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2010 Colts Positional Review: Interior Offensive Line

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We already assessed the offensive tackle position.  Let's move on to the offensive guard position today.  Of course, be sure to read Eric's article on the defensive tackle position first.

I'm going to apologize ahead of time for any overlap.  I wanted to break these articles down into offensive tackle and interior line in order to get more in-depth, but when you have guys like Jeff Linkenbach playing guard and tackle, you're going to run into that problem.  So if any of this sounds familiar, I apologize.

Obviously, a lot of my general sentiments are going to be similar to the offensive tackle position as well.  It wasn't a banner year for the interior line.  That's putting it nicely.  The "musical chairs" game from the coaching position certainly didn't help -- and we'll discuss that more as we continue with this article -- but the production on the interior line was largely underwhelming and contributed to an offensive line that, at its best, was just above-average.

After the jump, more on the interior line position.

Before I look at the individual players, I just want to talk about the aforementioned "musical chairs game."  I realize I touched on the subject in my offensive tackle breakdown, but it needs to be said again, as it's especially relevant for the interior line:

The personnel decisions made on the interior offensive line were questionable at best and embarrassing at worst.

I wasn't writing here during the preseason, but if I had been, I would have told you that Jamey Richard was atrocious in both camp and preseason play.  Absolutely awful.  There was no way any of the coaches could convince me that he deserved a starting job over Kyle DeVan.  Of course, some would argue that preseason play doesn't necessarily carry over into regular season play.  But then, come the regular season, Richard was still starting and putting in some of the worst performances at guard I have ever seen from an Indianapolis player.

Consequentially, Richard gets yanked.  The guy who should have been playing all along, the guy who started in the Super Bowl and did nothing to lose his job, replaced him.  This scenario never should have been this complicated.

And then, of course, there was the whole Mike Pollak/Jeff Linkenbach shuffling.  Pollak was deemed good enough to start the regular season but apparently not good enough to keep his spot.  As a result, he was benched for a rookie offensive tackle with no apparent guard skills.  I have to believe Linkenbach's spell at guard played a role in Peyton Manning's four-game interception streak.  

Lo and behold, the Colts eventually went back to Pollak, benching Linkenbach, and performance at the position -- while not ideal -- was immensely better.

Now, I understand that roster spots are dynamics.  Or they should be.  Starting spots can and should be in flux.  But I really question the evaluation process, or how coaches arrived at the conclusion that Richard should have been a starter or Linkenbach should have replaced Pollak.  Neither of these moves made sense when they occurred and both looked unfathomably stupid in retrospect.  I have no idea who makes these decisions: head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive line coach Pete Metzelaars or head puppeteer Bill Polian, but the "musical chairs" game along the interior line this year clearly did not work and should have never been played in the first place.

If I had to guess, I would say that Richard started because the Colts wanted to "get bigger at the position."  Richard is bigger than DeVan.  Skill was more or less eschewed.  I think that's the most likely case, and keep in mind it was this same mentality that drove the Colts to cut Ryan Lilja and sign worthless free agents like Adam Terry and Andy Alleman.  The theme of this offseason seemed to be "get bigger on the cheap" and it didn't work.  Obviously.

In Pollak's case, I think it was more a case of the team trying to send a message to the young player and encourage him to play the position like he had a chance of losing it every time he came off the field.  I think the problem with this, though, is that Pollak is just a mediocre player, or at least a mediocre guard.  It's often difficult to effectively send a message to a guy who frankly just is not very talented.  We'll get into his play in the individual breakdowns, but the team tried to motivate a mediocre player by starting an unprepared, far-less-talented player in his place, and if you can explain that logic to me, I will reveal to you the subject of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain."

On to the players...

1.  G Kyle DeVan

DeVan was probably the most consistent interior lineman for the Colts this year.  He's not appreciably-gifted or immensely-talented -- and you wouldn't expect this to be the case from a guy plucked from AFL2 ball -- but he is consistent and plays with a nasty streak.  In fact, I would venture a guess that DeVan is the nastiest of the Colts' current crop of linemen.

He reminds me of Charlie Johnson in a way because he's just a fighter.  He scraps on every play.  He plays above his likely talent level.  He knows he's not the biggest or fastest or strongest on the field, but he's in the trenches every down doing what he can to help the offense succeed.  I wouldn't label DeVan as a pile-pusher, but I rarely see him pushed into the backfield either.  Similarly, I wouldn't label him a brick wall in terms of pass protection, but I rarely see opposing defensive linemen swim past him either.

