INDIANAPOLIS – Change looms, and it’s not reserved for an Indianapolis Colts defense that will follow a new leader.
While there’s no question the defense is headed in a new direction – Gus Bradley has replaced Matt Eberflus as coordinator, and he’ll be surrounded by a new group of assistants – an area that has been a cornerstone/strength also is heading into an offseason of adjustment.
That would be the offensive line.
It hasn’t lost its position in importance.
“My belief system will never change,’’ Chris Ballard said. “You’ve got to be good on the o-line, d-line. You have to be.
“The one thing I won’t change is on-line, d-line. You win up front.’’
But the Colts’ o-line will change to some degree, and that’s not necessarily a reflection on it enduring an uncharacteristically lackluster 2021. It was one of the NFL’s best at run blocking – Jonathan Taylor led the league in rushing with a franchise-record 1,811 yards – but was nothing special in keeping Carson Wentz out of harm’s way.
Pass protection, which involves more moving parts than the five linemen, ranked 13th in sacks per pass play. The 32 sacks allowed represented a huge bounce from 2020 – 21 with an immobile Philip Rivers under center – and Wentz’s elusiveness helped keep the total down. He also was hit 109 times, according to NFL stats.
Injuries and COVID-19 made continuity impossible. Position coach Kevin Strausser used 10 different starting combinations. Nine players started at least three games.
Three-fifths of the starting unit returns: left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Braden Smith. The only other notable returning backup is Danny Pinter, a 2020 fifth-round pick who started three games at center when Kelly was on the COVID-19 list and dealing with the death of his infant daughter.
Elsewhere, uncertainty reigns.
Mark Glowinski, the starting right guard in 55 of the last 60 regular-season games, will be a free agent in March. Ditto, Chris Reed, who signed a one-year, $1 million deal last offseason and appeared in 14 games with four starts at left guard and two at right guard.
Reed could be re-signed and viewed as Glowinski’s replacement at right guard.
Left tackle Eric Fisher was brought in on a one-year, $8 million prove-it contract and did little to prove he could be the long-term answer at the position. His rehab from a torn Achilles kept him out of training camp, leaked into the regular season and impacted his effectiveness throughout the season. According to Pro Football Focus, Fisher allowed a team-high 7 sacks along with 11 quarterback hits and 41 pressures.
“The left tackle is what the left tackle is,’’ Ballard said. “We short-term fixed it. We’ve still got to be looking for a long-term solution there.
“If we have to short-term fix it again because a long-term solution doesn’t show up, that’s what we’ll do.’’
Fisher again might be the short-term remedy. Perhaps he’ll regain his Pro Bowl form with a full season to work on his craft and not on rehab. If, that is, there’s mutual interest in a second season. Considering the prime position he plays, Fisher could draw interest on the free-agent market.
Ballard conceded Fisher had protection “struggles’’ last season, but added he was “really good in the run game.’’
“Fisher’s got a lot of good football left in him,’’ he said.
If not Fisher, it’s possible the Colts re-sign Matt Pryor. They acquired him in an August trade with Philadelphia, and he appeared in all 17 games with four starts at right tackle for Smith and one at left tackle.
One player not being considered at left tackle? Quenton Nelson.
Ballard was quick to snuff out that speculation.
“No. No. Why would you move a Hall of Fame left guard to left tackle?” he said during his post-season meeting with the media. “That just makes no sense to me.
“We’re not doing that.’’
What the Colts likely will do with Nelson is sign him to a lottery-level extension this offseason. He’s heading into the fifth year of his rookie contract, which carries a 2022 base salary of $13.75 million.
A new deal most certainly will raise the ceiling for guards and could make the 6th overall pick in the 2018 draft the highest-paid offensive lineman in NFL history.
For reference points, Washington’s Brandon Scherff is the NFL’s highest-paid guard at $18 million per season. The highest-paid linemen? Left tackles Trent Williams of San Francisco and David Bakhtiari of Green Bay at $23 million annually.
“Want him to be a Colt long term,’’ Ballard said. “We’ll work through that.’’
He’ll also have to address the top-to-bottom depth of the o-line room.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.