INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The first step has been taken, but leading where? That’s what the next few months will determine.
Before Frank Reich addresses the latest edition of his Indianapolis Colts in April, Chris Ballard and his personnel staff must make the necessary additions and adjustments to a franchise that reached the playoffs following a three-year absence. That means utilizing every option at their disposal: re-signing their own pending free agents, procuring talent on the free agent market, the NFL draft and the post-draft signing frenzy.
Before we get to that, we’ll take a position-by-position look at the Colts. More to the point, we’ll take a look at how they got to where they are – coming off a 10-6 record and a first-round playoff win – and what needs to be done to take them further in 2019.
TODAY: Offensive line
- Starters: LT Anthony Castonzo, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Mark Glowinski, RT Braden Smith.
- Backups: Joe Haeg, Le’Raven Clark, Evan Boehm.
It came together in the offseason, with a pair of high-level draft picks – one that was historic – and an under-the-radar free-agent acquisition. Another piece was added via the waiver wire and almost as an afterthought as a forgettable 2017 was winding down.
The end result: a long-time eyesore emerging as one of the NFL’s elite offensive lines. Ballard had talked of the importance of the Colts being strong up front – offensive line, defensive line – and put actions to his words.
“Look, it’s hard to win in this league when you’re not good up front,’’ he said prior to the 2018 draft. “It shows over 16 games and when you get into the playoffs.’’
Personnel moves aimed at reinforcing what for too long had been a substandard offensive line began quietly in December 2017 when the Colts claimed guard Mark Glowinski off waivers from Seattle. It picked up steam in March when Ballard signed free agent guard Matt Slauson to a one-year, $3 million contract.
Finally, the draft. Ballard invested two of his first three picks – Nos. 6 and 37 – in All-American guards Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith. It marked just the third time since the 1970 merger the Colts addressed their offensive line with first- and second-round draft picks.
Nelson’s acquisition was one of those against-the-norm decisions. The last time a pure guard had been taken with a top-6 pick was in 1986 (Jim Dombrowski by the Saints). The only other guard the Colts had selected in the first round was Ron Solt in 1984.
Nelson, though, was a no-brainer according to Ballard.
“It’s the easiest pick I’ve ever been a part of. By far,’’ he said. “He stands for all the right things. He stands for team. He stands for pushing his teammates. He’s transcendent.
“God just made him a little different than he did the rest of us.’’
Nelson brought unique skills to the position – he was an elite puller from the outset – and added a nasty edge to the room. His addition helped stabilize a group that again had to deal with too many lineup changes. There were seven different starting combinations and 11 players started at least one game.
Nelson was the only Colt to take every snap this season – 1,265 offensive plays – and joined Alan Ameche, Milt Davis, Edgerrin James and teammate Darius Leonard as the only Colts rookies named first-team All-Pro.
He was the real deal.
However, everything came together in a week 6 road test against the New York Jets. That’s when left tackle Anthony Castonzo returned to the lineup after missing the first five games with a hamstring injury; Glowinski replaced Slauson, who suffered a season-ending back injury the previous week at New England; and Smith started his second game at right tackle. Center Ryan Kelly already was playing at a Pro Bowl-level.
From weeks 6-11, the Colts allowed zero sacks, tied for the NFL’s third-longest streak since 1982. From weeks 6-12, Andrew Luck attempted 239 passes without being sacked, the third-longest streak in league history.
A pass protection unit that had allowed a league-high 56 sacks in 2017 yielded a league-low 18 last season. Luck wasn’t sacked in six games. In his previous 70 games, he went sackless only eight times.
Along with finally providing Luck reliable protection, the offensive line also had a hand in a viable ground attack. Marlon Mack averaged 75.7 yards per game and 4.7 per attempt and became the first Colt since Joseph Addai in 2007 to rush for at least 100 yards four times. The running game churned out consecutive 200-yard games against Buffalo and Oakland, and Mack set a team postseason record with 148 yards in a first-round win at Houston.
Reich attributed the offensive line’s top-level performance to “just playing together,’’ but also pointed to Castonzo’s return in week 6.
“Anytime you’ve got a left tackle the caliber of Anthony Castonzo, it solidifies a lot of things,’’ Reich said. “There are a lot of things you can do in protection when you feel like you’ve got the left side pretty much locked down. It affords you some other luxuries. He’s not only a very good pass blocker but he’s really good in the run game.’’
For the first time in a decade, the starting line that finished a season should be the projected combination heading into the next season. That means Ballard and his personnel staff can concentrate more on addressing depth at the position than coming with one, two or three starters. The starting group for the 2018 opener against Cincinnati included three players who weren’t with the team in ’17: Nelson, Slauson and right tackle J’Marcus Webb.
The last time the Colts enjoyed season-to-season stability on the offensive line was 2005-06: left tackle Tarik Glenn, left guard Ryan Lilja, center Jeff Saturday, right guard Jake Scott and right tackle Ryan Diem.
Barring injury, the combination for the ’19 opener is set: Castonzo, Nelson, Kelly, Glowinski and Smith. Ballard re-signed Glowinski to a three-year, $18 million contract. There’s every reason to expect continued growth from Smith, who was drafted to be the eventual right guard but was moved to right tackle when injuries decimated the position.
Recently-fired position coach Dave DeGuglielmo and director of college scouting Morocco Brown saw Smith’s promise at tackle, but they were in the minority.
“I’m not going to lie to you; I didn’t,’’ Ballard said. “As the season went on, he kept getting better . . . the world was ignoring Braden Smith.’’
High. We only say that because of Ballard’s commitment to maintaining a high level of performance from his offensive line and his desire to go into training camp with at least 10 starter-quality players. The projected depth includes Joe Haeg, a 35-game starter at three positions, Evan Boehm and Le’Raven Clark. Slauson’s one-year stint in Indy ended earlier this month when he announced his retirement after suffering the back injury in week 5 at New England.
Ballard’s first two drafts have included three offensive linemen; Zach Banner, a 2017 fourth-rounder, didn’t make it out of training camp. The last time the Colts didn’t select at least one offensive lineman was in 2002.