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Looking back and moving on, Colts 2018 season review: Offensive and Defensive Lines

Divisional Round - Indianapolis Colts v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Colts’ season ended just as it began: in disappointment, frustration, and general helplessness. The team was thoroughly outplayed and outclassed by a drastically more talented Chiefs team, falling 31-13 in a game that was, despite an admirable performance by the defense in the second half, never close. The Colts looked like the 1-5 team they started the season as; they were uncreative, uninspired, and frankly untalented.

The disappointment in Kansas City falls mainly on the shoulders of the offense, as once again quarterback Andrew Luck didn’t show up in a playoff game, while head coach Frank Reich’s gameplan was completely unsuccessful. No receiver other than Dontrelle Inman could get open against a pretty average chiefs secondary, and the offensive line, the key to the Colts’ playoff run, was dominated in the run game by a defensive front had been the weakness of the Chiefs’ absurdly awful run defense throughout the season.

On Saturday the Colts looked like a team that wasn’t in the same class of Kansas City or any of the other NFL elites. But the good news, as every Colts fan knows all too well, is that they shouldn’t be.

As admirable as the team’s 10-1 run this season was, it was pretty clear this team was not a true playoff contender as much as we might have tried to convince ourselves otherwise. The team’s best wins of the season came against a Dallas team with an unusually inept performance by quarterback Dak Prescott, twice against a Houston team with an offensive line that would make the Grigson/Pagano Colts proud, and twice against a Tennessee team starting quarterbacks Blaine Gabbert, who’s proven to be terrible, and Marcus Mariota, who Tennessee should and presumably will be looking to replace in the next couple of the years.

All of that’s to say that their divisional round loss must be put in the right context. As admirable as their run was, the Colts were lucky to make the playoffs (thanks to the easiest schedule of the past three seasons) and were lucky to be placed against a Houston team that they were extremely comfortable with.

But while the Colts’ success this season can be seen to some degree as a fluke, the foundation they were able to lay this season is something to be incredibly excited about going forward. The post-Grigson rebuild is over for all intents and purposes. GM Chris Ballard has put together a young core that’s only going to get better, has extra picks in the second and likely fourth round from the Sam Darnold Trade and the Donte Moncrief signing respectively, and has $100+ million in cap space that he could and absolutely should use recklessly before it comes time to pay Luck and the young studs from the 2017 and 2018 draft classes in a few years.

This team has all the makings of a team that will be ready to truly compete in the playoffs as soon as next year, despite an absolutely brutal road schedule. This is a critical offseason for Ballard and company because if they take advantage of the plethora of resources at their disposal, those Super Bowl dreams fans had at times this season will not be far-fetched.

So what exactly must the team do in the offseason? Let’s dive in, position by position, as the offseason ramps up in the next few months.

Note: UFA denotes an unrestricted free agent, RFA denotes a restricted free agent, and ERFA designates an Exclusive Rights Free Agent.

Offensive Line

On Roster: Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Braden Smith, Joe Haeg, Le’Raven Clark, William Poehls, Antonio Garcia, De’Ondre Wesley.

Free Agents: Mark Glowinski (UFA), Evan Boehm (RFA), Matt Slauson (UFA), J’Marcus Webb (UFA), Josh Andrews (RFA)

What They Have:

The single biggest reason for the Colts’ success in 2018, outside of their quarterback, of course, was the emergence of the Colts’ offensive line as one of the best in the league. It was not necessarily shocking, as the unit featured three first rounders and one second rounder as starters. But still, for a unit that had come to represent the team’s failure during the Grigson/Pagano years, it was wonderful to see what the offense could do with a solid line in spots 1-5.

Most of the buzz deservedly went to rookie Quenton Nelson who, unsurprising to most who watched him in college, has already turned into one of the best guards in the entire NFL. Beside him, Anthony Castanzo proved once again that calls for his removal from the team were premature and unfounded, though the team will likely start considering finding his replacement sooner than later. Ryan Kelly rebounded from an abysmal 2017 with an outstanding campaign this year, although the injuries that plagued him throughout the season are will be a concern if they continue when it comes time to offer him an extension.

Braden Smith was easily the unsung hero on the line, as the college guard came in and solidified the right tackle spot as one of the best rookies in the entire league. Finally, free agent to be Mark Glowinski came out of nowhere to give the Colts an outstanding year at right guard. Despite some untimely penalties and miscues near the end of the season, there is a lot to be optimistic with him going forward and, if retained, should clean up what rough spots he does have.

