Recapping the 2019 Colts: Offensive line

Sports

LONDON, ENGLAND – OCTOBER 02: Anthony Castonzo of Indianapolis looks on during the NFL International Series match between Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars at Wembley Stadium on October 2, 2016 in London, England. (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – All’s quiet, or so it seems. Players have scattered and practice fields at the Farm Bureau Football Center are vacant.

But don’t kid yourself. There’s no such thing as an offseason with the Indianapolis Colts or the NFL.

“We are building a foundation of players that can have sustainable success,’’ Frank Reich said. “We just need to continue to fight to get better. Everything will be evaluated and everything is held accountable.’’

Chris Ballard described the 7-9 record “a stain that does not easily wash away.’’

He quickly added, “We’ve got to get better.’’

No one’s asked for our input, but we’ll offer it anyway. Over the next few weeks we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts, including what went right, what went wrong and what might occur.

Today: Offensive line.

  • Starters: LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Mark Glowinski, RT Braden Smith.
  • Backups: Joe Haeg, Le’Raven Clark, Josh Andrews, Jake Eldrenkamp.

The good:

It was a season like few before it. The stats that drive that home? Joe Haeg was on the field for 74 of 1,077 offensive snaps, many in the role as an extra lineman. Josh Andrews handled 61 snaps. Backup swing tackle Le’Raven Clark never stepped on the field.

For the first time since 2000, the starting unit was intact from start to finish. More than that, the group hogged the playing time. Anthony Castonzo and Mark Glowinski didn’t miss a snap. Braden Smith missed one against Carolina.

“It’s rare when that happens just because injuries are 100 percent in the NFL,’’ said Kelly.

Remember the revolving door when Andrew Luck was under center? He played behind 42 different starting units in his 86 career games.

Not surprisingly, the continuity led to productivity. The Colts featured the NFL’s No. 7-ranked running attack – they breached the 2,000-yard mark for the first time since 1994 – and ranked No. 10 in fewest sacks allowed per pass attempt.

That team success led to individual recognition.

Nelson was selected to his second straight Pro Bowl and once again was named All-Pro. Kelly was a first alternate to the Pro Bowl and added when Pittsburgh’s Maurkice Pouncey pulled out with an injury. Castonzo also was a Pro Bowl alternate.

The most encouraging aspect of the season was the sustained excellence of Castonzo in his 9th season and continued improvement of Nelson, Kelly and Smith.

Ballard described Nelson as “pretty special. Q is unique, man, not only as a player but as a teammate . . . I love going in the locker room . . . you hate it after the losses, but when you see this kid’s care factor, it’s like somebody shot him when things don’t go well for us.

“It’s a deep hurt and it’s infectious.’’

And then there’s this.

“He hasn’t reached his ceiling yet,’’ Ballard said.

The same is true with Smith. He showed undeniable growth in what was just his second season at right tackle. Remember, the Colts drafted him to be a starting guard.

The bad:

For all the successes, there still were too many hiccups by an offensive line regarded as one of the NFL’s best. That was especially true when things unraveled late and a more impactful line could have helped stop the bleeding.

During a three-game stretch versus Tennessee, Tampa Bay and New Orleans, the Colts’ run game wilted: averages of 3.1 yards per carry and 64.7 yards per game. That placed too much pressure on the Jacoby Brissett-led passing game that too often fell woefully short.

Despite ranking in the top-10 in protection, the Colts still allowed 32 sacks, and Brissett’s strength in the pocket kept that number down. They yielded at least 3 sacks in seven games. That was too much by an elite group.

Also, Glowinski might have been the weak link of the group after signing a three-year, $18 million extension in the offseason. He was penalized a team-high 10 times – that included four false starts and three holding penalties – and allowed 2 sacks.

The offseason:

Anthony Castonzo, the ball’s in your court. Does the offensive cornerstone who turns 32 in August decide to return for a 10th season with a lucrative extension? Or does he retire and add a significant issue to Ballard’s offseason “To Do’’ list?

“I love it here, for sure. It’s great,’’ Castonzo said the day after the Colts wrapped up a 7-9 season. “But I’ve got some decisions to make. It’s personal reasons.’’

If Castonzo returns, it’ll undoubtedly be with a contract extension worth at least $14 million per season. The offensive line will continue to feature durability and reliability at its most important position. He’s missed just 12 of 152 games since being selected with the 22nd overall pick in 2011.

“Just looking forward to hopefully getting him back,’’ Reich said.

Added Ballard: “I hold Anthony Castonzo in high, high regard. If he decides to retire, then it’s our job to find an answer.’’

There’s no suitable successor on the roster. If Castonzo walks away, the Colts will have to find his replacement on the veteran free-agent market or in the April NFL draft. They hold nine picks overall, including three of the top 44. It’s possible Ballard would have to target a left tackle with the 13th overall pick.

In non-Castonzo matters, the Colts should make an effort to re-sign Haeg and Clark, two of their pending unrestricted free agents. Last season was an aberration. Depth always – always – is an issue with the offensive line.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51

And be sure to catch the Colts Blue Zone Podcast:

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