No position has been more heavily discussed, debated, and recruited by the Colts organization — or its fan base — during the 2011 off-season. The benefit of adding a legitimate, starting-caliber, left or right tackle early in the 2011 NFL Draft could drastically affect Indy’s offensive effectiveness and production, particularly running the football. To get an idea where the team stands, it is appropriate to look at the tackle depth already on the Colts roster.
First, assuming the new CBA does not make it impossible to keep key free agents, left tackle Charlie Johnson is the best offensive tackle on the current roster. The problem with this statement is that Johnson is much better suited to play guard in the NFL, or at most right tackle. This means that stalwart right tackle Ryan Diem’s value and production has dropped significantly in the last two or three seasons, increasing the need to replace him with younger talent. Diem had by far the worst year of any of the Colts offensive linemen in 2010 and is getting a salary that his play no longer justifies.
Two young players may have an impact on the team’s future at offensive tackle. Undrafted free agent Jeff Linkenbach showed promise when he started at left tackle against the Denver Broncos early in the season, and again when he started at right tackle against the New York Jets in the Wild Card playoff round. He certainly did not look good when he was asked to move inside to guard, but his height, weight, and body type are far better suited to play outside and there is reason to believe that with continued work, he could be an upgrade at one or both of the tackle positions in his second season.
Practice squad veteran Joe Reitz, an Indianapolis native, is still with the roster after he was added prior to Week 1. He has had the time to learn the Colts’ system and has the size to be valuable — or at least extra competition — over the coming summer. His development could alter the team’s perspective on how many players it needs along the offensive line.
Still, there is little doubt that no matter how Reitz and Linkenbach develop, the Colts need to replace an aging veteran who can no longer justify his salary and a good NFL-caliber guard who has been forced to play left tackle. Doing so dramatically changes the face of the Indy offensive line, gives the offense greater flexibility to call and execute plays that they have struggled to execute in recent years, and protects the player the team will offer the biggest contract in league history — Peyton Manning.
Round 1 – Pick 22
Tyron Smith – USC – Smith is a player who is living on his athleticism in for the 2011 NFL Draft. He is projected by many to be the first tackle off of the board, even though his career at USC was only at right tackle. If analysts are correct, Smith will be off of the board far too early for the Colts and his value compared to a handful of other first round tackles does not justify giving up a lot to trade up. Low to moderate value.
Anthony Castonzo - Boston College – Castonzo is a well-rounded left tackle prospect with tons of collegiate experience, intelligence, athleticism, and a pretty high ceiling for development if a team looks his way. His primary competition for second best tackle in the draft is Wisconsin’s Gabe Carimi. If Castonzo drops to the Colts pick, he would fit in the no-brainer category of selections. High value.
Gabe Carimi - Wisconsin – Carimi is another tackle prospects who would most certainly offer the Colts a starting tackle in his rookie season. What he offers over Castonzo is a bit more of a mean streak, arguably experience against better competition, and his run blocking is rated higher than the BC product — though Castonzo is typically regarded as the better pass blocker. Carimi is a Big 10 player, who often receive a great deal of attention from the Colts recruiting staff, which may make him more known to the Indy draft room than to any other team. If he is around, the Colts should grab him without hesitation. High value.
Derek Sherrod - Mississippi State – Sherrod gets a knock for not having a mean streak like Carimi but otherwise he has shown the technical skills and size that project to make him a sure-fire candidate for starting right tackle in the NFL, with the upside to start on the left side if he develops quicker than usual or after he spends time on the right. In either case, if Sherrod is left he would be a solid pick. Whether the Colts should grab him at 22 or trade back to get one of Sherrod or Nate Solder lower, and pick up an extra pick or two in later rounds, is something only Polian will have a good bead on. Moderate to high value.
Nate Solder - Colorado – What Solder offers is an elite athleticism that comes along with being a converted tight end. What he may not offer is two-fold. One, at 6-foot 8-inches tall he may be susceptible to speed rushers like Freeney and Mathis who can get very low to the ground and underneath his grasp. Two, he has struggled to keep on weight, which could limit his ability to play against NFL caliber defensive linemen. If he can keep on the weight, and if he can work on technique to keep his height from working against him, Solder arguably has the highest upside of all first round tackle prospects. Moderate to high value.
Round 2 – Pick 53
Benjamin Ijalana - Villanova – Ijalana is a big man that looks the part of an NFL tackle but he is “only” 6-foot 4-inches tall which is not ideal for the position. He is rated as a solid pass protected but he may have difficulty dealing with the fastest speed rushers in the game. He has looked good working out and caught the eye of many NFL teams. If he dropped to the Colts pick in the second round he would have solid value, but his value would fluctuate based upon whether the draft room grabs one of the draft’s top five tackles. Moderate to high value.
Round 3 – Pick 87
Joseph Barksdale - LSU – Barksdale is a player who has not been getting the kind of attention he deserves prior to the draft and he may go higher than the third round because teams see the talent he offers but if he does drop to the third round, he is a steal in my book. A pairing of Barksdale and a first round tackle offer Indianapolis a long-term future at the position, significantly increases depth, and allowed Charlie Johnson to move inside to guard. The benefit to the offensive line would be too good to pass up. High value.
Marcus Gilbert - Florida – Gilbert has the size and tools to be a right tackle in the NFL. He may be an immediate starter for the Colts and could be a consolation prize if Barksdale is already gone. High value.
James Brewer - Indiana – When Brewer comes up, a lot of Colts fans feel the sting of passing on Rodger Saffold in the 2010 NFL Draft. Not unlike his former teammate, Brewer has all the physical tools and had a workout consistent with a player who may be able to have an immediate impact on an NFL offensive line. Picking him in the third round would offer the Colts value. Moderate to high value.
James Carpenter - Alabama – Carpenter is a decenter tackle prospect but may convert to guard in the NFL. He may not go in the third round at all, depending on how his height limits him. He does have good film blocking for the ground game though, so a team may nab him here. For the Colts, he is a marginal prospect at best. Low to moderate value.
Round 4 – Pick 119
Chris Hairston - Clemson – Hairston has had some injury concerns in his collegiate career but has the 6-foot 6-inch frame and 326 pounds that could make him a late round value pick if the Colts would like to add another potential tackle prospects but not use their second or third round picks to do so. Moderate value.
Jason Pinkston - Pittsburgh – Pinkston offers value as a tackle prospect but has both injuries and a 6-foot 3-inch frame that limits him. Not unlike Hairston, he could offer value if the Colts are looking for more line support in the bottom half of the draft. Low to moderate value.
Round 5 – Pick 152
Jah Reid - Central Florida – Reid is a small school prospect who could be a real sleeper late in the draft. He is 6-foot 7-inches tall, weighs 321 pounds, and has attracted a ton of attention from teams at his Pro Day. Polian likes to grab small school talent in the late round to find steals so Reid could join the list. Moderate to high value.
Derek Newton - Arkansas State – At 6-foot 5-inches and 314 pounds, Newton may be a late round high value pick to compete for a spot at right tackle. Moderate value.
The offensive tackle prospects in 2011 are top and middle heavy. The value in the first round and top of the second round is exceptional. The value in also potentially rather good. Some late steals may be possible but in all, this offensive tackle class is probably just above average once one looks past the top five or six prospects. That said, the defensive line talent is extremely talented, which could swing things in the Colts favor to make major strides to upgrading their offensive line. Do not be surprised if the Colts select three more offensive linemen in 2011 — much like they did in 2008. While drafting only two offensive linemen is more likely, the way things look like they could break to the Colts at each of their picks could bring a ton of value at a very high position of need.