Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay believes his team’s offensive line is “fixed.”
His opinion runs counter to the common narrative surrounding Andrew Luck’s blockers, which is that the ineptitude of the unit has held the team back and is the direct cause of the star quarterback’s recent health issues.
Like most things, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Most of the criticism over the past few seasons has been justified. The Colts’ offensive line was below average to terrible in the five seasons since Luck was drafted. Ex-general manager Ryan Grigson’s questionable tactic of trying to patch the unit by signing over-the-hill veterans and solid players with injury concerns backfired badly.
However, while the Colts’ play in 2016 wasn’t much improved – Luck was hit 128 times, the second most in the league – the reality began to shift away from the established narrative.
Indy has actually invested heavily and smartly in the line over the past few seasons and could finally be ready to reap the reward.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
Left tackle Anthony Castonzo should be the lone veteran in a young starting group. He’s teased Pro Bowl form in the past, but he’s settled in as a solid player who won’t wow anyone.
Castonzo is under contract through the 2019 season, and it doesn’t appear the Colts have his successor on the roster right now. At some point, perhaps in next year’s draft, the Colts will look to find their next starting left tackle, but barring a dramatic drop-off in play, Castonzo will continue to man the blindside.
Left guard and center is where the strength of the unit lies, with 2014 second-rounder Jack Mewhort and 2016 first-rounder Ryan Kelly manning the positions, respectively. Both players’ national reputations don’t quite match their actual level of performance, likely due to the narrative of poor play the entire line is stuck with.
Mewhort’s development has been marred somewhat by injuries, but he’s one of the better young guards in the league when healthy, especially as a run blocker, and should get more recognition once the entire line reaches his level.
Kelly instantly became the Colts’ best O-lineman in his rookie year, not giving up a single sack during the entire campaign. While it’s too early to crown him as the AFC’s next great center, he gave no reason to doubt he will be snapping the ball to Luck for the next decade or so.
By the end of his tenure, Grigson had few defenders left. Grigson’s poor draft history was one of the main reasons he was replaced by Chris Ballard this offseason, but he actually gave the Colts a parting gift on his way out.
(Photo courtesy: Action Images)
Somewhat ironically, Grigson actually found the pieces of what could eventually be a very good offensive line, but he won’t be the one to get the credit.
Along with Kelly, guard Joe Haeg and tackle Le’Raven Clark were taken in the 2016 draft by Grigson. Neither was pegged for significant roles in 2016, especially Clark, who possessed great upside but was raw coming out of college.
However, injuries forced the Colts’ hand. Haeg started 15 games, splitting time at both right tackle and right guard, though he played much better at the latter. Clark appeared in eight games, but most of his action came in three starts to close out the season at right tackle. As expected, Clark showed that he needs refinement, but he also proved he can already handle NFL-caliber pass rushers.
The Colts and Ballard expressed their confidence in their young talent by only signing journeyman Brian Schwenke and fourth-rounder Zach Banner to boost the unit this offseason.
No, Indy’s line isn’t fixed. Health will be a major factor moving forward, as Luck has worked behind a ridiculous 35 offensive line combinations in just five seasons.
But the Colts have more talent than you think, and if they can keep these five guys together and Kelly and Mewhort reach their potential, the unflattering narrative will quickly change.
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