For years, the offensive line has been a question mark for the Colts entering the season. Especially for the first two years of the Andrew Luck era, the line hasn't done a great job of keeping their franchise quarterback clean. This offseason, however, the Colts (hopefully) improved their offensive line and hopefully they can keep Luck clean.
Perhaps most significantly, the Colts released center Samson Satele and they also let guard Mike McGlynn walk in free agency. They spent their second round pick (their first pick in the draft) on versatile lineman Jack Mewhort out of Ohio State and then took another lineman in the seventh round in Ulrick John. They also signed several undrafted free agent linemen, but interestingly there weren't many veteran additions along the line. In fact, the only one was Lance Louis.
In looking at the offensive line, we'll break it down into looking at the tackles, then the guards, then the centers, and then we'll look at the end at the outlook for the line as a whole.
The two starting offensive tackles for the Colts are the two players on the offensive line for the Colts that there aren't questions about and who we don't really have to worry about. Anthony Castonzo and Gosder Cherilus both started every game at the two tackle spots last year and played well. Castonzo is the team's best lineman but that doesn't mean Cherilus isn't good, because the two of them provide solid bookends to the line for Andrew Luck and they are both players who you can plug in and then not worry about.
Also listed as a tackle on the Colts roster are rookies Jack Breckner and Ulrick John, along with Xavier Nixon. Last year Nixon played well when he actually saw playing time and he even started a game at guard. Of course, Nixon didn't play at tackle last year but instead at guard, and if he were to play this year (barring an injury) it would be at guard as well. I think he's a good lineman who has a shot to make the roster, though I think his chances are best as a guard who has the versatility to play tackle if needed. As far as Breckner goes, the Colts signed him out of the Arena Football League earlier this year, and he's huge, coming in at 6-9, 328 pounds. He obviously has tremendous size and the addition of Breckner was a low-risk one for the Colts, and Ryan Grigson likes to give guys like Breckner chances in the NFL. He's definitely a guy to keep an eye on. Finally, Ulrick John was the Colts's seventh round draft pick this year, though the selection was one that confused many people and the player was an obscure name. Playing at Georgia State, he was the team's best lineman each of the past two years and started 25 out of 36 career games. He played some tackle and guard early in his career, but it's clear that he's a tackle, and Ryan Grigson even said that he thinks John is an intriguing developmental guy for a left tackle. Perhaps he'll make the practice squad since the Colts are interested in developing him, but I have a hard time seeing him making the 53-man roster.
While the two starting tackle spots are clear, the two starting guard spots are not. The left guard spot will go to Donald Thomas - when he's healthy. Thomas played very well last year in just over a game of action before he tore his quad (and his biceps, too!) in the second game of the season. He's still recovering and, while the hope is that he'll be back to start the regular season, that's definitely not a given right now. But when he's healthy, the starting left guard spot will go to him. What about the other guard spot? And what if Thomas isn't ready to go week one? The Colts have several other names who will get a chance to compete for spots - Lance Louis, Joe Reitz, Hugh Thornton, Jack Mewhort, and Josh Walker.
Louis was signed by the Colts very early on this year, and he has experience playing in the NFL. He played in all 16 games (starting 4) for the Chicago Bears in 2010, and in 2011 he started 13 games (playing in 14). In 2012, he started 11 games before his season ended with a torn ACL, and while he was signed by the Dolphins last year he didn't play. If he's healthy, he will be a player to watch not just for a roster spot but for a starting spot as well. Reitz is a good player who just can't seem to stay healthy. That's pretty much the story of his career, but he keeps sticking around the Colts as depth. He's good depth to have - when healthy, and that doesn't seem to happen a whole lot. As far as Thornton goes, he started most of last season after the injury to Thomas, but despite the valuable experience, it was a terrible season for Thornton. He played very poorly and looked like he didn't belong as a starter, though he was forced into that position and it looks like he has the inside track at the right guard position this year. I think he'll definitely be improved, but he shouldn't have the position locked down by any means.
Jack Mewhort was the team's second round pick this year and is a very versatile player who actually spent much of the past few years at Ohio State playing tackle, though he has experience at guard and center as well. He has been spending his time in offseason work at guard and that's where he'll spend most of his time in the season as well, barring an injury. Josh Walker never missed a game at Middle Tennessee State throughout his career and was an All-Conference-USA player in his senior season while being a team captain. Walker's best asset is his durability, it seems, and I have a hard time seeing him beating out some of the other players at guard, even for a backup spot.
Whether you like it or not, Khaled Holmes will be the team's starting center when the Colts travel to Denver to face the Broncos in week one. While this might surprise you, I actually don't mind that. I don't mind giving Holmes a chance and I think he could end up being a good center. What I really don't like is that there's not a great backup option if Holmes struggles - because, after all, he hardly played at all last year. Behind him at center is only Jonotthan Harrison and FN Lutz, as the only two guys with NFL experience to backup Holmes either retired (Phil Costa) or were released (Thomas Austin). Harrison is an intriguing player who started 39 out of 51 career games at Florida, where he played well. As a backup option, he looks to be a good player for the Colts to keep around. FN Lutz played collegiately at Indiana State, where he started 42 out of 44 games in his career.
As long as Donald Thomas is healthy, the starting offensive line looks to be Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, Donald Thomas at left guard, Khaled Holmes at center, Hugh Thornton at right guard, and Gosder Cherilus at right tackle. The question after that, then, is who the backups will be. The Colts obviously value versatility in their backup linemen, though because of that most of the backup options have that ability. Jack Mewhort will make the team and begin at backup guard, though serving as versatility for the other positions as well. Lance Louis will likely make the roster too as an intriguing backup guard option who could play his way into a starting role if one of the starters struggles or gets injured (or if Thomas can't go right away). After that, I think that Xavier Nixon and Joe Reitz stand a good shot at making the roster for depth reasons, as they played well when called upon last year. Lastly, I think the Colts need to keep a backup for Khaled Holmes in case he gets injured or struggles, and I think the best option they have on their roster for that is Jonotthan Harrison, who I think is a very intriguing prospect out of Florida.
It's important that the Colts keep their franchise quarterback healthy and that they open up running lanes for Trent Richardson to run through, and if the unit this year can do those things then it'll be a success. While this unit won't be among the best lines in the league, I also don't think they'll be among the worst lines in the league either, and that in itself will be a big improvement from the past few years.
Week One Starters: Anthony Castonzo (LT), Donald Thomas (LG), Khaled Holmes (C), Hugh Thornton (RG), Gosder Cherilus (RT); Backups: Xavier Nixon, Lance Louis, Joe Reitz, Jack Mewhort, Jonotthan Harrison; Cut: FN Lutz, Josh Walker, Jack Breckner, Ulrick John
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' roster heading into camp, check out Josh Wilson's other position previews: