INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – In the short term, the picture is crystal clear regarding what has been a blurred image.
When the Indianapolis Colts close their preseason against the Cincinnati Bengals Thursday evening at Paul Brown Stadium, Joe Haeg is expected to start at right tackle and rookie Braden Smith at right guard. In all likelihood, Le’Raven Clark remains at left tackle while Anthony Castonzo deals with an injury to his right hamstring.
Castonzo, who has missed only seven of a possible 118 games, steadfastly predicted he’ll be in the starting lineup Sept. 9 when the Colts open the season against the Bengals.
The preseason has been one audition after another at right tackle: J’Marcus Webb was the starter at Seattle, followed by Smith against Baltimore and Austin Howard against San Francisco. Howard’s tryout lasted three plays. He gave up a third-down sack and was replaced by Webb.
Now, it’s Haeg. It’s anybody’s guess – including the Colts – if he’ll be there Sept. 9.
“I think we’re getting close to a final decision,’’ coach Frank Reich said Tuesday. “After that game, we’ll be ready to roll.’’
We’ve considered Haeg the favorite to secure the position, especially after Denzelle Good suffered an injury to his left knee Saturday evening against the 49ers. He has emerged as the line’s most versatile player since being selected in the fifth round of the 2016 draft.
Haeg has appeared in 31 games and divvied 29 starts among right tackle (20), right guard (7) and left guard (2). During the preseason, he has started once each at left tackle and right guard, and gotten significant repetitions at backup center.
Along with giving Haeg a serious look at right tackle Thursday evening, the Colts are leaving Smith at right guard. They considered him as a right tackle option – he started there against the Ravens – but apparently are going to allow him to concentrate on and develop at his natural position.
“He’s competing with (Matt) Slauson, no doubt,’’ Reich said. “That was the goal all along. We know what Slauson brings go the table. We love what he brings to the table.
“But there was competition every day.’’
Smith spent virtually all of his rookie offseason working at guard, but began taking significant reps at tackle when injuries depleted the position.
“I play wherever they put me. That’s been my approach,’’ he said. “It’s whatever the coaches think is best for the system.’’
Smith described his first NFL experience as “a learning curve, of course. It’s a new system for everybody. You take it day-by-day and learn as much as you can. Rinse and repeat.
“Early on in OTAs when you first get into it, you realize how everything is full-speed. Once you adapt to the speed of the game, things start to slow down a little bit.’’
Andrew Luck missed a second straight practice with a foot injury, but Reich reiterated there’s no cause for alarm.
“He’ll be there at practice Monday ready to go for next week,’’ he said. “He’s feeling strong and good.’’
Tyquan Lewis’ rookie season has yet to take root, and there’s no indication when it might. The second-round draft pick (64th overall selection) has missed the majority of the preseason, including all three games, with an unspecified lower leg injury.
Reich confirmed Lewis’ injury hasn’t required surgery, but added he’s not close to getting back on the field “right now . . . just hasn’t been coming along as fast as we would’ve liked.’’
The Colts have no immediate plans to place Lewis on the injured reserve list when rosters are cut to 53 Saturday, but that might be an option.
“We’re hopeful we will have him,’’ Reich said.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.