Anthony Castonzo’s return brought ‘big ol’ smile’ to Chris Ballard’s face

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Sooner or later, Chris Ballard realizes he must consider life without Anthony Castonzo.

It will be later.

One of the most pressing potential concerns for Ballard and the Indianapolis Colts was eased within the past two weeks when Castonzo, their blue-collar left tackle the past nine seasons, informed them he would return at least for 2020.

“Brought a big ol’ smile to my face,’’ Ballard said.

The 2011 first-round draft pick put the team on notice at the end of last season when he announced his ninth season might be his last. Retirement was on the table.

“It’s personal reasons,’’ Castonzo said. “I’ve got some thinking to do.’’

Those internal struggles led him to extending his career, which eased Ballard’s concerns.

“I didn’t have a sense. Not at all,’’ Ballard said Tuesday during a break from the NFL Scouting Combine. “Anthony has played a lot of great football and he’s been a great Colt. He’s going to continue to be a great Colt

“I just wanted to give him his time.’’

Speaking of time, it appears Castonzo’s commitment doesn’t necessarily go beyond the coming season. It’s conceivable Ballard might be in the market for a starting left tackle after 2020.

“Right now it’s a year-to-year deal,’’ he said.

The market for a top-end left tackle is an annual payout of roughly $14-16 million. The Arizona Cardinals recently signed D.J. Humphries to a three-year extension worth $45 million with $13.9 million guaranteed. Humphries is 26, Castonzo 31.

Ballard indicated the Colts would retain Castonzo with a new contract, not the franchise tag.

“I don’t see that,’’ he said.

Castonzo has yet to earn a Pro Bowl berth, but no one should question his value to the Colts. He’s started 140 of a possible 152 games at one of the game’s most demanding positions. And then there’s this: the Colts are 2-10 when Castonzo has been out of the lineup.

“I think he had the best year of his career last year and am very excited to have him back,’’ Frank Reich said.

With Castonzo back for a 10th season, the Colts move forward knowing they once again feature one of the NFL’s top offensive lines: Castonzo, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski, right tackle Braden Smith. Nelson has been first-team All-Pro and a Pro Bowler in each of his first two seasons. Kelly made his first Pro Bowl appearance in January.

For the first time since 2000, the same unit started all 16 games. That’s in stark contrast to what Andrew Luck had to endure. During his 86-game career, he played behind 42 different o-line combinations.

Perhaps, Reich joked, the o-line’s streak – and not being the reason it ended – figured into Castonzo’s decision to return.

“I wouldn’t want to be the guy to stop that streak, saying I was just going to retire,’’ Reich said with a grin. “It’ll be interesting when you guys get a chance to talk with him how much pressure did he great from the other four?’’

Added Ballard: “Getting Anthony back and having the starting five, I know him and Quenton have built quite a relationship and continuity on the same side. I think all five have built a continuity. With the o-line, it’s not always about having the five best talent, but having the five guys that will play together. It’s big for us.’’

Along with his durability, Castonzo has aided the Colts’ passing game with his sheer presence. In most cases, he faces a top-level pass rusher with little help in the form of chipping running back.

“It’s a low percentage of the time,’’ Reich said. “What you’re afforded is – boom – you now got that back out (and) you’ve got more pressure on the defense. I can’t begin to explain what an advantage that is schematically in the pass game not to have to help protect him all the time.

“He gets very little help. He tells me that all the time. He lets me know, but he’ll be compensated accordingly. Good to have him back.’’

With Castonzo essentially being in year-to-year mode – Ballard’s words – it’s important for the Colts to prepare for when he actually does walk away. There doesn’t appear to be a viable alternative on the roster with either Joe Haeg or Le’Raven Clark. Each, by the way, will be a free agent if a new contract isn’t forthcoming.

Had Castonzo retired, it’s conceivable Ballard would have zeroed in on a left tackle with the 13th overall pick in April’s NFL Draft.

“That’s a position I think you always need to look at from a developmental standpoint because of the speed of the game, the changes in the technique on the o-line,’’ he said. “I think it’s better to anticipate that a year or two earlier and start to get some guys in the pipeline.

“We’ve been fortunate here because we’ve had Joe Haeg and Le’Raven. We’ve had some guys that have been young and been able to develop and when they’ve had to step in and play, we were able to continue to play good football up front. We definitely have to keep our eye on that.’’

That should never be in question. As Ballard was asked about quarterbacks and receivers and other draft-related positions, he frequently found a way to pivot to the offensive line.

“Always,’’ he said. “I mean, y’all obsess about wideouts. I obsess about o-line and d-line.’’

Ballard on Brissett

Not surprisingly, the topic on Tuesday occasionally turned to the status of Jacoby Brissett, who endured a two-phased 2019: good enough in the first half of the season, not nearly good enough in the second half.

“Let me say this: This thing has taken on a life of its own,’’ Ballard said, shaking his head. “We did a two-year deal with Jacoby to find out. We like Jacoby Brissett. Love what he stands for. It almost was a tale of two seasons where we’re 5-2 (and) he’s playing good football. He had the injury and we had injuries as a team and we kind of slid down.

“We did the short-term deal to see what we had. To say we’re going to create competition (at quarterback), we’re going to create competition at any spot. That’s going to be a year-to-year thing. Even when Andrew was our quarterback, we still studied the quarterback position. I think it’s important enough that it’s a unique position. We know how hard they are to find and you have to go in depth each and every year for that spot.’’

Ballard on Luck

That would be Andrew Luck, who suddenly retired Aug. 24.

“Andrew’s retired,’’ Ballard said with a smile. “This is unbelievable . . . should have timed it. Twelve minutes until the first Andrew Luck questions.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

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