Colts’ camp preview: Offensive line

Colts

INDIANAPOLIS – This is the next in a series taking a position-by-position look at the Indianapolis Colts heading into training camp, which is scheduled to open July 28 at the Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center.

Today: OFFENSIVE LINE

Starters: LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Mark Glowinski, RT Braden Smith

Depth: T Le’Raven Clark, G Jake Eldrenkamp, G Javon Patterson, G Danny Pinter (R), G Chaz Green, L Travis Vornkahl, T Carter O’Connell (R), G Cedrick Lang, T Andrew Donnal, T Brandon Hitner

Rare continuity: And then there were three? That’s the opportunity facing one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.

As last season unfolded, it got to be a topic that those involved preferred to ignore. You know, like talking about a pitcher’s no-hitter in the eighth or ninth inning. Let’s not jinx things.

Each week, Anthony Castonzo lined up at left tackle, Quenton Nelson at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center, Mark Glowinski at right guard and Braden Smith at right tackle. The streak nearly ended at 15, but the group finished what it started when Nelson cleared the NFL’s concussion protocol – he suffered head trauma week 16 versus Carolina – and was back at his normal spot in the season wrap-up at Jacksonville.

The Colts joined the 2018 Rams, ’16 Falcons and ’15 Vikings as the only offensive line combos in the past five seasons to start all 16 games. It was the first time the Colts remained intact since 2000.

Now, that group has the opportunity to join truly elite company.

Since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule in 1978, only two teams have had the same five players on the offensive line start every regular-season game in consecutive seasons: the 2007-08 New York Giants and the 2002-03 Kansas City Chiefs.

The Giants’ group holds the regular-season streak for most consecutive starts at 38: Chris Snee, Rich Seubert, Shaun O’Hara, Kareem McKenzie and David Diehl.

Injuries are part of the NFL and routinely force adjustments along the offensive line. Here’s where we remind you Andrew Luck played behind 42 different o-line combinations in his 86 regular-season starts.

“You just get unlucky one year or you get really lucky and you have all five guys start on the offensive line for 16 games,’’ Frank Reich said. “You can’t count on that every year, but that’s just the ebb and flow of the game.’’

What’s next? 

Quenton Nelson has set a high standard for the Colts’ o-line, and himself. On an individual level, he’s making it difficult to measure up to . . . Quenton Nelson.

Consider the neighborhood Nelson resides in after two seasons. He’s the first Colt named first-team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons. Not impressed? Since the 1970 merger, he’s the first offensive lineman and just the seventh player to be selected first-team All-Pro in his first two seasons. The other six: Lawrence Taylor, Eric Dickerson, Earl Campbell, Barry Sanders, Devin Hester and Keith Jackson.

ESPN Insider Jeremy Fowler surveyed 50 NFL types and came up with a list of the top players at each position. Atop the list of interior offensive linemen: Nelson.

“Just turn on the tape. You’ll see why he’s No. 1,’’ an AFC executive told Fowler.

According to Pro Football Focus, Nelson hasn’t allowed a sack in his last 30 games. When it comes to the run game, there’s no lack of video showcasing his prowess as a pancaker.

Not everyone was on board when Chris Ballard invested the 6th overall pick in the 2018 draft on the Notre Dame All-American (we weren’t). No one questioned Nelson’s status as an elite guard, but he didn’t play at a premium position.

In short order, Nelson has shut everyone up. He has helped set the tone in the position room and on the playing field. He’s started all 34 games, including the postseason, and missed just 32 of a possible 2,342 offensive snaps.

Back for more

One of the more significant offseason decisions involved Castonzo putting off retirement and returning for at least a 10th season. Trust us, management and the coaching staff were relieved when their cornerstone left tackle signed a two-year, $33 million extension.

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

The extension pipeline now focuses on Ryan Kelly. The 2016 first-round draft pick is playing under his fifth-year option ($10.35 million), and a long-term deal is needed.

“I have the most confidence in Chris that . . . I think we have something special on our offensive line,’’ Kelly said. “I’d like to play my entire career in Indianapolis. I truly believe that I’ll be here for a while, I hope.’’

Kelly was one of the first players Reich met when he was named head coach. That first impression was immense.

“I remember saying to Chris, ‘If we are going to go where we want to go as an offense, then Ryan Kelly is going to have to step up and be an alpha dog,’’’ Reich said. “Man, I didn’t realize how much of an alpha dog he is. He has been top-notch.

“I mean this guy has taken complete control of the offensive line room as far as the calls, what we do in the protection world and the run game. He’s got that deep voice, and he talks with a lot of authority. I just think Ryan breeds confidence.’’

Kelly, who turned 27 in May, seems to be coming into his own. Last season, he started all 16 games for the second time in his career and was selected to his first Pro Bowl as an alternate.

Depth concerns 

Let’s be clear – 2019 was an aberration. The NFL is more about attrition than the same five offensive linemen starting every game. The only backups to step on the field last season were Joe Haeg (74 snaps) and Josh Andrews (61). Swing tackle Le’Raven Clark didn’t play at all.

“I really am hopeful that we can go again with our same five starters playing every snap,’’ Reich said. “I don’t know how realistic that is.

“I don’t want to say (depth is) a concern. It’s always a priority.’’

Haeg relocated to Tampa and Andrews signed with the New York Jets. That leaves Clark as the only returnee with anything resembling experience. The 2016 third-round draft pick has appeared in 35 games, 12 as a starter.

The most likely backups at guard are Jake Eldrenkamp, who spent most of last season on the practice squad, and fifth-round pick Danny Pinter. One name to watch is Chaz Green, an offseason addition. He was a 2015 third-round pick of Dallas who has appeared in 22 games with seven starts.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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