The Colts need to re-sign DeVan for the same reason they need to re-sign C. Johnson: he's proven that he'll fight for this team every Sunday.  You cannot have enough players like this on the roster.  Also, if the Colts are lucky enough to unearth a starting left tackle this offseason and send C. Johnson to either guard or right tackle, they're still going to need another guard barring a free agency foray.  I would look for DeVan to be that man.

2.  G Mike Pollak

As I said before, Pollak is just a mediocre guard.  He's not terrible, he's not great.  He has games where he can be good in stretches, but for the most part he's just average.  Doesn't get much push, doesn't play very strong, doesn't really appear overly quick.  

I'm always torn on Pollak, because I really believe the decision to draft him coincided with Jeff Saturday's looming venture into free agency.  The Colts, of course, were able to re-sign Saturday at the last minute, thus they no longer needed a replacement.  I believe the Colts were looking at Pollak to be that replacement.  And though he hasn't shown me much at center yet, in his limited time at the position, I believe that's probably his best fit going forward.  Pollak is probably a center, but he's playing guard.  And he's played guard at an entirely average level.

Because Pollak was so mediocre, it's hard to speak in terms of definitives in regards to his 2010 season.  He wasn't good, he wasn't bad, he was just there.  For the most part, he kept Manning healthy.  For the most part, he didn't get bowled over.  I would struggle to find many moments of brilliance, but I would also struggle to identify many games where he was simply dominated as Richard and Linkenbach were.  

I will say this about Pollak: when he gets to the second level of blockers, which is rare, he is extremely proficient.  He can quickly identify who to block or seal and get to the necessary position to spring the runner for additional yardage.  The problem is, as I said, he doesn't get the second level enough.  He's fairly poor at moving his man out of the way, disengaging, then moving forward.  When he does, he's good in space and is able to quickly read on-the-fly blocking schemes.  That just doesn't happen very often.

Going forward, you have to think Pollak's future is in doubt unless he shows strongly this offseason.  He had a mediocre rookie year followed by a poor second year followed by a mediocre third year.  If the lightbulb is going on for the kid, I'm just not seeing it in a long-term sense.  He's a competent starter when you've got nothing better, but if the Colts were to upgrade even one of their guard positions, I think Pollak's spot would be the casualty.

On a related note, that 2008 draft sure looks ugly now.  Pollak, the first pick, is still fighting for his starting position in his fourth year and has yet to show any signs that he's a surefire future prospect.  Richard has looked horrendous at guard thus far, though to his credit has played some just-near-suitable ball at center in spot duty relief of Saturday.  And Steve Justice isn't even with the team anymore.  That was supposed to be the draft that allowed the Colts to move on from guys like Tarik Glenn, Jake Scott, Saturday and the offensive line regime of old, yet in 2011, I'm doubting any one of those guys makes a significant contribution to this team.

3.  G Jeff Linkenbach

Never had a chance.  It's easy to be critical, but we have to acknowledge that first.  Linkenbach never had a chance to succeed at guard in 2010.

The Colts essentially put a rookie undrafted free agent tackle at guard and just hoped it would work.  That's like blindly merging on the interstate and just hoping there's no one in the adjacent lane, or grabbing a roof shingle on an August afternoon and just hoping it doesn't blister your palm.  Something along those lines.  I think the Colts liked Linkenbach as a gamer and were impressed with his play in relief of C. Johnson at Denver in Week Three.  But I also don't have any reason to believe they knew for a fact he could play guard and play the position well.

And, well, he didn't.  He didn't even come close.

Linkenbach, while suitable at tackle, was overmatched at guard.  He was consistently bullrushed -- one time even pushed back into Manning to create his own sack -- and never appeared to have the ability to push back defenders.  He was susceptible to the swim move and rarely took advantage of his reach to impede interior defensive linemen looking to quickly skate past him.  Overall, it just didn't appear that Linkenbach could do much of anything at the guard position, which begs the question why he was ever starting there in the first place.  To teach a lesson to Pollak?  At the potential expense of Manning's health?

Well, okay.  That's an interesting way to run a team.

Again, I don't know who was responsible for any of these decisions, whether it was a lone entity or a collection of individuals, but I do know that they were wrong.  You can't argue anything to the contrary.  If they were right, they would have never needed to re-bench him.  But they did, because even they -- in all their stubbornness -- knew they were wrong.

Linkenbach has no future at guard.  He's a tackle.  He proved that last year.  It's just too bad the coaches put him in a position to get embarrassed as badly as he did in the process.

4.  G Jamey Richard

Words can't express how bad Richard played the guard position for the four games he started in 2010.  Richard might have actually made Linkenbach look like a Pro Bowler in comparison.  I just thank my deity of choice that Richard and Linkenbach were never starting (at guard) at the same time.  I can't even imagine what that might have looked like.  Well, yes I can.  Imagine present-day Cairo with a touch of Chernobyl and a little bit of the Hindenburg on the side, and that's what it probably would have looked like. 

As I said before, Richard never really earned this spot to begin with, so I have no idea why the coaching staff felt he should be a starter for the first four weeks of the season.  It was apparent even early in the preseason that he was slow, overmatched and not able to play anywhere near the 300 pounds he boasts.  He was dominated, plain and simple, and that didn't seem to deter coaches from deeming him a starter.

Of course, as bad a guard as I think Richard is, and I honestly think he is the worst starting guard I have ever seen in a Colts uniform, I really don't think he's a terrible center.  He's not an ideal starter, of course, but he's shown more than Pollak at the position and has performed admirably in relief of Saturday a few times during his career.  If the Colts were to lose Saturday tomorrow,  I would feel much better about Richard replacing him than Pollak, that's for sure.

Richard's future with this team is a bit hazy to me.  I'm not sure which direction the Colts want to go.  He's not a guard, that much is certain.  If anything, he's a center, but do the Colts want to build up Pollak to eventually take over for Saturday?  Or perhaps Jacques McClendon?  Or maybe even a player that's not currently on the roster?

Whatever the case, Richard is going to have to get a heck of a lot better if he ever wants to start an NFL game again.  Right now, he's an admirable replacement center at best.

5.  C Jeff Saturday

Sadly, Saturday is on the downside of his career, and it really shows.

He's lucky for a few reasons.  First, he's overpaid.  He's getting paid like a top center in this league when he's clearly not playing at that level anymore.  And he's also on a team that has no better replacement options at the moment.  That said, Saturday has largely created his own luck by showing as much loyalty to the organization as he has over the years and taking on the additional leadership role as the captain of the offensive line.  More than anything these days, Saturday is probably paid for his leadership, his ability to command a line.

As far as his play, though, it's fairly iffy these days.  My most recent memory is Jets down lineman Mike DeVito absolutely destroying Saturday in the AFC Wildcard game.  This wasn't just on one or two plays either, Saturday was dominated all game and may actually have been the weakest link on the offensive line that day.  Even before that game, though, there were more than a few short-yardage situations where Saturday couldn't generate much push and instead was pushed back to complicate the running lane.

It's a safe bet to assume that, if there is football next year, Saturday will be back at center and leading the line.  I just don't see any viable replacements out there unless McClendon just has some miraculous monster showing or something.  But the Colts really need to start thinking in the future tense here, because Saturday's skills are slipping and slipping fast.  Manning is going to need a new center for the last four or five years of his career, and that center is going to need to have that same chemistry that Saturday has with his quarterback.  

So look for Saturday to return in 2011, but anything beyond that is a serious question mark.

6.  Overall Assessment

Average.  Sometimes above-average, sometimes ugly depending on the personnel.  But if ever there was a mismanaged, mishandled unit on the roster, it was the interior offensive line.  These guys barely had a chance to gel thanks to some horrendous coaching and/or front office decisions, and it showed on the field.

Going forward, the Colts need to upgrade at least one of the guard positions.  The ideal scenario, as we laid out in the offensive tackle breakdown, would be to find a starting left tackle in the draft or free agency and move Charlie Johnson to guard.  That would likely improve two positions at once, with C. Johnson likely replacing Pollak and the new tackle replacing C. Johnson.  I'm guessing, in that circumstance, that Linkenbach also replaces Diem at right tackle, but that would just be some icing on top.  

Even in that scenario, the Colts could still stand to do some more talent-searching at the position.  I like C. Johnson as a long-term utility player for the Colts and think he could be a guard for this team for quite some time, but I'm not as sure about DeVan or Pollak or any other guard currently on the roster.  If the Colts could find a new starting left tackle AND a new guard opposite a moved C. Johnson, that would just be fantastic.  If they find another right tackle on top of that, I might have to have someone give me the kick to make sure that I'm not in a dream inside a dream inside a dream.

The Colts have some work to do at the interior offensive line position in 2011.  Let's just hope they actually do it this time instead of just saying they will and making no sensible moves in the process.