The Indianapolis Colts avoided controversy in the NFL Draft this year, using their top pick in the draft on Alabama center Ryan Kelly. There was no "best player available" talk. There was little dissension among the fanbase over the pick. It was a needed position, and Kelly was the consensus best player at center. It made sense.
They followed that selection up by taking Texas Tech tackle Le'Raven Clark in the third, North Dakota State tackle Joe Haeg in the fifth, and Iowa interior lineman Austin Blythe in the seventh. Their draft had a clear theme: Protect Andrew Luck, who's due for a massive contract extension any day now. This year's draft is the first stage of that investment in Luck, and it has to be refreshing for a fanbase that has seen their star quarterback beat to hell for the past several years.
That's not really an exaggeration. No team has given up more pressure (sacks, hits and hurries) than the Colts over the past four seasons, according to Pro Football Focus. No quarterback has been hit more than Luck since 2012. In fact, according to PFF's tracking, Indy has surrendered 225 quarterback hits over the past four seasons. The next-closest team on that list is Arizona with 170 hits during that same window. Indianapolis has been an incredible, terrible outlier in one of the most important stats in the game.
Their star player and franchise cornerstone missed half of 2015 with internal injuries -- a lacerated kidney and torn abdominal muscles -- and these are the types of things you more often see in car accidents. Even though that particular injury happened on a scramble, the mandate to protect their most valuable asset has been clear.
The draft shows that. Their offseason seems to be centered around that theme. That's one of the big reasons they hired Joe Philbin, the former Dolphins head coach who got his start and rose through the college and pro ranks as an offensive line coach. "The ability to protect the quarterback -- I don't care what level of football you're at -- is absolutely critical, and certainly here it's a point of emphasis," he said recently. "It's a big job, and we have to do a great job. Everything starts inside out in pass protection."
He's not wrong. So the question now is have they done enough though?
Draft, development and depth
Taking four offensive linemen in the draft is certainly a start, but the Colts stood by during free agency, missing their chance to add immediate, experienced starters on the offensive line.
"We chose not to address [offensive line] in free agency," said GM Ryan Grigson. "We weren't fired up with what was out there and we had to be very selective with the money we spent. We wanted [the linemen already on the team] to grow and develop. We wanted to solidify that group but we also wanted to get players [in the draft] that we think have starter ability."
It's too early to know whether or not three of those four draft picks will eventually be starters, but one of those rookies is on track to being counted on immediately.
Ryan Kelly should slot into center from day one, and projects to be a guy that the team can pair with Luck for the next decade, something akin to the Peyton Manning-Jeff Saturday relationship. Kelly played at a high level against top SEC competition at Alabama and has the smarts, physical attributes and demeanor to assume the mantle as the offensive line's leader early on.
His pro-readiness is a pretty big outlier in this day in age, though, and you can't really expect the other three line picks to contribute right away.
Clark is definitely a project piece. He will almost surely start out on the bench, shore up his footwork and technique, and work his way onto the field after a year or two. He has a ton of upside as a blindside protector, but there's a reason he was sitting there in the third round. He's just not ready for the pro game. Haeg and Blythe clearly both have limitations as well.
Finding game-ready offensive linemen has been a problem that has plagued teams over the last several years, and clubs are playing catch up to try to develop players into their systems. The college game does not prepare many linemen to play at the next level. Many have never played in a three-point stance. They have not been asked to fire into the defender in front of them. They have not been asked to sustain blocks. They have to learn new footwork and hand placement. There's already a learning curve from college to the pros, but it seems like a bigger deal for offensive linemen than most positions.
Now, Haeg and Blythe may be more ready technique wise coming from pro-style offenses at North Dakota State and Iowa, respectively, but even if that's the case, you should hope that your team isn't projecting fifth and seventh-rounders as the solutions to your offensive line problems. Those draft slots are typically reserved for backups, whether Grigson would admit that or not.
