The worst spot on the entire Colts team last year was the offensive line, and so it makes sense that the offensive line was priority number one heading into the offseason. The Colts desperately needed help along the line, and they certainly addressed the issue. In fact, there's a scenario not out of the realm of possibility that has 4 of the 5 starters along the offensive line being newcomers.
Now that's not the most likely lineup, but it just goes to show how bad the line was last year and how much they worked to improve it this year. The NFL's reigning executive of the year, Ryan Grigson, signed right tackle Gosder Cherilus and guard Donald Thomas in free agency and drafted center Khaled Holmes in the fourth round and guard Hugh Thornton in the third round of April's draft.
Let's take a look at who is going to be starting (or fighting for a starting spot) and who is going to make the 53-man roster (or be fighting for a roster spot).
The Offensive Tackles:
The two starting offensive tackles are set in stone. Anthony Castonzo was the lone bright spot on the offensive line last year and took big steps forward in his second season. His run blocking was clearly the best of the team and as a result we saw the Colts run the ball to the left side quite a bit. His pass protection was also good but got lumped into a unit that was awful. There was talk about whether Castonzo would move to right tackle this season, but the signing of Gosder Cherilus ended that. Castonzo was ranked as the 22nd best left tackle in the league by Bleacher Report's Matt Miller in his "NFL 1000" player rankings this offseason.
Cherilus was very good in pass protection last year for the Detroit Lions and was ranked as one of Pro Football Focus' best pass protectors after allowing 5 sacks all year on an offense that threw the ball a ton. Cherilus comes to Indy as the clear starter opposite Castonzo. Matt Miller ranked him as the 7th best right tackle in the league this offseason. [For more on Cherilus, check out Josh Wilson's player profile on him here.]
That leaves five offensive tackles fighting for two spots, as it figures that the team will keep a backup at each spot. Emmett Cleary, Ben Ijalana, Jeff Linkenbach, Bradley Sowell, and Lee Ziemba are the remaining offensive tackles on the roster, and one of them I would put in a separate category from the rest.
Jeff Linkenbach has played in every single game of his three year career in Indy and has started 28, including starting all 16 in 2011. He was pretty terrible that season at tackle and indeed is listed as a tackle and started 4 games there last year, but for a backup he is a good player to have and one with experience, plus he can play pretty much any spot along the line. He has started 16 games at right tackle, 5 at left tackle, 4 at left guard, and 3 at right guard in his career. He is a real valuable guy to have around as a backup and guy with experience who can come in and play if needed. I put him in a category right below the locks - he is not a sure thing lock, but I think he has an edge over the other guys and will make the roster. His best spot may be guard, despite him being listed as a tackle, and Matt Miller even ranked Linkenbach as the 63rd best offensive guard in the league this offseason.
Emmett Cleary was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Boston College this year (the same school that produced starters Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus) where he started 29 games and played in 48 over his career. He started every game in both his junior (right tackle) and senior (left tackle) seasons, showing the ability to play both tackle positions and play them well.
Ben Ijalana was drafted by the Colts in the second round of the same draft that saw the Colts get Anthony Castonzo, but Ijalana has hardly made an impact yet. He played in just 4 games in 2011 before getting lost for the season due to a torn ACL and again tore his ACL in training camp last year. He is a guy whose play might have concerned some prominent Colts people in the past and he faces an uphill battle to make the final roster. Heck, I'm somewhat surprised they kept him around for another training camp. Hopefully he takes advantage of it, but I just don't see it.
Bradley Sowell played in 10 games for the Colts in 2012 with a lot of that playing time coming on special teams. He does have the fact that he was on the team last year working to his advantage, though he never got much opportunity to show what he can do.
Lastly, Lee Ziemba (pronounced ZIM-buh - I had to look it up) was signed by the Colts after he was placed on injured reserve and waived by the Panthers last year. He played in 6 games for them in 2011, though like Sowell a lot of his playing time came via special teams.
So who makes the final roster out of those four? Ben Ijalana is the name that people know the most, but I just don't see the Colts keeping him around for this year. He has missed his first two NFL seasons due to knee injuries and as a result is behind and labeled injury-prone and a bust. I think that Emmett Cleary instead makes the 53-man roster as the fourth guard and makes it three out of four offensive tackles that played collegiately at Boston College (and for more than just that reason, too).
Week One Starters: Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus; Backups: Jeff Linkenbach* and Emmett Cleary; Cut: Ben Ijalana, Bradley Sowell, Lee Ziemba
*perhaps is better at guard but is listed as a tackle
The Offensive Guards:
Just like they did with the tackle position, the Colts signed a guard in free agency who very likely will start in Donald Thomas from the New England Patriots. Thomas had been a type of glorified backup in New England, but there is no shame in being a very good backup for the Patriots' offensive line. Thomas has played in 43 career games with both the Dolphins and Patriots, starting 21. In 2012, he played in all 16 games and started 7, with all but one coming at left guard (the other coming at right guard). Thomas is a very good player who has been running with the Colts' first team line at left guard in the offseason. Matt Miller ranked Thomas as the 19th best offensive guard in the league this offseason. [For more on Thomas, check out Josh Wilson's player profile on him here.]
