New Colts general manager Chris Ballard didn’t shy away from emphasizing the importance of the offensive and defensive lines in his introductory press conference.
“In this league you win up front,” Ballard said. “You win on the o-line/d-line. And if you're not good up front it's very difficult when you get into December football, December/January football."
Ballard is joining a team where both units need to see improvement in the trenches, but there are some encouraging signs that were present in the 2016 season, particularly on the offensive side of the football. But there’s both good and bad news when it comes to the Colts’ offensive line.
The good news? The Colts are getting better up front.
The bad news? The Colts still didn’t have a good line last year.
The Colts added four new offensive linemen through the draft last year, and all four players not only saw action but also started at least one game. The most encouraging part was easily the performance of Ryan Kelly, who had a very good rookie season as the starting center for all 16 games. Kelly was just one of eleven rookies to start every game, and one of just five rookie linemen. Kelly didn’t allow a single sack in 626 passing plays, according to Pro Football Focus. And the Colts were first in adjusted line yards while rushing up the middle last year, according to Football Outsiders.
Along those lines, the encouraging part of the offensive line for the Colts in 2016 was their run blocking. According to Football Outsiders, they were third in the NFL in adjusted line yards and first in the league in percentage of runs stuffed. The run blocking of the unit was much improved, and that played a part in Frank Gore getting to 1,000 yards, becoming the first Colts back to do that since 2007.
The work of Joe Philbin should also be credited, as Philbin was in his first year as the offensive line coach and was working with a unit that was very inexperienced. Joe Haeg, a fifth round pick, wound up starting 14 games for the Colts in his rookie season, starting at multiple spots. He wasn’t great, but he exceeded expectations in his rookie year. And Le’Raven Clark, who was a big project player, wound up starting the final few games and actually was able to hold his own, particularly in run blocking. Working with such a young, inexperienced unit, Philbin did a nice job.
The addition of Ryan Kelly, the improvement in run blocking, and the development of some of the young players as the season went on were all encouraging aspects of the offensive line play in 2016. The Colts are slowly but surely starting to piece together a competent offensive line, one with Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, Jack Mewhort at left guard, and Ryan Kelly at center, then with guys like Joe Haeg, Le’Raven Clark, Austin Blythe, Jonotthan Harrison, and Denzelle Good all still around and looking to keep developing.
But the offensive line still wasn’t “good” in 2016, and that’s primarily because of the struggles in pass protection. The emphasis on building the offensive line had been to protect Andrew Luck, but the quarterback took just as much of a beating as he has in each of his seasons. That’s not all because of the offensive line - play calling and style of play both play a role in it too - but the pass protection was not anywhere close to adequate last year. Luck was sacked 41 times, tied for the second-most in the NFL. In total, the Colts allowed 44 sacks (fifth-most in the NFL) and 128 quarterback hits (second-most in the NFL). Though some will point to the fact that the sacks significantly decreased as the season went on, it’s also important to note that the QB hits stayed the same - meaning that the avoidance of sacks probably had much more to do with Luck’s outstanding pocket presence than anything else. Luck was hit a ton and under pressure on a very high percentage of his dropbacks, which makes what he accomplished in 2016 even more impressive.
Also concerning was the up-and-down play from Anthony Castonzo at times last season, as he struggled at times like he did in 2015. He’s still the Colts’ left tackle and had some very good moments in 2016 as well, but he simply wasn’t as consistent as the Colts need him to be. That’s something to keep an eye on as well.
So again, there were both encouraging and discouraging aspects of the offensive line in 2016. They took some steps forward, but it’s still very much a work in progress. Now it will be interesting to see what Chris Ballard thinks of the unit, as he won’t be tied to player loyalty like Ryan Grigson might have been. One example: whereas Grigson surely would have wanted to keep developing Denzelle Good, what are Chris Ballard’s thoughts on Good? These are questions that we’ll be paying attention to this offseason, as the Colts have a lot of developmental pieces along the offensive line that Ballard will have to evaluate. Are they good enough to keep working with and rely on in the 2017 season, or do the Colts need to make some more moves?
The offensive line did take some steps forward, and Ryan Kelly is without a doubt a keeper. There are other intriguing players from last year’s draft class that the Colts should keep working with, but the unit is still very much a work in progress - meaning Joe Philbin will have a very important job this offseason in continuing to work on that development.