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A primer on the state of the Indianapolis Colts offensive line

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There's a lot of talk about the Colts' offensive line recently, so here's a primer to help you have a correct understanding of the state of the unit.

Jim Steve-USA TODAY Sports

There has been a lot of talk recently about the Indianapolis Colts offensive line.  With the NFL Draft just over two weeks away, there are plenty of "analysts" who have the Colts taking a tackle in the first round of mock drafts, while others suggest that the Colts can't afford to come out of round one without a lineman.

Are these sentiments accurate?  Just how much of a need is the offensive line for the Colts?  What positions are the needs really at?  And what do the Colts think of the players they have?  These are questions that need to be answered, and unfortunately it seems like too many in the media don't actually stop and consider them.  As a result, I've put together this handy guide to the state of the Colts' offensive line, which could be used as a quick resource to people wanting to know more about this need for the Colts.  First, though, there are a few things that need to be established before we begin.

  • The offensive line is without a doubt a need for the Colts. No quarterback has been hit more over the past four years than Andrew Luck (and that's despite missing nine games last year), while no Colts running back has topped 1,000 yards since Joseph Addai in 2007.  There's really no way to reason that the offensive line isn't a need or isn't near the top of the list of needs for the Colts this offseason.
  • The offensive line is not the only need for the Colts - and its arguably not even the biggest. Though the line certainly is a need, it is crucial to understand that it is not the only need for Indianapolis.  Pass rush, inside linebacker, running back, and defensive playmakers are all needs as well, to varying degrees.  Many, including myself, would even argue that pass rush is the team's biggest offseason need rather than offensive line.  Regardless, it is important to keep in mind that the offensive line isn't the only need for Indianapolis, thus meaning it doesn't have to be an "offensive line or bust" approach in the first round.  The draft should not be considered an "offensive line" only approach for the Colts either, as they shouldn't (and won't) simply spend every pick on a lineman despite some thinking they should.
  • The line isn't great, but that doesn't mean the Colts don't have pieces in place. This one should go without saying, but it's important to say nonetheless: just because the Colts' offensive line isn't great (it's not) doesn't mean that every player along their offensive line isn't great.  There are players (specifically Anthony Castonzo and Jack Mewhort) who have done a fine job for the team over the past few seasons.  One cannot just look at the Colts' need at the offensive line and assume that all five positions must be upgraded.

With those things established, let's take a position-by-position look at the state of the Colts' offensive line, designed to help inform people about the position in advance of the upcoming NFL Draft.

Left Tackle

Projected starter: Anthony Castonzo

Backup options: Joe Reitz

Ever since the Colts drafted Anthony Castonzo in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft, he has been the team's starting left tackle.  He has played in and started 73 games over that time span, missing only seven games due to injury in five years (four in 2011, three in 2015).  Last offseason, the Colts rewarded Castonzo with a four-year extension worth nearly $44 million, showing faith in him moving forward.  Only 27 years old, Castonzo is one of the better left tackles in the NFL.  He's not elite, but he's a good player.  Thus, when someone like ESPN's Mike Sando suggests the Colts trade for a left tackle, it must be backed up with discussion about Castonzo - something that Sando ignored altogether.  You don't give $11 million-per-year money to a guy you're not sold on, and it's clear that Anthony Castonzo is entrenched at left tackle for the Colts.  There's really nothing to see here, and the only discussion would be the backup option.  Joe Reitz last year filled in during the three games in which Castonzo missed, and dating back to training camp it was clear that Reitz was perhaps the only one the Colts were comfortable with filling in at left tackle.  Either way, though, as long as Anthony Castonzo is healthy, we can expect to see him as the Colts' starting left tackle for years to come.

Left Guard

Projected starter: Jack Mewhort

Backup options: Kitt O'Brien, Joe Reitz, Khaled Holmes

Though this may be a surprise to some people, Jack Mewhort has become pretty firmly established at left guard for the Colts.  He started 14 games there in his rookie season in 2014 and then started 14 games there in 2016 as well.  The Colts moved him to right tackle last offseason and started him there for the first two games, but then they made a massive shift with their starting lineup.  One move they made was to move Mewhort back to left guard, and that's where he stayed for the rest of the year, really continuing to develop into a very good lineman.  Mewhort has been the very definition of solid and reliable for Indianapolis and continued to be that last year.  And the good news is that the Colts see that and, at this point, plan to keep Mewhort at left guard moving forward.  "I think Mewhort is an outstanding young prospect," owner Jim Irsay told the Indianapolis Star this offseason.  "I think guard is his best position and I think he can play there for 10 years.  I really do."  Head coach Chuck Pagano also likes Mewhort at left guard, and he said as much at the NFL Combine.  "We feel really good about Jack Mewhort where he's at," Pagano said.  "I think his ceiling is still high and he's got a lot of room to grow, but he's going to do nothing but get better."

The depth behind Mewhort is questionable, though, as Kitt O'Brien is very inexperienced and is no guarantee to make the roster, Joe Reitz will be asked to provide depth in several places and perhaps even start, and Khaled Holmes is a center with very brief experience at guard.  So the Colts could stand to add depth, but there's zero doubt about it: Jack Mewhort is a very promising young offensive lineman for the Colts and seems to be entrenched at left guard now, solidifying the left side of the line along with Anthony Castonzo.

Center

Projected starter: Jonotthan Harrison

Backup options: Khaled Holmes

If you want to look for an area along the offensive line that the Colts might be looking to improve this offseason, look no further than the center position.  Of all the positions up front, this one is the biggest need for Indianapolis, and the team seems to know that.  "Center, I think, we're looking at carefully," Irsay said.  "I do think that to add a center and another guard/tackle, that sort of thing, will be dictated on the best player that we can get when you're looking at the [draft].  But I think we have the components."  In other words, the area that the Colts' owner choose to mention that the Colts could improve upon was the center position.  Chuck Pagano choose to mention the same thing at the NFL Combine when asked about his team's offensive line.  After talking about Anthony Castonzo, Joe Reitz, Denzelle Good, and Jack Mewhort (in other words, the two tackle spots and left guard), he then addressed where the Colts could stand to improve: "Again, the interior of that offensive line - the center and two guard spots - is the focal point."

Recently, an NFL.com article pointed out that Pagano at the Combine mentioned the Colts needed to improve their offensive line, but the article then went on to say that the Colts need to address their right tackle position.  That's lazy reporting, as you can't just pick and choose what Chuck Pagano says - he said the Colts need to address the interior of their line, at the center and guard spots.  When looking at that in light of what Jim Irsay has also said, plus the fact that center does appear to be the weakest spot up front for the team, it should show that the Colts are serious about addressing the offensive line and are looking to do so along the interior.  Jonotthan Harrison has talent, and Khaled Holmes is a smart player, but neither have shown enough to be considered the reliable option moving forward.  They both have starting experience, but neither have inspired confidence in remaining the starter.  As a result, it wouldn't at all be surprising to see the Colts add a center in the draft.

Right Guard

Projected starter: Hugh Thornton

Backup options: Kitt O'Brien, Joe Reitz, Khaled Holmes

Over the past three seasons, Hugh Thornton has started more games at right guard for the Colts than anyone else, starting 34 games (including playoffs).  He is clearly a talented player and had a nice bouncback 2015 campaign, but his problem with the Colts has been his consistency.  Part of that includes staying on the field, as he has dealt with injuries over the past three years, but more so it applies to his play on the field, which hasn't always been consistently at the level we know he can play at.  Entering last year, 2015 was a big year for him, and he played well enough to remain in the mix for the starting job moving forward.  He's not irreplaceable nor is his spot guaranteed (Pagano mentioned possibly adding a guard), but he should still be in the conversation at the position.  "Thornton has all the capabilities of being an outstanding guard in this league," Irsay said, "but he has to stay healthy and he has to mentally make sure that he does everything to prepare himself and avoid penalties on the field."

The Colts, then, realize Thornton's talent, but it's his consistency that is still a question.  As we looked at with the left guard position, there's not a ton of depth along the interior.  Joe Reitz is the name to watch here, as if the Colts don't add a guard in the draft and decide to go with Denzelle Good at right tackle, Reitz should receive serious consideration at the right guard spot in competition with Hugh Thornton.  That doesn't mean that Reitz would win that competition, but again, it should go to highlight the fact that Thornton's job is not guaranteed.  Nobody would mind if the Colts went out and grabbed a guard in the upcoming draft and it could turn out to be a good move, but regardless of what the Colts decide to do, Hugh Thornton will likely still be in the mix in training camp.

Right Tackle

Projected starter: Denzelle Good

Backup options: Joe Reitz

We have, at last, arrived at the position most "analysts" seem to think the Colts should upgrade.  The most popular pick in mock drafts for the Colts has been Ohio State tackle Taylor Decker, while Michigan State tackle Jack Conklin has also been a common pick.  But is the right tackle position really that big of a need for the Colts?  Currently, the position would be left up to a position battle between Denzelle Good and Joe Reitz, two players who started games last year.  Reitz started ten games at right tackle, while Good started four of them.  When looking at it from simply a depth chart standpoint, it would initially seem as if the Colts needed to improve at right tackle.  Joe Reitz is viewed as a very good sixth man but not starter-quality (I think he's better than he gets credit for, but the perception isn't entirely inaccurate), while Denzelle Good was a seventh round pick last year who no one had heard of.

As we've done with every position, however, it's important to look at what the Colts have said about the right tackle spot, and it's pretty remarkable how much the team's leadership has raved about Good.  "We really like what we've seen so far," Jim Irsay told the Indianapolis Star in March.  "We don't see why he can't be a starting right guard or right tackle in this league."  Earlier this offseason, Irsay also mentioned Good and how much he likes the player and the pick.  At the NFL Combine, Chuck Pagano said that Good has "got a bright future" when talking about the state of the offensive line.  Furthermore, Ryan Grigson raved about Good extensively in an interview earlier this year with 1070 the Fan's Dan Dakich, talking about how the right tackle has a future in the league and has measurables comparable to the tackles in this year's draft.

Here's the deal: it is impossible to ignore the comments from Jim Irsay, Chuck Pagano, and Ryan Grigson this offseason about Denzelle Good, and they seem to really like him and his potential.  What that doesn't mean is that Good will turn out to be a Pro Bowler and a great player for Indianapolis, but what it does mean is that it seems like the Colts want to give him the chance to see what he can do.  That's why, while the Colts adding a right tackle can't be completely ruled out, it's unlikely when considering the team's hopes for Denzelle Good.