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Former coach Rick Venturi’s impressions from Colts training camp: Part II - Offensive Line

NFL: Indianapolis Colts at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Now that we’re past the halfway point of training camp, we’re starting to get a read on the strengths and weaknesses of the 2018 Indianapolis Colts roster. Some young players have made an impression, free agent additions have started to show how they might contribute to the team, and a bit of personality has started to take shape in the most physical training camp practices that have been reported for many years.

As we approach the first preseason game against the Seattle Seahawks, Bob Kravitz sat down to interview former Colts head coach Rick Venturi to get his thoughts. Venturi has decades of football coaching experience at every level of competition and shared some insight into some of the highs and lows on the roster and provided some perspective on realistic expectations for Luck, the coaching staff, and the team in 2018.

Offensive Line and Cohesion

Outside of Andrew Luck’s return from injury, no story this off-season has been bigger than improving the offensive line. After all, it is hard to get excited about Luck’s return to football if the corresponding emotion is the fear that he will simply go down with another injury. To this point in Luck’s career, that has been the norm.

Finally, Chris Ballard decided to put significant resources — including two picks in the top 36 of the draft — into addressing the problem. Rookies Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith are expected to be a big part of the offensive line’s future — with Nelson already generating a great deal of buzz. Veterans Matt Slauson and Austin Howard are also generating more confidence in the offensive line depth than there has been in the past.

Venturi went into great detail about each spot on the offensive line and how it projects for 2018. His first comments responded to Kravitz’s observation that while most offensive linemen in one-on-one drills are pushed back a couple of yards on initial contact, Nelson doesn’t budge. Venturi’s response:

Yeah, he is like running into an SUV. Let’s face it, there is nothing in his skill set that will prevent him from being an elite player. You can argue whether you should take a guard sixth, but when you take a guy like that sixth you are taking a premier player for many years, barring injury. He is a guard that can do it all. He is smart, he’s got ability, he’s nasty on the field. He’s not a talker. He lets his play speak for him.

Along with Andrew Luck and Deon Cain, Quenton Nelson has stolen the show at training camp to this point. Full padded, full contact practices appear to be his favorite thing in the world. He has been on the front-end of numerous skirmishes from players who were frustrated at getting manhandled at all levels of the defense. Early indications suggest that he could be a rather transformative player at the interior of the Colts offensive line.

What is potentially even more exciting for fans is that the rest of the offensive line is starting to look a lot stronger as well. Venturi discussed each position from left tackle to right guard:

Of course Castonzo has been out but he had a pretty good year, he’s probably in the upper half of left tackles. He has kind of had good years, average years, I mean he is stable at left tackle. Now you put a really premier left guard. Kelly is back who really and truly should be a good center. Slauson will be the right guard, Braden Smith maybe by the end of the year but I think Slauson definitely will be the starter. So I think from the left tackle to the right guard, you are going to have as good a skill set as we have had in awhile.

After having to watch a revolving door continuously spin during Andrew Lucks’ career, there is starting to be some confidence that the majority of the offensive line should be in good shape. However, there is a difference between simply acknowledging that skill set has improved and expecting that the line will be much better on the field. In that vein, Venturi spoke about the importance of cohesion:

Now, cohesion is the key on the offensive line. As good as Nelson is, that is straight ahead running right into you. When you start getting the stunts, and you are going to see Geno Atkins in the first week, you are going to see Fletcher Cox in the third week, so I mean it is not going to be the piece of cake that it is today and primarily not so much physically, but you are going to get a lot of action and so cohesion takes time. That is what to look for on the offensive line. The skill set is going to be there, it is how fast can you get cohesive.

As mentioned before, the revolving door on the offensive line was devastating. Not only because it meant that there were enough players who inspired confidence from a skills perspective but also because it made it impossible for the line to become a cohesive unit. The more often the offensive line plays together, and the longer than group can stay healthy, the better. This will play a big role in how much better the line will look in 2018.

The only position that could still remain somewhat weak heading into the season is right tackle. Austin Howard was added in free agency to help provide some relief and Denzelle Good is returning from injury after starting there in 2017 but this is clearly the weakest starting position on the line at this point. Venturi discussed what to expect:

The only problematic area, I would say, is going to be the right tackle, assuming everybody is healthy. Howard is kind of, I would say an average right tackle in the league. Not great, not bust. He will be serviceable until you get premier players. Now, with us that’s quick, because we have Dunlop, Kerrigan, and we have Graham and Long in the first three weeks. Our first three weeks we have really good left edge rushers which is unusual. Then I think if Good is able to just sit in that position he will battle him there.

You have kind of the same kind of guy, in my opinion. You have a very good point guy. I won’t say road grader, but strong point guy but both of them struggle if they get out in space. But when you look at tactical football, if you’re really only protecting one guy, most teams have to do that. No team has five Pro Bowlers. If you’re fortunate enough to have four good players and you have to protect one guy with chipping or formation, you can do that.

While it is entirely reasonable to admit that the Colts still have one spot on the line that may be a weakness, it is equally fair to point out that helping cover one weak position on the line is something teams can manage — and pretty much every team has to do so. If Good or Howard can be serviceable players throughout the season at right tackle, there is little reason to be concerned about talent on the offensive line.

Kravitz also wanted to discuss another player on the offensive line who hasn’t been generating a ton of discussion but who may play an important role in the rotation and as depth, Joe Haeg. Venturi discussed what he sees for his role and how he evaluates Haeg overall:

Well, he is going to end up being the swiss army knife. Kind of in defense of Haeg, and it’s by necessity, it’s not to criticize anybody but if he ever maybe just played one position [he would be good], and it would probably have to be guard. Unfortunately for us, we have a bus full of guards. We don’t have a lot of guys who can go out and play in space. Really, Anthony is the only pure, the only guy we have if you want to know the truth. So, he [Haeg] they have got him at center, he can play guard, he can play tackle, so he will be the swiss army knife and that is what he probably should be is a good backup guy.

There is something to be said for versatility in the NFL, especially along the offensive line. What keeps players like Haeg employed for a long time is that they can step in and play at any position. They typically are active on game day to fill in for anyone. Teams that don’t have a player like Haeg really wish they did.