Colts’ camp preview: Offensive line


Ryan Kelly (photo courtesy of Getty Images)

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The wait is nearly over. Months of speculation – how much progress did general manager Chris Ballard actually make in his offseason upgrade of the Indianapolis Colts’ roster? – will give way to some type of reality.

Players report July 25 for the start of training camp at Grand Park in Westfield, and then we’ll get some answers.

“Let’s just wait until training camp, get everybody out there, be at full strength,’’ coach Frank Reich said.

Between now and then, we’ll take a look at some positions of interest.

Today: Offensive line.
Projected starters: LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Matt Slauson, RT Austin Howard.
Key backups: Joe Haeg, Jack Mewhort, Denzelle Good, Le’Raven Clark, Deyshawn Bond, Jeremy Vujnovich, Braden Smith.
Others: Tyreek Burwell, Jared Macorro, Mark Glowinski.

Nasty, which is good:

It’s been the buzzword since Ballard went against tradition and used the 6th overall pick in April’s draft on a guard. Nasty. That’s the mindset that contributed Nelson, the All-American out of Notre Dame, developing into one of the premier guard prospects in recent memory. Again, so convinced was Ballard of Nelson’s potential he made him the first pure guard since Jim Dombrowski in 1986 to be selected with a top-6 selection.

“He’s good both as a run blocker and pass-pro,’’ Ballard said. “He’s nasty. He’s tough. He’s everything we want to stand for as a team.

“His football character is off the charts, and that’s something that we want to keep adding.’’

The 6-5, 325-pound Nelson attributed his nasty disposition to competing with older brother Connor growing up. It has served him well.

“I got picked on by my brother a lot, so he helped me out,’’ Nelson said. “And my dad always told me to, ‘Finish your blocks through the echo of the whistle.’ That’s where (the nastiness) came from.

“I would say that I’m a very nasty offensive lineman that wants to finish his man every play. In life I’m a really nice person, and then when I get on the football field, it’s time to flip the switch and do my job to the best of my ability to help my team win.’’

Kelly, who must bounce back from an injury-plagued second season, agrees with the importance of everyone embracing the ‘nasty’ approach.

“Just finishing,’’ he said. “It’s just when a defensive line comes up and they see us walking to the line of scrimmage, they know, ‘OK, these guys are going to pepper us every single time.’ If it’s that late shove at the end of the game or the end of the play or whatever it is to protect our wide receivers or our running backs . . . it just instills a mindset to the entire defense that look, these are out guys (and) we’re going to protect them and you’re not going to touch them.’’

Ballard described the decision to select Nelson with the 6th overall selection, ‘the easiest pick I’ve ever been a part of. By far. He’s going to make Ryan Kelly better. He’s going to make Castonzo better.’’

Offseason of change:

Training camp competition will determine who plays where and who starts, but it’s possible three-fifths of the starting unit will have been added during the offseason. Nelson is a given at left guard, and he’ll be the 13th player to start at that spot since 2012. Free agent Slauson probably is the early favorite to open at right guard, although he’ll have to fend off the challenges of Smith and Mewhort. This is a prove-it season for Mewort, the 2014 second-round pick who has missed 17 games the last two seasons with a variety of injuries.

Howard, another free-agent pickup, took the majority of reps during the offseason at right tackle. He goes against Ballard’s youth movement – he’s 31 – but has started 88 games with four teams since 2010.

We’ll try to keep track of Haeg during camp. He has started 29 games at three positions the last two seasons – right tackle and both guard spots – and might be on the move again. The coaching staff took a long, hard look at the 2016 fifth-round pick as Kelly’s backup during the offseason.

Worth noting:

New position coach Dave DeGuglielmo understands his group’s primary responsibility. And that would be to protect the franchise’s meal ticket, Andrew Luck.

“Hopefully we’re going to have ‘the man’ back there,’’ he said. “That’s the one thing that increases the pressure on our group. When you have a guy – especially a guy that’s been injured – standing back there, you have to understand that’s the man that lets you eat.

“You want to eat, (so) you take care of the meal ticket. That’s the way it goes, and it really doesn’t matter who’s back there. That guy is allowing you to eat.’’

Since Luck’s arrival in 2012, pass protection has been a lingering problem. Luck has been sacked 156 times in 70 regular-season starts and hit while throwing more than 400 times. Brissett was sacked a league-high 52 times a year ago while Luck was out with his shoulder issues.

The Colts have yielded a league-high 691 QB hits since ’12.

“You’ve got to protect the quarterback,’’ Reich said.

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