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2010 Colts Positional Review: Offensive Tackle

Throughout the offseason, Eric and I will be taking a look at the various positions on the Colts' roster and reviewing their performances from the 2010 season.  These positional reviews will objectively assess each position on the Colts' roster -- Eric will handle defense, I will handle offense and we'll split special teams -- and hopefully will allow us to reflect on the roster as we progress into the offseason and slowly approach a potential 2011 season.

Eric and I have agreed to do away with any "grading" system.  In my opinion, player grades are arbitrary and take away from the assessment itself.  Really, what's the difference between a B+ player and a B player?  Is it enough to focus on the one-third letter grade?  I see how Pete Prisco assigns grades to players and teams during the season and the level of contention that creates amongst readers and really doubt the effectiveness of that approach.

I want to start this series by reviewing the offensive tackle position.  We may as well start in the trenches and start with one of the most hotly-debated positions on the team.  After the jump, we'll take a look at the Colts' frontline bookends.

2010 wasn't a banner year for the Colts' offensive tackle position, and I highly doubt I'm breaking any news there.  While Peyton Manning was only sacked 16 times on the year -- the least of any quarterback to start all 16 games -- it's a generally-acknowledged fact that such a statistic is more attributable to Manning's lightning-quick release and unreal pocket presence than any dominant showing by his line.  

Similarly, the line struggled to block at times.  While Joseph Addai, Mike Hart and Dominic Rhodes all averaged over four yards per carry on the year, it was generally a case of each back squirming through creases or making the most of limited space than it was any mauling showing in the run game. 

While we could review the offensive line as a whole, I'd like to take a look at the offensive tackle position specifically.  Let's begin by breaking down each man to claim a role at the position:

1.  LT Charlie Johnson

Let's just get this out of the way early: Johnson played hurt in 2010.  Johnson injured his ankle early in camp and was obviously still hurting in the season opener vs the Houston Texans, when defensive end Mario Williams ate him alive.  From there, Johnson played with a litany of injuries on the year, most seemingly related to the foot or ankle, and never truly appeared healthy.

That said, he was still the best offensive tackle on the Colts' roster in 2010.  Which might be the most damning assessment of the line's collective talent level.

Wide receiver Austin Collie won the Colts' Noble Max award in 2010, gifted to the player who demonstrated the most courage and determination on the season, but I would have argued that Johnson deserved the award.  This is a guy that gutted it out and still played reasonably well.  I can't imagine what he felt like on most Monday mornings, but I can't argue that the guy left any plays on the field this year.  If you can applaud anything about Johnson, it's his commitment to playing and playing as well as he can.

Johnson is, in my eyes, a utility player.  He's a pretty good guard and a fantastic reserve tackle.  He's also, thankfully for Manning's skeletal structure, a competent starter that plays better than he should.  While I would say that he played reasonably well this year, he's still not an ideal starter.  Johnson still struggles with speed rushers at times and isn't a consistently-effective run blocker when asked to pull, get upfield or set a hard edge.  He's a much better straight-ahead run blocker than an effective player in space, but that makes sense, as he's really an oversized guard playing tackle.

The Colts need to secure Johnson, who is not under contract in 2011.  Some players just earn their paychecks through grit, through giving enough blood, and Johnson is one of those guys.  You want to have him on your squad because he's an invaluable part of the offensive line rotation.  Ideally, the Colts will find a left tackle through either the draft or free agency that allows Johnson to move to guard or right tackle, positions he is more appropriately-suited for than left tackle.  If that doesn't happen, though, I think it's asking an awful lot for Jeff Linkenbach to start in and be the starter at left tackle for this team.  Because after Johnson, Linkenbach is the only guy even remotely capable of playing the position.

I look for the Colts to re-sign Johnson in 2010 and rely on him to give the same consistently gutty effort in 2011 that he gave last year.  Johnson is a valuable utility player and a capable starter at any position, even if he's a bit limited at left tackle. 

2.  RT Ryan Diem

Diem had a rough 2010 season and there is no use denying that.  While he's been a tremendous part of the Colts' line for quite some time, he showed some startling signs of wear and tear last year.  Like Johnson,  I believe that he played hurt for the majority of the year...a reflection on how scary the offensive line roster situation really was, if an injured Diem was labeled the best bet for 16 games.  But unlike Johnson, I didn't think Diem gave a consistent effort on the year.

For whatever reason, Diem didn't seem mentally-focused in 2010.  He was a false start machine and gave up too much pressure from the right side of the line where he allowed his man to come in practically untouched.  Running off right tackle often proved to be a futile endeavor.  I can recall very few plays on the year where I actually thought "wow, Diem did a great job on that play."

I know it's easy to pile on a guy for a down year, and I don't mean to do that.  I don't mean to discount the years of great play that Diem has given the Colts.  He'll eventually be revered as one of the better tackles to play in the Manning era.  That said, I think he's clearly on the downside of his career...and that's being nice.  Diem had a poor 2010 season and is trending downward.  He's not going to get any better.

It's also important to note that Diem is due $5 million in 2010, far too much for a player coming off as poor a season as he is.  We could very realistically see Diem become a cap casualty this offseason unless he agrees to come back with a lesser pricetag, and even then he's still not any sort of viable long-term solution at the position, he's a reserve at best.  Honestly, given what I saw in 2010, I don't even like Diem at guard.  He struggled with some straight-ahead run blocking that would serve as a major red flag for me when projecting a potential position change for him.

I doubt Diem is under contract with the Colts last year, but if he is, and if he's starting at right tackle, then the Colts will continue to struggle in the trenches.

3.  OT/OG Jeff Linkenbach

Linkenbach had perhaps the most interesting year of any player along the Colts' offensive line.  He played left tackle in place of an injured C. Johnson at Denver (week three), displaced Mike Pollak at left guard for a few weeks, lost his starting guard position and ended up replacing an injured Ryan Diem at right tackle in the Colts' playoff loss to New York.  In summary, Linkenbach played every position except center.  And the results were varied.

First, let's admit that the Colts' musical chair game at offensive line was maddening this season.  It's Jamey Richard!  No, it's Kyle DeVan!  It's Mike Pollak!  No, it's Linkenbach!  Just kidding, it's Pollak!  How can we expect consistency with this kind of roster bungling?  I would argue that, whether the decisions came from the coaching staff or front office, the Colts' offensive line was totally mishandled in 2010.  You can't have that kind of shuffling going on during the regular season.  You simply can't.  The offensive line needs to form as a cohesive unit, and it can't with that kind of minute-to-minute position juggling.  If I'm going to be critical of players, it's only fair that I'm similarly critical of the coaches and management that put them in a position to either succeed or fail.

At tackle, Linkenbach was perfectly acceptable.  He wasn't great, he wasn't terrible.  Just acceptable.  He didn't make a point of endangering Manning nor did he find himself whiffing on too many blocks.  Does he have a future at tackle?  Difficult to say.  In 2010, he performed adequately, and that's quite an accomplishment for an undrafted free agent often thrust into unexpected situations.  For what it's worth, Linkenbach looked just as good, if not better, at right tackle in his one game at the position than Diem did at any of his 16 games on that side.  I wouldn't say Linkenbach outplayed Johnson at left tackle, though.

At guard, Linkenbach was a bit of a wreck.  I lost count of how many times he was bull-rushed back into Manning or let a defensive lineman swim inside to get a clear rush lane to the runningback.  There were a lot factors in Manning's four-game interception streak, but I have to believe Linkenbach's play at guard owned a considerable portion of the blame.  This, of course, begged the question as to why Pollak was ever replaced in the first place, a question certainly amplified by the immediate improvement in play at guard when Pollak earned his job back and replaced Linkenbach.

Like Johnson, Linkenbach certainly proved to be a valuable utility player.  Unlike Johnson, I don't trust Linkenbach inside at guard.  For an undrafted free agent, I would certainly say Linkenbach exceeded expectations and performed well when much was asked of him.  But more than anything, I would claim that Linkenbach's play was representative of a coaching/personnel staff that, quite frankly, had no idea what the hell it was doing at times.

4.  Overall Assessment

Overall play from the Colts' offensive tackles was spotty at best in 2010.  The position certainly needs an upgrade and it's no wonder that our current draft talk is centering prospects such as Wisconsin OT Gabe Carimi, Colorado OT Nate Solder, Mississippi State OT Derrick Sherrod and Boston College OT Anthony Castonzo.  Johnson is the only worthwhile starter of this group, and even he is better suited for right tackle or guard than left tackle. 

If the Colts could somehow find a solid starting left tackle, they could kill two birds with one stone by moving Johnson elsewhere and strengthening two of their offensive line positions.  I think the magic number for a major change in the trenches is three, though, which would involve finding both a left tackle and a guard (either right or left.)  A line of (left to right) [rookie/free agent], DeVan, Jeff Saturday, [rookie/free agent]/Johnson would be perfectly acceptable, assuming the rookies and/or free agents involved played better than the players they were replacing...which, honestly, shouldn't be difficult.

Assuming a CBA is negotiated, 2011 will be a great litmus test of the front office's arrogance.  If they stick with the status quo of "do what we do" and ignore the obvious problem, I don't think the 2011 Colts will be strong title contenders.  They certainly will continue to struggle in the run game.  But if Bill Polian can show a willingness to branch from his philosophy and seek talent on the open market or at the top of the draft boards (I always find it odd that Polian refers to the Steelers as an example of a team that builds from within when Pittsburgh clearly went out and targeted need positions in free agency last year), the Colts' offensive line could stand to strengthen significantly and the offense as a whole could benefit as a result.

Sometimes, that feels like a big if though.