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Colts GM Chris Ballard Uses 2018 NFL Draft to Bolster Offensive Line

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Chris Ballard’s aggressive approach to grabbing projected starters from a loaded class of interior offensive linemen may pay immediate dividends for the Indianapolis Colts.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Evaluating offensive line play in the NFL is a bit more complex than a lot of fans really care to dig into. It is generally accepted that if a team’s quarterback takes a lot of sacks, that team has a bad offensive line. If a team ranks low in rushing yards per game or yards per attempt, the line takes the lion’s share of the blame.

While there is a strong correlation between line play and performance in both of these areas, there is a lot more that goes into it. Consider that a quarterback who is able to get through his progressions quicker may be able to get the ball out quicker. Also, consider that some offenses are up-tempo and rely on shorter route patterns to get the ball out quicker. Some quarterbacks have a better feel in the pocket and are able to avoid pressure, while others are more mobile and their desire to get yards on the ground can get them into trouble.

Some running backs are good at identifying running lanes and finding daylight, some running backs are Trent Richardson.

There are a lot of variables that lead to offensive success or failure and the play of the line is only one — albeit a very important part no matter the other variables. Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has spent his entire NFL career in offensive systems that were predicated on pushing the ball down the field. Deeper route patterns that took longer to develop slowed down the offensive pace and required more time to stand in the pocket for receivers to get into their routes. Luck also is notably disinclined to ever simply go down in the pocket to avoid taking a hit. Instead, he extends plays — even at his own detriment — and will try to escape the pocket and run with the football; exposing himself to the meat grinder that is the second level of the defense.

All of this is to simply acknowledge the fact that if the Colts offensive scheme changes, and it will under Frank Reich and Nick Siriani, the demands of the offensive line may change. It might even be possible that some of the attributes of the old system, and even of Luck and Jacoby Brissett’s play-styles, made the unit look worse.

Does that mean Chris Ballard should feel comfortable simply signing veteran guard Matt Slauson and re-signing of-injured guard Jack Mewhort?

No.

It means that when offensive systems change from one style to another, it will be more difficult to determine exactly how much offensive line help your team will need. For some Colts fans, this has been a reason to get upset by using two of the Colts first three picks on guards — including their sixth overall pick. It can be argued that this is “overkill,” especially given that the guard position has traditionally been one of the lesser valued spots on a roster.

The argument there is that the athletic ability required of tackles, skill players, and basically every defensive position is superior to that of what is required at guard. If true, it should be easier to find players who can satisfactorily perform the responsibilities required of a guard; and with more players to pull from, the monetary costs and draft costs at the position should be relatively low.

Even if true, the importance of winning at the line of scrimmage should not be understated. No matter what level of football you watch or play, it is universally true that the team who wins at the line of scrimmage will win more often.

The entire complexion of the offensive line in Indianapolis has drastically changed by using two of the top 3 picks in the 2018 NFL Draft to address the guard position. The projected starting offensive line is Anthony Castonzo, Qunton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Braden Smith, and perhaps Denzelle Good. The offensive line will boast three first round draft picks and a second round pick at the very minimum.

The fight for spots behind the starters on the line should be far more intense than it has been in recent years, with a reason to feel far more comfortable about what would happen if one of the projected starters has to miss time with an injury. Previous starters Le’Raven Clark, Joe Haeg, Jack Mewhort, and Jeremy Vujnovich are all likely to be depth only. Veteran Matt Slauson may only serve in a back-up role. In fact, it’s entirely likely that at least one former starter will not make the team and that four positions on the line will stay the same for the entire season, barring injury.

What might be even more important is the stature of the players who just joined the team. Quenton Nelson wasn’t just the six overall pick in this draft, he may have been the highest rated player in the draft overall. SB Nation considered the possibility of what happens when a guard may be the top player in the entire draft. He is 6’5”, 323 lbs. and self-identifies as a violent player. He allowed no sacks in two straight seasons for Notre Dame, has the athleticism to pull and punish defenders at the second level, and should be the best run blocking guard the Colts have had in years. He also has the skills to move outside to tackle if Ballard asked him to do so.

Nelson speaks about what it was like to be drafted by the Colts.

While I had Braden Smith as a possible third round pick in terms of value, it was clear that the top interior offensive linemen were targeted very early in the draft across the board. While Smith isn’t quite as complete of a player as Nelson, he and James Daniels were the last of my projected year-one starters at the position. Smith is 6’6”, 303 lbs. and has been a monster in the weight room since he was a kid. He even benched 515 pounds in high school.

He carried over that background to the NFL Combine where he had 35 reps on the bench, second only to UTEP’s Will Hernanez. What helped lead him there was a four-year starting career at Auburn that culminated in his selection as a First Team All-American as a senior. He has the size and experience from his time at Auburn to have position flexibility and could be moved out to tackle if Ballard and the Colts thought it was his best position. His strength helps him be a very stout against bull rushes and interior defensive linemen and he played a pivotal role in helping Kerryon Johnson be one of the top running back prospects in the country.

These young players will be replacing Jeremy Vujnovich, a revolving door of players who have failed to lock down the starting right guard spot, and an oft-injured veteran in Jack Mewhort. There is every reason to believe that they will create a notable difference getting things going on the ground and be vastly superior keeping Andrew Luck upright in a clean pocket. If so, it just became a lot harder to beat the Indianapolis Colts.


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Regarding Nelson:

Very few offensive linemen enter the NFL Draft more highly respected than Nelson. He receives top grades for his ability to recognize and react to defenders, maul opponents in the ground game, has the athleticism to get to the second level, and the lateral agility to be effective in pass protection. The only thing that is different about Nelson is that few college guards ever get the kind of attention he is receiving as a projected top-10 draft pick. Typically, that kind of draft capital is reserved only for tackles. This year he is expected to be the first offensive lineman off of the board.

Regarding Smith:

While Smith is not a perfect interior line prospect, he has a whole lot of tools that make him a possible year-one starter. He was a strong presence as a run blocker for Auburn and identifies pressure as a pass protector. He will need to work on how to be efficient with his footwork and how to effectively remain active in pass protection but has all of the attributes NFL teams look for in the middle rounds for the offensive line.