You can't knock Grigson for keeping an eye on the long term, but he'll need some players already on Indianapolis' roster to step up. The team was very happy with Jack Mewhort's play at left guard so he slots in there going forward, and Anthony Castonzo is still holding it down at left tackle. Now, the big question marks sit at the right guard and right tackle spots.
Here's what the current depth chart looks like (via projections from Ourlads):
|Left Tackle||Left Guard||Center||Right Guard||Right Tackle|
|Anthony Castonzo||Jack Mewhort||Ryan Kelly*||Jonotthan Harrison||Denzelle Good|
|La'Raven Clark*||Hugh Thornton||Austin Blythe*||Adam Redmond*||Joe Reitz|
|Kevin Graf||Kitt O'Brien||Jeremy Vujnovich||Joe Haeg*|
Scheming for better protection
While Indianapolis has some pieces in place for the offensive line next year, there are new hurdles to clear outside of figuring out how to keep Andrew Luck's internal organs intact.
The Colts hired a new quarterbacks coach in Brian Schottenheimer, so there could be a learning curve there, and while Luck will not have to learn a new offense under Rob Chudzinski, things may change drastically with a new assistant head coach and offensive line coach in Philbin.
Philbin's rep isn't in the greatest shape right now after four mediocre years in Miami, but he made his mark as an offensive line coach and offensive coordinator with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay prior to that. His experience with one of the best quarterbacks in the game could help Luck bounce back in 2016.
As Philbin said, it all starts with pass protection. You have to believe that Philbin will have an influence on Chudzinski's play-calling.
In Seattle, there's a somewhat similar situation, where the Seahawks have tried, with varied results, to protect their franchise player with a cobbled together offensive line. There's a similar power structure in place too. Offensive line coach/assistant head coach Tom Cable and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell are highly collaborative on the offensive game plan and play calling. Cable and Bevell communicate throughout the game on protections and strategy, and clearly both are highly influential on the offensive product that goes onto the field for Seattle.
We may see a similar set up in Indianapolis. One place where you could see Philbin make his mark is with the speed of the passing game. Philbin's offenses in Miami over the last couple seasons favored a quicker passing approach. Throughout the 2014 season -- his last full year as head coach -- Miami's average quarterback drop depth when passing (i.e., how far the quarterback drops back when the ball is snapped) was about 7.5 yards per throw, per Pro Football Focus. This is right in the middle of the road for the NFL. In comparison, Indianapolis' average drop depth that year was closer to 8 yards, third-deepest in the NFL.
Naturally, this relates to how quickly the ball is coming out. Ryan Tannehill's average time to throw was 2.6 seconds that year. Luck's was 2.83 seconds. Over a full season, that's a big difference. That obviously factors into sacks, hits, hurries and pressure. I would not be surprised if Indy tries to get the ball out more quickly next year.
Fixing the running game
Of course, it's not just pass protection that the Colts need to improve upon. Indianapolis finished 29th in both rushing yards per game (89.9) and in yards per attempt (3.6) last year. It's always tough to grade offensive lines' run blocking in a vacuum, but over the last four seasons, Indianapolis finished dead last in yards per carry before contact (1.48), according to Pro Football Focus tracking.
They haven't had a rusher go over 100 yards since 2012, and haven't had a back rush for 1,000 yards since 2007. The Colts run game has been, to say the least, an afterthought.
Obviously, that's an area that the Colts wants to improve in, and logically a more balanced offense can't hurt things for Luck's health. Fewer drop backs, fewer hits, fewer sacks and so forth. Hand the ball off and let the running backs deliver punishment to the defense rather than the opposite. Frank Gore will get his chances.
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A lot hinges on the Colts' ability to build and develop their offensive line. They've made their investments in that area, and they're going to find out if those pay dividends.
The clear goal is to win games in an increasingly tough division while protecting the most important player on the team. It's Andrew Luck's contract year, and while it's pretty incomprehensible that he'd leave the Colts, using half of this year's draft picks on offensive linemen shows a commitment to keeping him upright and injury free.