The Indianapolis Colts’ 2017 offensive line will either be the first year of a true “unit” to be relied upon, or another year of offensive line roulette. After a major investment in the line during 2016’s draft, and an overhaul in the coaching ranks, this unit is primed to take a step forward in 2017.

Recently, general manager Chris Ballard offered praise to his predecessor, Ryan Grigson, regarding how he addressed the offensive line just over year ago. While many clamored for a high 2017 draft pick to be spent on the O-line, due in large part to quarterback Andrew Luck’s injury issues over the last two seasons, Ballard maintains that, “there’s definitely hope there. Now, we gotta let those guys develop.”

Zach Banner, the only offensive lineman that the Colts draft in 2017, was taken with their first pick in the fourth round.

 

Left Side, Strong Side

So, why the optimism? Anthony Castonzo, Jack Mewhort and Ryan Kelly are why. The left side of the offensive line is solidified. Despite the fact that Mewhort has been easing back into full activity throughout voluntary workouts and OTA’s, the left side is set.

The Colts need seventh-year left tackle Castonzo to start 2017 how he finished 2016. Talking with Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star, it sounds like Castonzo agrees:

“I felt like I finished the season better,” Castonzo said. “I probably had a couple of games that I wish I could have back last year, but overall I played more consistent than I did the previous season. I kind of want to take what I started doing at the end of the year, playing consistently, and just bring that forward into this year.”

The Colts need a consistently-healthy Mewhort. The fourth-year guard from Ohio State started only 10 games in 2016. Knee and triceps injuries hampered him throughout the year. When healthy, Mewhort is an above average guard. Pro Football Focus ranked Mewhort’s 2015 performance as the ninth-best in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski commented recently on improvements in Mewhort’s technique that are allowing him to play faster and with more physicality. Mewhort would be served to put it back together for this, his first contract year.

As for the center, Kelly still hasn’t given up a sack. Giving him a year in an NFL offseason program, an offseason to gel with his linemates, or “weirdos” as the left tackle affectionately refers to the group, should mean the anchor of this unit is stronger than ever. It will be fun to watch the Colts’ talented second-year center grow in 2017.

 

The Battle

The battle will be on the right side of the offensive line this summer.

As 2016 came to a close, Joe Haeg and Le’Raven Clark filled the right guard and right tackle spots, respectively.

Earlier this spring, Ballard divulged that he sees Haeg as a guard. There had been speculation on that topic partly due to the fact that the North Dakota State product started at three different positions across the line last year — both guard spots and right tackle. The experience that Haeg gained will be invaluable moving forward. His ability to handle those different positions during his rookie year while transition from NDSU to the NFL speaks to his potential growth while focusing on solely one position.

Clark versus the Philadelphia Eagles’ defensive line during the 2016 preseason was concerning. It was frightening, for Luck’s well being that is. No. 12 didn’t come out to start the second half in that third preseason game — the preseason contest that the starters usually play deep into the third quarter. Luck’s coaches decided against it, as he had been sacked three times on just eight pass attempts. With that day in mind — when it came time for Clark’s first start of 2016, against the Minnesota Vikings, many were legitimately concerned for the safety of the Colts’ Pro Bowl quarterback. But, Clark impressed. Luck produced his second-highest completion percentage of the year, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. The Colts won big, and the future of Clark began to look a little different than it did that day in late August 2016.

Heag and Clark are the front runners to man the right side of the offensive line as training camp approaches. But, despite the fact that owner Jim Irsay proclaimed the line as “fixed” (a claim that has since been challenged by many), Chudzinski and head coach Chuck Pagano maintain that nothing is clearly defined. Signals from the coaches indicate that Denzelle Good, Brian Schewnke, Jeremy Vujnovich and even Clark will be tested at multiple positions throughout training camp.

Chudzinski on Good: “I think he has the flexibility… We’ve worked primarily at guard, that’s where he’s had most of his reps obviously for the past year at guard. But he does have some tackle background… Again, being flexible and adjusting during camp, I feel like we’ve had guys that have been able to get reps at multiple spots. It gives us some flexibility there.”

Good seems primed to fill that “Joe Reitz” role, meaning he can fill in at both guard and tackle.

Schwenke projects to be the second man on the depth chart at center, and both guard spots as well.

Vujnovich has familiarity with offensive line coach Joe Philbin. During OTA’s, with Mewhort and Good sidelined, Vujnovich filled in at left guard. Tackle had been his position up until that point.  With the club testing the fourth-year lineman in that way,  I believe he makes the 53-man roster as that eighth lineman.

The rest of the group will be headed by Banner, and will include Fahn Cooper, Jerry Ugokwe, Adam Redmond, Deyshawn Bond, Andrew Wylie and Blake Muir.

It will be interesting to see how many offensive linemen that the team brings onto the 53-man roster. I believe the Colts take nine, and look for Banner to be that final name added to the group. He will need to show an ability to handle the faster NFL game. Banner lumbers. He is gigantic. Pagano and Ballard rationalized the pick by explaining the value they see in his size. The value, for them, is that it takes so long for a defender to get around the outside of Banner that the ball should be out by then. He will need to show his ability to adapt to the counter moves NFL pass rushers will hit him with. He has upside, he knows he is nowhere near an NFL-ready finished product, and I think that the Colts give him 2017 to mature into the NFL game.

Luck is entering his sixth season for the Colts. Over the past five seasons No. 12 has operated behind a total of 35 different starting offensive line combinations. It looks as though the Colts may be close to arriving at some continuity and chemistry on the offensive line for the first time in Luck’s tenure.

 

 

 

 

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