INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – It’s a comment that drew immediate attention.
Let me say this: The offensive line is fixed.
That was owner Jim Irsay in June. His audience was a slice of his fan base at a Town Hall meeting at Butler University and the subject matter was an Indianapolis Colts offensive line that for too long had been a liability.
Two months later, that comment has lost its bite. The offensive line is anything but fixed.
It’s a mess, and the Colts are running out of time – and viable options – to clean it up. The season opener with the Los Angeles Rams is less than three weeks away.
The extended absence of quarterback Andrew Luck remains the overriding issue for a franchise looking to return to the postseason for the first time since 2014, but the unsettled nature of the offensive line can’t be overstated. Whether it’s Luck or Scott Tolzien directing the offense against the Rams Sept. 10, he figures to be working behind a less-than-ideal line.
Barring the addition of a quick-study offensive lineman when rosters are trimmed to 53 Sept. 2, that combination might be:
- Left tackle Anthony Castonzo. The 2011 first-round draft pick has started 89 of 96 regular-season games, but continues to struggle with his consistency. It’s imperative he elevates his game commensurate to his salary cap hit ($12.8 million).
- Left guard Joe Haeg. He might have found a home after a year ago becoming the first rookie to start three positions since New Orleans’ Kyle Turley in 1998.
- Center Deyshawn Bond. With Ryan Kelly likely to miss at least the first month of the season following foot surgery, the position probably belongs to the undrafted rookie and Warren Central High School product.
- Right guard Jack Mewhort. The 2014 second-round pick heads into his fourth season as an O-line mainstay.
- Right tackle (fill in the blank). No position is murkier as the Colts head into their third preseason game, Saturday night’s test against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
“We’re just going to keep moving around, get guys in spots,’’ Chuck Pagano said Tuesday.
Le’Raven Clark, a 2016 third-round pick, spent the bulk of his rookie season inactive before starting the final three games at right tackle. That’s where he worked throughout the offseason and where he was stationed for the preseason opener against Detroit.
Dissatisfied with Clark’s performance against the Lions, the coaching staff benched him and went with Jeremy Vujnovich at Dallas. Last season, Vujnovich appeared in two games and spent the much of the year on the Colts’ practice squad. He possesses flexibility, having worked at both guard and tackle spots, but has yet to appear in a regular-season game.
“It’s tough,’’ Vujnovich said of moving around, “but it’s good because you become an all-around offensive lineman. You get to work left side, right side, guard, tackle, and that way whenever they need somebody to go in a game, hopefully you know what you’re doing and you get in there quick.’’
Perhaps Vujnovich starts again against at Pittsburgh, or maybe the Colts turn to a different right tackle for a third straight preseason game. And that would be rookie Zach Banner.
Without prompting, Pagano mentioned the team’s massive fourth-round draft pick when discussing the right-tackle options.
“Zach Banner has been out here every day,’’ he said. “He’s getting better every single day. He’s a big, big man.
“I’m excited to see how he does this game.’’
Banner acknowledged he’s been taking practice reps “with the 1s and 2s,’’ but quickly added not to “read anything into it.’’
However, it’s difficult not to include the 6-9, 358-pounder in the jumbled offensive line mix. The coaching staff still is searching for the best five offensive linemen, and Clark’s inability to secure right tackle opens the door for someone else.
“I really feel like I’m getting better,’’ Banner said. “If I’m going to judge myself from when I checked into camp and (when) we left OTAs, I would give myself an A-minus in getting better.
“But if I was going to give myself an overall rating, it would be like 71 out of 100. That’s a C-minus with a good teacher. There’s a lot of room for improvement.’’
Banner was talking about himself, but could have been discussing the offensive line as a whole. It hasn’t established itself as a viable group through two preseason games. The Colts are averaging just 3.4 yards per rush and have yielded six sacks.
At a time when the Colts should be fine-tuning their offensive line, they’re scrambling.
Kelly’s foot injury complicates matters, as does Brian Schwenke’s continued presence on the physically unable to perform list. Had Schwenke been available when Kelly went down, the offseason free-agent acquisition likely would have stepped in at center.
Instead of entering the season with cohesion and confidence, the offensive line is searching for its identity. Since his arrival in 2012, Luck has played behind 35 different starting combinations in his 70 regular-season starts.
“I think it’s too early to draw judgments,’’ Mewhort argued. “We all know we have a lot of work to do: offensive line, offense, the Colts in general.