On the bench, Joe Haeg played as a primary backup/swing tackle and did the job perfectly fine, and will certainly be retained as one of the line’s top backups. Le’Raven Clark didn’t see much playing time, but from what I saw in the preseason it looked like he had made some strides, even though it is highly unlikely he will live up to his third-round draft spot. Evan Boehm is bad and should not be retained in free agency, and Matt Slauson, if he so desires, would be a great addition to the end of the bench to serve as a player/coach after the reported work he did with rest of the offensive line after getting injured early in the season.

What They Need:

The most important question is what the team decides to do with Glowinski. As of now, I expect him to be retained, and put in line to be the starter going forward. If not, it is possible Smith would slide over to guard and, assuming no starting level player is added in the offseason, Haeg or Clark would take his place at right tackle. If he does leave, or even if he doesn’t, I still expect the Colts to add another lineman of some kind.

Ballard has said repeatedly (and correctly) that adding talent in the trenches is something that should happen every offseason, and I expect this one to fall right into line. One of their three day two picks would make sense to go either to a tackle or guard, while a later draft pick or free agent addition could come in and give the Colts a better option at center behind Kelly.

Defensive Line

On Roster: Denico Autry, Kemoko Turay, Tyquan Lewis, Hassan Ridgeway, Al-Quadin Muhammad, Grover Stewart, Jihad Ward, Anthony Wimbush, DeShawn Williams

Free Agents: Al Woods (UFA), Margus Hunt (UFA), Geneo Grissom (UFA)

What They Have:

Mike Phair’s unit did an excellent job with what they had this season, thanks in large part due to some quiet free agent moves Chris Ballard has made in the past two years. Denico Autry was a revelation this year at three-technique, leading the team in sacks with nine. At 28, Autry shouldn’t be relied on as a long-term piece but is certainly a valuable player on the defensive line for the two years remaining on his contract.

Margus Hunt had an especially odd regular season trajectory, as he was superb for the first few games of the year, fell off towards the middle, and then played like a solid starter towards the end of the year. Like Autry, he is a solid starting level player but is old and replaceable, and unlike Autry, is a free agent this offseason. If retained, I doubt it will be on a long-term deal.

On the edges, Jabaal Sheard overcame a slow start to the season to once again become the dependably solid player that he’s been throughout his relatively short career in Indianapolis. 2019 will be Sheards’ age 30 season, a frightening prospect for a team that’s trying to add youth throughout the team and upside in the pass rush. Like many on the team, he is a passable player, but his spot is certainly one they should attempt to upgrade if they can.

Across from Sheard, things get even worse, as Al-Quadin Muhammad, despite a decent end to the season, is simply not a starting level player. Behind them, rookies Tyquan Lewis and Kemoko Turay both showed flashes that make them exciting prospects going forward. Though both had their issues in the run, both flashed exciting pass rushing traits –Turay’s pure speed and bend and Lewis’ strength and quickness – skills that the team has not had since Freeney and Mathis were coming around the edge. It is a long shot that either, especially Turay, will be playing at a starter-caliber level to begin next season, but it is likely that one will develop into an impactful contributor sooner rather than later.

Grover Stewart had a few flashes this year but is still a replacement level player and Hassan Ridgeway is just not going to pan out the way many had hoped when he was drafted. Al Woods’ limitations will probably see him not re-signed come March.

What They Need:

Despite the solid performance of the defensive line this season, this unit is pretty clearly the weakest on the defense. Even if they retain the key free agents from this group, this unit is simply not good enough to stop some of the top offenses the Colts will see in next year’s regular season and playoffs.

A top tier edge rusher is obviously the dream, and since one will likely not be available with the 26th pick, I expect them to target one in free agency. Guys like Dee Ford and DeMarcus Lawrence, despite their connections to various members of the Colts organization, will be almost impossible to pry away from their current teams. The same will probably be true of Jadeveon Clowney, who doesn’t strike me as a Ballard target anyway, especially considering what little he’s done against the team in their recent meetings.

Though I would be surprised if these guys hit free agency, some slightly more likely dream candidates would be New England’s Trey Flowers and Washington’s Preston Smith. The next tier is where I could realistically see some possibilities of a match, be it Philadelphia’s Brandon Graham reuniting with Frank Reich, Ezekiel Ansah joining former Lion Eric Ebron in Indy, or one of Denver’s Shane Ray or Shaq Barrett.

These guys would undoubtedly be expensive, but if there was ever a position to spend on, this would certainly be it. If the Colts don’t come out with a promising edge rusher in free agency and/or early in the draft, I think it’s fair to say Chris Ballard will have failed in maximizing the resources available to him.

What do you think of the Colts’ roster as a whole? What player would you most like to add in free agency? What position is in the most need of talent? Leave a comment or hit me up on Twitter, @__AlexJacobson.