos selected him with the 4th overall pick in the 1983 draft. After the trade, the Colts put Hinton at tackle in camp.
“I only had 11 college games (at tackle) under my belt,’’ he said. “I needed a little more work. It was smart on their part to play me at guard that year.’’
With more time to acclimate himself to the demands of playing left tackle in the NFL, Hinton made the move in year 2 – well, the Colts moved him in year 2 – and exceled.
Yet to this day, he wonders what might have been had they allowed him to maximize his potential at guard.
“That was my position,’’ Hinton said. “I’ve watched a lot of film and my rookie year, and I’d say that year only one guard played better than me and that was John Hannah.’’
Hannah is widely regarded as the best guard in NFL history. Like Hinton, he was the 4th overall pick in the draft (1973). Hannah was a seven-time, first-team All-Pro during his 13-year career with the New England Patriots and inducted into the Pro Football of Fame as part of the Class of 1991.
Hinton never advanced deep into the Hall of Fame’s annual candidates’ process despite his decorated time with the Colts and subsequent stints with the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings. He holds the distinction of being the only offensive lineman in NFL history selected to the Pro Bowl or All-Pro at four positions – left guard (1983), left tackle (1985-89), right tackle (1991 with Atlanta), right guard (All-Pro with the Falcons in ’93).
That versatility – along with being on teams that posted just four winning records and reached the playoffs only twice in 13 seasons – did him no favors in terms of a lasting reputation.
“I think the fact I played multiple positions hurt, and playing for three different teams also,’’ Hinton said in a 2017 interview with Sports Illustrated’s Talk of Fame Network. “And to be very honest with you, I think I played out of position most of my career.
“I was more of a natural guard. I was more of a physical, run blocking guy versus the tackles.’’
That’s why Hinton sees the Colts’ possible move of Nelson from two vantage points.
Again, he might be the best option for the upcoming season unless general manager Chris Ballard opts to invest in a high-priced veteran (Trent Williams, Alejandro Villanueva). But while Nelson has established himself as one of the NFL’s premier guards – he’s already drawn comparisons to Hannah – would he be a top-10 left tackle, or simply serviceable?
Hinton has no doubt Nelson could handle the switch.
“I always say that tackles can play guard, but you can’t necessarily have a guard playing tackle,’’ he said. “I watch a lot of college football, and I see a lot of guys who are All-American tackles, and I’ll say, ‘He’s going to be a really good guard in the NFL.’
“Can it be done the other way? Can you flip it the other way? Can Quenton make the switch? If anybody can do it, Quenton can. I don’t think he would be as dominant at tackle as he is at guard. Guard just plays to his strengths playing in that phone booth. He’s a mauler, but he’s a high-class mauler.’’
If the move is made, there will be an adjustment period, even for a perennial All-Pro.
“There’s so much difference in the positions,’’ Hinton said. “At tackle, you’re out there on an island and a lot of times with no help. As a guard, you’re playing in a phone booth.’’
Last season, Nelson occasionally took reps at left tackle with the scout team. He was forced to take a handful of snaps at the position in the Colts’ week 14 win at Las Vegas when Castonzo was briefly sidelined with a lingering injury to his right knee.
When Castonzo announced his retirement in January, he endorsed Nelson’s capacity to replace him.
“If that happens,’’ he said, “I’m going to tell you right now he’s going to do a nice job. He has all the skills to do it, and I think he had a lot of fun.’’
Castonzo recalled those practice days when Nelson lined up at left tackle, either out of boredom or seeking to expand his game. He always sought a quick critique from Castonzo.
“He would come up to you and be like, ‘Hey, look at my set, look at my set. What do you think?’’’ Castonzo said. “And I’m like, ‘Honestly, it’s pretty good. Surprisingly, it’s really good.’
“He knows what comes with it out there.’’
Coach Frank Reich recently reiterated the internal discussion has continued, and that’s included seeking Nelson’s input.
“Quenton wants to do whatever is best for the team,’’ he said. “He’s willing to do whatever is best for the team. What I appreciate about Quenton is that he trusts that Chris and I along with the coaching staff will make what we believe is the best decision.
“We want to get the best five guys on the field at the best positions for them, and they can grow into those positions. So we are still keeping all options open at this point.’’
Clarity will come in the next two months.
Again, it’s possible Ballard fills Castonzo’s void by signing a veteran. Or he might look for the Colts’ left tackle of the future in the April draft. The team holds the 21st overall pick, which is the territory that produced the last two left-tackle fixtures – Castonzo was the 22nd overall pick in 2011 and Tarik Glenn the 19th overall selection in 1997.
If we get past the draft and there’s still a hole at left tackle, look for Quenton Nelson to fill it. Another internal option would be to move right tackle Braden Smith to the left side.
The bottom line: the Colts must get it right.
Hinton, 59, lives in Atlanta and has intensified his scrutiny of college football now that his two sons are involved. Christopher is a defensive lineman at Michigan and Myles an offensive lineman at USC.
His increased review has only reinforced what he already knew to be true.
“Just watching pro and college football, whenever a team is struggling, the first thing you look at is the offensive line,’’ Hinton said. “And usually when the offensive line is struggling it’s because the left tackle is struggling.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.