INDIANAPOLIS – He’s been part of the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
Part of an Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line that yielded 56 sacks in 2017, an NFL-high and fourth-fattest total in franchise history.
Part of an offensive line that endured a 55-game stretch during which no running back topped the 100-yard mark.
Part of an offensive line that experienced 42 different starting combinations during Andrew Luck’s abbreviated 86-game career.
But also part of an offensive line that contributed to Luck’s 53-33 record as a starter, four playoff appearances and a trip to the 2014 AFC Championship game.
And now, part of arguably the NFL’s top offensive line.
Yes, it’s been a wild ride for Anthony Castonzo. From 2011 first-round draft pick to the longest-tenured Colt. He’s entering his 10th season after delaying retirement and deciding against opting out of a COVID-19-impacted 2020.
And things have never been better, collectively, that is.
“Yeah, I can’t think of any group that I’ve been with here – I mean no disrespect to everybody else that I’ve played with – but this is as good as it gets in terms of a group of guys,’’ Castonzo said.
He’s back as the left tackle, this time charged with keeping Philip Rivers’ blindside protected. The rest: left guard Quenton Nelson, a two-time first-team All-Pro; center Ryan Kelly, coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance as an alternate; right guard Mark Glowinski and right tackle Braden Smith.
They were the only group in the NFL a year ago to start all 16 games, and the first by the Colts since 2000. They’re in position to join the 2002-03 Kansas City Chiefs and 2007-08 New York Giants as the only o-lines to start the same five players in consecutive seasons since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978.
Castonzo’s bias towards his cohorts is shared outside the Farm Bureau Football Center. Pro Football Focus has the Colts’ offensive line No. 1 in its preseason positional rankings. It was No. 3 last season.
“Last year’s No. 3 offensive line remains intact for 2020 and is primed to repeat as one of the league’s best,’’ PFF wrote.
The importance of Castonzo’s return can’t be overstated. He’s missed just 12 of 144 career starts, and is getting better as he’s getting older (he turns 32 on Sunday). PFF graded him at 81.3 last season, 7th among tackles. Smith was 9th.
And the impact of Nelson can’t be denied. He’s the first Colt and one of seven players since 1970 – none is a lineman – to be named first-team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons.
The accolades are nice, but carry no weight in the offensive line building on an impressive 2019. It played a heavy role – Run the Damn Ball, remember? – in the Colts finishing 7th in rushing, Marlon Mack posting his first 1,000-yard season and the protection ranking 10th in fewest sacks per pass play (32 overall). The rushing total was the most since 1988 and 9th-highest in franchise history.
There’s no magic bullet for the success. It’s the unit’s blue-collar approach.
“I think it is just kind of a bunch of factors compounded that adds to the line being so good,’’ said Castonzo. “It starts with just having five guys who can all play football really well.’’
Castonzo, Nelson (2018) and Kelly (2016) are first-round picks. Smith was a second-rounder in 2018. Glowinski, claimed off waivers in December 2017, was a 2015 fourth-round pick of Seattle.
“That skill level is the biggest thing,’’ Castonzo said. “I mean we’ve got five guys across the board who can really play. But yeah, just how seriously we take everything as well in terms of our bodies and staying healthy. I mean there is a reason that we all were able to be on the field as much as we were last year – just taking the offseason seriously.’’
Along with starting all 16 games, the five linemen missed just 92 of a combined 5,385 offensive snaps. Castonzo and Glowinski were on the field for all 1,077 snaps. Smith missed one. It took a concussion to KO Nelson for 32 snaps.
That continuity, for so long missing, is invaluable.
“Just the fact that we’ve been able to be together, kind of knowing what each other is going to do before they do it, having a lot of non-verbal communication,’’ Castonzo said. “The more that you play with somebody the more that you feel comfortable with them.
“In order to become a really good offensive line, there has to be a lot of different pieces that fall into place and things seem to be working for us.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.