The other starting guard spot is more up for grabs, with two players in particular fighting for it. Mike McGlynn, who started all 16 games at the spot last year, returns to battle rookie Hugh Thornton, the Colts' third round pick in this year's draft out of Illinois. What McGlynn brings to the table most is experience, with 34 careers starts since being drafted by the Eagles in 2008. His play on the field, however, doesn't impress much and the Colts may decide that his experience serves better use on the bench as a veteran backup in case Thornton struggles or gets injured.
Thornton participated in this year's Senior Bowl after starting 35 career games at the University of Illinois. He has played at every spot along the offensive line but center, including starting 10 games last season at left tackle. The two years prior to that, however, he started 18 games at guard. He is a versatile player who can play multiple spots, and with the biggest opening for him likely coming at right guard, that figures to be where he will play the most. He is talented enough to be the Colts' starter from week one, but the question is whether or not the team thinks he is acclimated enough to start over the veteran McGlynn.
There are three other guys fighting for what figures to be one remaining backup guard spots, and just like with tackle, one of them would seem to hold an advantage over the others. While Joe Reitz isn't quite as safe of a prediction to make the 53-man roster, his track record should give him a significant advantage. A local kid who played basketball in college and was then signed by the Ravens to play tight end before being moved to offensive line, Reitz has taken some heat while with the Colts the past two years for his play. Granted, he hasn't been an all-star or anything, but he has filled in when needed and played well enough last year in 8 starts that Matt Miller ranked him as the 66th best guard in the league - a list that Mike McGlynn doesn't appear on at all. Reitz brings enough experience starting (17 games in two years for the Colts while playing in 20) and is a good enough player that he should definitely make the final roster.
The other two guys, Justin Anderson and Ryan Griffin (sorry, not that Robert Griffin), will face an uphill battle to make the roster. Anderson was drafted by the team in the 7th round of last year's draft but never played a game due to injury. The Colts released him after he still wasn't healthy coming off of the PUP list and signed him to their practice squad, where he was then placed on the practice squad injured reserve.
Robert Griffin was originally drafted by the Jets in the 6th round of the 2012 draft but was cut before the regular season started. He was signed to the Colts practice squad in December, then cut soon after before being singed to a reserve/futures contract. Griffin plays both right guard and right tackle.
I just don't see either Anderson or Griffin making enough of a push in training camp and preseason to unseat either McGlynn or Reitz as the backups to Donald Thomas and Hugh Thornton. The real battle at this position is who the starters will be along the line, especially at the right guard spot.
Week One Starters: Donald Thomas and Hugh Thornton (R); Backups: Mike McGlynn and Joe Reitz; Cut: Justin Anderson and Ryan Griffin
Figuring out which of the centers will make the roster is the easiest of all the offensive line spots. Figuring out who will (should) start is a whole different issue, however. There are currently three centers on the team - Samson Satele, Rick Schmeig, and Khaled Holmes.
Satele was the team's starter last year, for better or for worse (and it was usually worse). He started 11 games for Indy last year and for his career has started 85 games since being drafted by the Dolphins in the second round of the 2007 draft (playing two years in Miami and then three years in Oakland with the Raiders). He signed with the Colts before last season and brought a lot of hope to Colts fans as a player with a lot of potential, including getting some idiot to say he could be very good and be a strength of a line that could be a strength of the team. Well, turns out he really sucked in 2012. There's no way around that, and I personally thought he was the worst of any Colts lineman last year. He gave up 6 sacks, tied for the most among centers in the NFL and in Matt Miller's center rankings he was tied for the worst in the league in pass blocking, coming in with a grade of 19/50 (his run blocking was respectable enough to bring him to 51/100 total and rank him 34th in the league).
The team's best center last year, A.Q. Shipley, was traded away to the Ravens shortly after the team drafted Holmes in a move that can only be described as dumb and puzzling. But perhaps it shows the faith the Colts have in the rookie out of USC, because I can't imagine them thinking Satele is the answer at the position. Holmes, however, may be. He started 37 career games at USC with 24 of those starts coming at center (the other 13 at right guard). He played very well and last season was named a finalist for the Rimington award (nation's best center), an honorable mention for Sports Illustrated's All-American team, and was named first team All-Pac-12. He is a smart player who called the team's blocking assignments well and filled that leadership role nicely.
Rick Schmeig was signed to fill Shipley's spot on the roster, and probably not for any other reason. He was undrafted out of Purdue, where he played in 45 career games (starting 29). He started all 26 games the past two years, with each start coming at center. He also can play some guard.
Basically, the centers on the final roster will be Samson Satele and Khaled Holmes. And while I hate to say it, it looks like Satele will get the start in week one, unless Holmes has a very impressive preseason (which could happen). Remember, Ryan Grigson has essentially said that he isn't a fan of starting rookie offensive lineman, and while we need to take that with a grain of salt and know that this isn't always an ideal world, he may be right about this one. Satele likely will get the start week one, but how long he remains the starter is something to watch. I think that by year's end, Khaled Holmes will be the team's starting center. Just when that change happens, however, I don't know - but I doubt it's as early as week one.
Week One Starter: Samson Satele; Backup: Khaled Holmes (R); Cut: Rick Schmeig (R)
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts’ roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson’s other position previews: