Colts’ training camp preview: Offensive line
INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – An offseason of major change ramps up July 29 when the Indianapolis Colts report to their Indiana Farm Bureau Football Center for the start of training camp.
Over the next several days, we’ll take a positional look at how general manager Chris Ballard has structured the roster. Is the team equipped to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2014 or will it miss the postseason in three consecutive seasons for the first time in more than two decades (1988-94)?
Today: Offensive line.
Projected starters: LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Jack Mewhort, C Ryan Kelly, RG Joe Haeg, RT Le’Raven Clark.
Top backups: T/G Denzelle Good, C/G Brian Schwenke, T Jeremy Vujnovich, T Zach Banner.
Others: T Andrew Wylie, T Jerry Ugokwe, G Adam Redmond, T Blake Muir, G Deyshawn Bond, T Fahn Cooper
Questions remain: No higher authority than Jim Irsay has insisted his Colts have finally – finally – solved their lingering migraine. That would be the offensive line.
Here’s a reminder of his comments during a town hall meeting last month with season ticket holders. “Let me say this: The offensive line is fixed,’’ he said.
Irsay’s confidence was based on a discussion he shared with former long-time position coach Howard Mudd, even though Mudd subsequently indicated Irsay had, well, embellished things a bit.
We’ll not go down that rabbit hole again. But we’re reserving judgment on the fitness of the offensive line until we see the finished product in early September.
It was assumed the right side of the line crystalized during offseason work. Joe Haeg, the first rookie since New Orleans’ Kyle Turley in 1998 to start at three positions, worked at right guard. Le’Raven Clark, inactive for eight games but a three-game starter at right tackle as a rookie, took the bulk of reps with the No. 1 unit at right tackle.
What say you, Rob Chudzinski?
“We’ll go into camp open-minded,’’ said the offensive coordinator. “There’s nothing set as far as who’s going to be on that side, who’s going to be playing.’’
The offensive line, Chudzinski added, is an area that requires the physicality of training camp to adequately assess.
“That’s one position that until those pads go on an until those guys are out there having to fight their ass off every day that you really find out,’’ he said.
No argument here. But it’s encouraging Chudzinski and position coach Joe Philbin exposed Haeg and Clark to significant work on the right side during the offseason. Each benefitted from his rookie season and each was given an opportunity develop at one spot.
Haeg conceded the Colts “put a lot on my table’’ last season, “but I kind of thrive in that environment. Same way with competition in the room. The more you have of it, the more it’s going to push you to become better.’’
Camp competition also must answer a couple of other questions.
One, who replaces retired Joe Reitz as the invaluable moveable part? That might be Good, who has started at both right guard and right tackle the last two seasons. Schwenke, a free-agent pickup from Cincinnati, offers experienced depth at guard and center.
Also, who emerges as the swing tackle? Good? Vujnovich? Maybe Zach Banner if the massive 6-9, 360-pound rookie gets up to speed in a hurry?
Left side intact?: The strength of Andrew Luck’s line should be – must be – the left side with Castonzo at tackle, Mewhort at guard and Kelly at center. Castonzo needs to play up to his contract – his per-year average of $10.953 million ranks 12th among left tackles – and Kelly needs to build on a solid rookie season. Kelly, the 18th overall pick in the 2016 draft, was one of 11 rookies to start all 16 games. He also didn’t yield a sack.
Our concern rests with Mewhort. The 2014 second-round draft pick missed three games a year ago with a triceps injury, then was placed on the injured reserve list for the final three games with what was described as a chondral defect issue with his left knee.
Mewhort was upbeat in mid-April at the start of the team’s offseason workouts.
“I can’t wait to turn the page on last year and start moving forward feeling good,’’ he said. “Positive, good energy and physically feel the best I’ve felt.’’
Mewhort’s practice time was managed during the organized team activities (OTAs). But he did not participate in the veteran minicamp in mid-June and wasn’t even on the field as a spectator.
We won’t sound an alarm over his absence, but neither was it a positive sign as he rehabs the knee injury.
If Mewhort is 100 percent, the line might be “fixed.’’ If not, shuffling will be required. That might result in Schwenke getting a long look at left guard.
Worth noting: It was an offseason of growth for the line. Several offensive linemen reported to team headquarters shortly after last season ended, intent on working as individuals and progressing as a group.
“We spend way too much time together,’’ Castonzo said with a smile. “I think it’s because no one else likes us actually. Our girl friends are feeling neglected.
“We all hang out together.’’
No area is more dependent on continuity and chemistry. But no area has dealt with more upheaval than the offensive line. Andrew Luck has lined up behind 35 different starting combinations in his 70 regular-season starts. That includes taking snaps from six centers.
A byproduct? Luck has been sacked 156 times in those 70 games. Since his arrival in 2012, the Colts’ pass protection has 578 “QB hits,’’ most in the NFL.