Colts’ Camp: All eyes on Quenton Nelson vs DeForest Buckner

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INDIANAPOLIS, IN – MARCH 01: Notre Dame offensive lineman Quenton Nelson speaks to the media during NFL Combine press conferences at the Indiana Convention Center on March 1, 2018 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – It unquestionably will warrant klieg lights, or at the very least a drumroll to signal the magnitude of what’s to come.

When the pads come on Aug. 17 at the Farm Bureau Football Center and the Indianapolis Colts get down to the serious business of preparing for 2020, few matchups will match this one.

Offensive line vs. defensive line.

Quenton Nelson vs. DeForest Buckner.

It’ll be Big on Big on a daily basis. The ground might shake.

In less than six months, ideally what transpires during the 11-on-11 and positional work in full pads and with amped-up energy during training camp will have played a major role in the Colts making a deep playoff run or, again ideally, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy Feb.7 in Tampa.

Chris Ballard has made it clear his roster-building philosophy is rooted in an “everything starts up front’’ approach. Win the trenches. Set the tone. Bully whenever possible.

Buckner joins a deep and versatile defensive line. The cost of the March 18 trade with San Francisco was steep: the 13th overall pick in the draft and a four-year, $84 million extension.

Pro Football Focus has the Colts’ offensive line ranked No. 1, and it gets no argument from Buckner.

“You want to go against the best and obviously we have the best o-line in the league,’’ he said in a Friday Zoom conference call. “To be able to go against guys like Quenton it’s going to be a great opportunity not only for me but the other guys in the room.

“Being able to go against the best every day, when you go to the game it’s going to be easy for you.’’

The offensive line features three first-round picks: Nelson at left guard, left tackle Anthony Castonzo and center Ryan Kelly. Nelson is a two-time Pro Bowler and the first offensive lineman since at least 1970 to be named first-team All-Pro in each of his first two seasons. He recently ranked 26th on the NFL Network’s list of Top 100 players, the highest for a guard since the rankings began in 2011.

Buckner, the 7th overall pick in the 2016 draft, was second-team All-Pro last season and a Pro Bowl selection in 2018. He didn’t argue the point when someone asked if he’s been ‘slept on’ during his first four seasons.

“Yeah, man. That’s been my entire career,’’ Buckner said. “Every year I come in and I play with a chip on my shoulder. Even if the recognition doesn’t come, I let my play speak for itself.

“I do believe I’ve been slept on. It’s all good. It just fuels a fire for me.’’

No one will be sleeping on the Buckner vs. Nelson camp competition/collisions.

Ballard and coordinator Matt Eberflus are adamant the 3-technique – that’s Buckner’s position – is the “engine’’ that drives the defense.

Buckner considers himself one of the NFL’s best at the position, and there’s no question Nelson already has established himself as perhaps the NFL’s top guard.

“There’s not a lot of guys like me – big, lanky, powerful and can also show some quickness,’’ said the 6-7, 295-pound Buckner. “So it’s going to be a mixture of things that I can give the offensive line different looks at.

“I hope I make their jobs easier come game day and vice versa. It’s going to be a lot of fun being able to go against them all year. All you want to do is get better and I feel like that’s what we’re going to do throughout the season.’’

A couple of topics Buckner touched on:

Being a goals-driven player: “As a d-lineman, you’re always striving for the sack record,’’ he said.

That belongs to Michael Strahan with 22.5 in 2001. Robert Mathis set the Colts’ record with 19.5 in 2013.

“If you play d-line and that’s not your goal, I mean, I don’t know why you play d-line,’’ Buckner said. “Also, first-team All-Pro. I got second-team last year. Obviously I want to be a Pro Bowler. I made it in ’18, but I made it as an alternate. I want to be selected.

“Obviously for the team I want to win the Super Bowl. Being short last year obviously left a bad taste in my mouth.’’

The Niners led Kansas City 20-10 after three quarters in Super Bowl LIV, but yielded 21 fourth-quarter points to the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs.

“When you get there,’’ Buckner said, “you’ve got to make it count and I wasn’t able to make it count last year. I feel like we have the team to do it and we’ve just got to get it done.’’

Teaming with Darius Leonard: “Darius is an awesome dude,’’ Buckner said. “His personality, his approach to the game, you know what I mean? He’s having fun. Every day, every time he comes into the locker room – early in the morning until you leave – he’s the same person.

“He’s energetic. He’s that energy that you need on a daily basis. He brings it every day. He practices what he preaches. He’s just an awesome teammate all-around. I’m just excited to be able to play with the Maniac on the field.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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