For the fourth straight offseason with Ryan Grigson as general manager, the Indianapolis Colts need to address the offensive line, as in 2014 it was a struggle.
The Colts started eleven different offensive line combinations, while ten different players started at least one game for the team along the line. Outside of the incredibly reliable Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, the other four offensive line spots had at least three different starters in 2014: four at left guard, three at center, three at right guard, and four at right tackle. That's not a recipe for success for an offensive line.
Injuries, poor play, and organization decisions led to that lack of consistency, and that's where the offensive line struggles have to begin. We all know that continuity is very important up front, and that's something the Colts didn't establish until the playoffs. At only two points this season did the Colts start the same five linemen for three games in a row - the first three weeks of the season and then the three playoff games. Those two three-game spans were also the best the offensive line played this season. Is that a coincidence? I think not, especially considering that only two of the five starters were the same in those two examples.
|COLTS STARTING OFFENSIVE LINE COMBINATIONS - 2014|
|Left Tackle||Left Guard||Center||Right Guard||Right Tackle||Combination|
|DEN||Anthony Castonzo||Jack Mewhort||A.Q. Shipley||Hugh Thornton||Gosder Cherilus||1|
|BAL||"||Lance Louis||Jonotthan Harrison||Thornton||"||3|
|DAL||"||"||Khaled Holmes||"||Xavier Nixon||9|
|TEN||"||A.Q. Shipley||"||"||Jack Mewhort||10|
Despite the struggles as a unit, there were some encouraging things to come from the offensive line, mainly from the left side. And once again, left tackle Anthony Castonzo was the team's best lineman, though he elevated his play in 2014 to have the best season of his career so far. Nobody in the NFL played more regular season snaps than Castonzo and he pushed his consecutive starts streak to 56 games this season, the fourth longest current streak for offensive tackles in the NFL. For a Colts' offensive line that has been ravaged by injuries in recent years, perhaps Castonzo's most valuable trait is that he plays every week and every snap. The only games he has missed in four NFL seasons were four games (weeks five through eight) of his rookie season in 2011. While the fact that he's an ironman is good enough to make him the Colts' most valuable lineman, that's not it: he's also their best lineman in terms of on-field production too. Not only does he stay on the field, but he's very good when on the field too. According to Pro Football Focus' pass blocking efficiency rating, factoring in hits, hurries, and pressures allowed relative to how many snaps the player played, Castonzo tied for sixth among all NFL tackles who played at least 25% of the snaps with a PBE of 96.8. Castonzo is both a good pass blocker and a good run blocker, and he's the best offensive lineman that the Colts have without a doubt.
Joining him on the left side of the line this year was rookie Jack Mewhort, who provided solid play at left guard. He started 13 games at left guard (along with one at right tackle) in the regular season and then all three playoff games. He especially looked good in run blocking and it was an encouraging rookie season from the Colts' second round draft pick. "No matter where you put him, no matter what you did with him, he produced and he didn't waver and he wasn't fazed," general manager Ryan Grigson said of Mewhort last week. "It was so great to see his maturation process this year because he didn't have that deer in the headlights look and when he was starting to hit a wall, he found a way to blow through it. I think he's going to be playing in the league for a long time."
The left tackle and left guard spots were definitely encouraging, but the center position was a much bigger question mark in 2014. It started out as A.Q. Shipley as the starting center in week one after he was claimed off of waivers (mainly because of injuries to the other centers). Shipley started the first four games of the season and played well. But in the fifth game, he was benched for undrafted rookie Jonotthan Harrison, who struggled. There were some things that Harrison can work on and the Colts aren't giving up on him, but he was overwhelmed in his first year and it was rough. Making matters worse for the Colts was that they made the move for no apparent reason, and Chuck Pagano didn't handle things well publicly. Harrison started ten games for the Colts and his play continued to digress as the season went on, it appeared. So then the Colts benched the undrafted rookie for the player who all offseason had been their starter in Khaled Holmes. He started the last five games of the season (including the three playoff games), and he actually was encouraging. He wasn't great and there are still questions entering next season, but the Colts like him and he was a noticeable upgrade from Jonotthan Harrison. Still, the best play the Colts got from the center position this season was in the first four weeks with Shipley, and from there the rest of the season was filled with uncertainty and question marks at the center spot.
Right guard was another spot where the Colts saw poor play from their linemen, particularly from Hugh Thornton. The Colts' third round draft pick in 2013 who started 12 games in his rookie season at left guard, there was the hope that he would improve this season when moved to right guard, where he's supposedly better, and with this being his second year. He didn't have a great rookie year, but there was reason to be optimistic that he might improve. Instead, he was worse. It was a terrible year for Thornton, who started eight games at right guard. He missed a game because he violated team rules (reportedly for being late) and then struggled with injuries. Upon his return from injury, he was not re-inserted into the starting lineup right away, and then he was injured again and lost for the season. When he did play, he struggled. Entering the 2015 season, there are doubts about whether Thornton will retake his starting job, and I don't think so - if he does, he'll have to really earn it in training camp. The player who started the last six games (including playoffs) at right guard and provided an upgrade over Thornton was Lance Louis. He had a very rough start to the year and that resulted in him being inactive for some games during the middle of the year, but he was thrust into the starting lineup in week fifteen and his play was noticeably improved from earlier in the year. He still wasn't great, but he was clearly an improvement over Thornton.
At right tackle, it was also a struggle, as Gosder Cherilus battled injuries for much of the season, ending up on injured reserve. In large part due to the injuries, Cherilus did not have a good season whatsoever on the field either. He started 13 games, but it was a rough 13 games. In 2013 he had provided the Colts with solid play, but that wasn't the case in 2014 - he was bad. The hope is that with him healthy next year he'll be better, because he was bad in 2014. The best right tackle that the Colts had this season was actually Joe Reitz. He started four games at right tackle, including the three playoff games, and he was very impressive. He also made a start at both left and right guard, making him the only Colts' player to start at three different offensive line spots this season. All along we've known that he's a very valuable guy to have around as a versatile depth player and spot starter, but could he be more than that? Because in 2014, he was the best right tackle on the roster and was a very encouraging part of the impressive line performances in the playoffs. I'm still not sure where he will fit in next season and that will be interesting to watch, but I was impressed by Reitz this year.
A few other names that we need to mention are a couple other depth linemen that played for the Colts this year. Entering the season, the Colts liked Xavier Nixon as a backup lineman and spot starter (like Reitz), and they used the injured reserve with a designation to return on him before the season, showing how much they valued him. It would up being a disastrous 2014 season for Nixon, however, as he played in just four games and turned in the single worst offensive line performance of the season in his only start - in week sixteen against the Cowboys, Nixon started at right tackle and was absolutely awful. The other two names to note are Jamon Meredith and David Arkin, but neither played much whatsoever this season for the Colts.
The bottom line is that I think the offensive line had some encouraging things in 2014 that they can build off of, as Anthony Castonzo was great and Jack Mewhort showed plenty of promise as a long-term option to protect Andrew Luck. There were also some areas of the line that were terrible this year, such as right guard Hugh Thornton and right tackle Gosder Cherilus. And then there are areas that are still question marks, such as the center position. It was a mixed bag for the Colts up front in 2014, but here's the thing that is clear: they have to do a better job protecting Andrew Luck in 2015, and because of that it needs to be a priority this offseason. They have impressive pieces, but overall they still have work to do.
For more in-depth analysis of the Colts' 2014 season, check out Josh Wilson's other position reviews:
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