Preparing for the Colts Future: Offensive Line

No area of the Indianapolis Colts received more attention in the 2011 NFL Draft than the offensive line. Rookie left tackle Anthony Castonzo and rookie right tackle Ben Ijalana — who was placed on injured reserve early in the season after an ACL tear — were brought in to improve the line’s edges. Former tackle candidates slid inside to provide more bulk at guard — in an effort to improve Indy’s running game.

Interestingly enough, even with a host of injuries to players along the offensive line, the changes were effective. While Colts quarterbacks were under more duress in 2011 than Manning was in 2010, much of that had to do with a domino effect of different circumstances in Indianapolis last season.

Consider that difficulties moving the football, sustaining drives, and scoring points will generally allow opposing defenses to stay well-rested and be very aggressive at the line of scrimmage due to a cushion on the scoreboard. Consider also that blitzing Peyton Manning was a recipe for getting torched, and that his successors did not carry that attribute with them — changing the mindset for opposing defensive coordinators significantly.

Despite this, the Colts averaged 4.2 yards per carry — good for 15th in the NFL (tied) — with new starters at every position on the line except for center. This is a .4 yard per carry improvement — 14 ranks higher — over the 2010 rushing offense’s performance. Third-year running back Donald Brown even finished the year ranked fifth overall in DVOA, making him the fifth most efficient running back in the NFL.

Although there are a couple of strong offensive tackle prospects in the upcoming draft, the team has more depth and potential at the position than it has had since 2006. Castonzo and Ijalana both showed the kind of natural abilities and potential to suggest that they will develop into solid NFL tackles. Even Jeff Linkenbach and Quinn Ojinnaka have showed reasons to be satisfied that they’re on the team to serve as depth behind the rookie starters.

Former starting right tackle Ryan Diem moved inside to right guard and did a decent job for a player who hadn’t played on the inside for years — though it seems likely that he will consider retirement this off-season. Local guard/tackle prospect Joe Reitz showed a solid rapport with Castonzo on the left side and looks like the kind of player who is capable of continued improvement.

Where the questions lie for this group is when the rest of the depth is analyzed. Mike Pollak, Jamey Richard, Seth Olsen, Mike Tepper, Jaimie Thomas, and Jeff Saturday are all surrounded by questions for different reasons. Thomas has been on the team since 2009 — a seventh round pick that year — but has failed to work his way into a starting gig, or see meaningful playing time.

Jamey Richard started a couple of games in place of Jeff Saturday in 2008 — Saturday was injured — and had a stint as the starting left guard to start out the 2010 season but has since been cut and added to the team more than once. Seth Olsen is a player acquired specifically to make up for the loss of Joe Reitz and Ryan Diem to injury. While he has NFL starting experience, it’s way too earlier to have any indication that he is likely to stay with the team long-term. Mike Tepper is another relative unknown — in the Olsen mold — who could develop into a solid supporting lineman — or he could be out prior to the start of 2012.

Former 2008 second round pick Mike Pollak has never successfully nailed down a starting position on the offensive line — but is likely the front runner to take over the Jeff Saturday at center, should he retire. When Pollak was given opportunities to start at right guard, he lost the job to former Colts lineman Kyle DeVan before the year was over two seasons in a row.

The issue with Jeff Saturday is that his contract is expiring and he’s getting to the age where significant performance drop-offs can be expected. There are times that Saturday has clearly been over-matched by young and strong talent on modern NFL defensive lines. There have also been times that the aging Pro Bowl veteran has looked fantastic and shown that he is still one of the best centers in the NFL.

What happens with all of these guys? If Saturday is done, will Pollak work out? If Diem doesn’t return, who starts at right guard? There are numerous linemen entering the 2012 NFL Draft who could help solidify the line and answer these questions.

The team could choose to go with one of the top tackle prospects in the early first round and move a player like Ijalana inside — which is unlikely given that the Colts appear to require a quarterback and significant defensive attention. There is a handful of interior offensive linemen who could slip back into the second round or later that would have good value, including top tier center prospects.

No matter how the team chooses to approach the offensive line in 2012, it is relatively clear that the biggest questions now involve the inside linemen. Too many players have failed to prove themselves and too many other players are reaching the point in their careers where retirement thoughts and discussions become increasingly likely.

Though a lot of fans in Indianapolis would really like to see the team focus on defense with the vast majority of the picks in the 2012 NFL Draft, do not be surprised if there is a mid-round pick used on another offensive lineman.

*Some players who may be available in the third-fifth round are Wisconsin’s guard Kevin Zeitler, Illinois’ tackle/guard Jeff Allen, and California’s tackle/guard Mitchell Schwartz. The only free agent options that make any real sense are re-signing Diem to a small one-year contract or attempting to bring in Jake Scott from Tennessee — though he might demand too high of a contract as well.