INDIANAPOLIS – Every option was on the table as the Indianapolis Colts wrestled with the decision on how best to replace retired left tackle Anthony Castonzo, including one that involved moving a generational left guard who really didn’t want to move.
Given his druthers, Quenton Nelson preferred to stay put.
“I definitely wanted to stay at left guard, but I was going to do whatever the team required me to do,’’ he said Monday on a Zoom conference call. “You have to do what’s required and help the team in anyway possible to win games.
“If that had me at left tackle or had me at left guard, I was going to do it.’’
His preference to remain at left guard was basic.
“Because I’ve played that position for three years and throughout college, too,’’ Nelson said.
He’s done more than just play well at left guard. Nelson is the first offensive lineman and just the fifth player since the 1970 merger to earn first-team All-Pro honors in each of his first three seasons. The elite company he’s keeping includes Barry Sanders, Lawrence Taylor, Earl Campbell and Keith Jackson.
If Nelson makes it 4-for-4, he’ll join Taylor as the only player to open a career with four first-team All-Pro selections.
That’s why the Colts kept a Nelson relocation among their options in the left-tackle debate, but never wanted to travel that route.
“That was not an option that we wanted to have to do right from the very start,’’ coach Frank Reich admitted. “As Chris (Ballard, general manager) and I and the staff talked about it, it was a legitimate option, but you’ve got a guy who’s one of the best left guards in the game – maybe he’ll end up being one of the best ever – but talk about sticking your neck out.
“That would be a sticking-your-neck-out move: one of the best at his position and taking him off that position. We did want to do everything we could do to keep him at left guard.’’
The Colts finally filled Castonzo’s vacancy by signing veteran Eric Fisher to a one-year, $9.4 million contract. It’s uncertain when Fisher’s rehab from a torn Achilles tendon will allow him to settle in at left tackle, but the team’s long-range goal is to re-sign him to a multi-year deal at the end of 2021.
Prior to signing Fisher, a two-time Pro Bowl selection in eight seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, Ballard’s options included selecting a starting left tackle in the April draft. That didn’t materialize.
“In typical Ballard fashion (he) was very patient, looked at all the options, had multiple plans – Plan A, Plan B, backup plans – and it ended up playing out the way I think Chris originally envisioned it working out,’’ Reich said.
Securing Fisher allowed the Colts to keep four of their starting linemen in place: Nelson, Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski and right tackle Braden Smith.
“That’s invaluable,’’ Kelly said. “You look at Quenton playing left guard, he’s the best left guard for a reason. Same with Glowinski, same with Braden.’’
Glowinski and Smith are among the best at their position, he added, because they’ve been allowed to focus entirely on their position.
“To not shuffle it around is immensely important,’’ Kelly said. “I saw it through college and all the way growing up . . . when you move guys around, people think you can just take pieces to the puzzle and put them back together.
“But it’s a little more complicated than that. I think everybody is excited to stay where they are and have an addition like (Fisher) to come in there and to push the room. He’s been in a lot of big games, Super Bowl and all that.’’
Nelson agreed continuity is critical to the development of the offensive line. He’s started all 48 regular-season games since being selected with the 6th overall pick in the 2018 draft. Smith has started 45 of 48 and Glowinski 43 of 48. Kelly has started 66 of a possible 80 games since being taken with the 18th overall pick in ’16, including 43 the last three seasons.
“Everyone staying at their respective positions, that’s what everyone’s confortable with,’’ Nelson said. “It’s what we’ve done for the last three years, going on four now.
“Just exciting to keep building this thing together.’’
The Colts’ offensive line has established itself as one of the NFL’s best.
Since the arrival of Nelson and Smith in ’18, Indy has allowed 71 sacks – that’s the second-fewest in the NFL – and piled up 5,844 rushing yards, 10th-most in the league. Marlon Mack rushed for a career-high 1,091 yards in 2019 while rookie Jonathan Taylor finished third in the league a year ago with 1,169 yards.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.