Coming out of the 2018 spring training program, there are early indications of progress and setbacks at numerous positions for the Indianapolis Colts. During the summer break period of the off-season, we will take a look at each position on the Colts roster as compared to where it was at this time a year ago and try to project how the roster will look in September.
We complete the offensive side of the football with the offensive line. Over the last few years, perhaps no unit has been as criticized or has received as much attention from the Colts front office than the offensive line. Has Chris Ballard finally found the missing pieces to win in the trenches?
The Colts Haven’t Been Able to Get It Right
There is no way to get around the fact that Ryan Grigson failed to appropriately address the offensive line during his tenure in Indianapolis. However, it would be inaccurate to suggest that he simply ignored it. A number of players made their way through Indianapolis, from the draft and free agency.
Included in Grigon’s list of draft picks are : Justin Anderson (7th ‘12), Hugh Thornton (2nd ‘13), Khaled Holmes (3rd ‘13), Jack Mewhort (2nd ‘14), Ulrick John (7th ‘14), Denzelle Good (7th ‘15), Ryan Kelly (1st ‘16), Le’Raven Clark (3rd ‘16), Joe Haeg (5th ‘14), and Austin Blythe (7th ‘15).
The positives from this list include Jack Mewhort, Denzelle Good , Ryan Kelly, and Joe Haeg. The jury is out on Le’Raven Clark but he is fighting to save his career. Out of these 10 players one (Kelly) is currently projected to be a starter. A second (Mewhort) has suffered injuries that will likely cost him a chance to hold down his starting spot. It is possible that Good could compete to start at right tackle.
Included in his list of free agents are: Winston Justice (‘12), Mike McGlynn (‘12), Trai Essex (‘12), A.Q. Shipley (‘12), Gosder Cherilus (‘13), Donald Thomas (‘13), Joe Reitz (‘14), Phil Costa (‘14), Todd Herremans (‘15), Adam Redmond (‘16), and Jeremy Vujnovich (‘16).
Of course, the issue with this list is that no one remains on the roster. In fact, outside of a maybe a season of legitimate work as a fill-in, none of these players broke through as long-term starters. The best player of the group, Joe Reitz, was a jack-of-all-trades and master of none, similar to Joe Haeg.
Ultimately, there were too many misses to result in a solid future for the offensive line. Many complained that not enough draft capital was consistently devoted to keeping Andrew Luck upright and to opening holes for the running backs.
Placing an Emphasis on the Trenches
When Chris Ballard joined the team, he made the getting better in the trenches an emphasis. 2017 saw more of a focus on the defensive side of the ball in this regard. Ballard added a project tackle out of USC who didn’t even make the team and snagged undrafted free agent interior lineman Deyshawn Bond, who was forced into action when Ryan Kelly missed time. This year, though, he placed a much bigger emphasis on the offensive side of the ball, particularly on the interior.
In 2018 the projected starting lineup may include former first round draft pick Anthony Castonzo (pre-Grigson), first round draft pick Quenton Nelson (Ballard), first round draft pick Ryan Kelly, tenth year veteran Matt Slauson (Ballard), and ninth year veteran Austin Howard (Ballard). Behind them is second round draft pick Braden Smith (Ballard), former second round draft pick Jack Mewhort, former 7th round pick Denzelle Good, former 5th round pick Joe Haeg, and former 3rd round pick Le’Raven Clark.
As a whole, the group will consist of players who have commanded considerable draft capital. It is entirely possible that four out of the five positions will be filled by second round or better draft picks by the end of the season. It is also possible that four players who have starting level ability will have been added through Ballard’s efforts this off-season.
Could the Offensive Line Become a Strength in 2018?
On paper, the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive line is in a vastly superior position in 2018 than a season ago. It is entirely possible that three positions will have new starters, all who are projected as possible upgrades. It is also entirely possible that three players who saw significant starting time in 2017 will be relegated to backup roles. One starter from 2017 (Jeremy Vujnovich) may not even make the team.
Beyond that, if Ryan Kelly returns healthy and Quenton Nelson is anywhere close to as good as people are projecting, there is a good reason to believe that the left side of the line will be as strong as it has been for many years — and certainly at any point in Andrew Luck’s career. The battle for starting spots on the right side will be entertaining.
Matt Slauson, Austin Howard, Braden Smith, Jack Mewhort, Joe Haeg, and Denzelle Good are all capable of competing for starting repetitions. A six-way fight for two starting spots among legitimates prospects is unheard of in Indianapolis. Long-story short, the Colts may not only have a solid group of starters across the board, they will likely have solid or strong support from players in backup roles.
There are going to be too many contributions from young players and players who are new to the team to declare the offensive line a strength just yet. However, there is plenty of support for those who believe that, by the end of the season, it will be.