INDIANAPOLIS – The Indianapolis Colts report to Grand Park Sports Campus in Westfield July 26 for the start of training camp.
Between now and then, we’ll take a position-by-position look at a team that must rebound from its crushing loss in Jacksonville and return to a serious playoff contender.
Today: offensive line.
Starters: LT Matt Pryor, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Danny Pinter, RT Braden Smith.
Depth: T Bernhard Raimann, T Dennis Kelly, T Jason Spriggs, T/G Will Fries, T Ryan Van Demark, T Jordan Murray, T Brandon Kemp, C Wesley French, G/T Carter O’Donnell, G Josh Seltzner.
The Q Factor
One of the few unresolved issues heading into training camp is an extension for Quenton Nelson. Taking him at his word, Nelson might be in a small minority of people not paying attention to what will be a groundbreaking contract.
“I’m not focused on that,’’ Nelson insisted during the team’s offseason work.
But it’s coming. And it’s going to be massive.
If there’s a floor, it’s the free-agent deal Jacksonville doled out for Brandon Scherff: three years, $49.5 million, $16.5 million per season, $30 million guaranteed.
Nelson might command something in the $20 million per year range, which would make him the Colts’ highest-paid non-quarterback. Darius Leonard is the highest-paid non-QB ($19.7 million per year) while right tackle Braden Smith’s $17.5 million average sets the bar for offensive linemen.
Last offseason, Chris Ballard locked up three core players with extensions between the start of camp and the onset of the regular season: Leonard, Smith, running back Nyheim Hines.
While the financial side can’t be ignored, what’s more important is Nelson appears to be heading in to his fifth season as healthy as possible. He underwent a pair of unspecified surgeries last offseason, suffered a broken bone in his right foot early in training camp and saw his streak of 54 consecutive starts, including the playoffs, end at 54 games because of high sprain to his right ankle. He also missed the week 16 win at Arizona because of COVID-19 and an occasional practice because of back issues.
“There’s no excuses,’’ Nelson said. “You are what you put on tape, and at the end of the day, that’s how I play, and it is what it is.
“But I can look at myself and know I gave my all getting treatment and all the time I spent on my body to try to get it right as much as I can during the whole season.’’
Pro Football Focus graded Nelson at 69.1 last season, 26th among guards and clearly a reflection of the injuries. His grades the previous three years: 87.5, 91.2 and 81.6.
Despite the injury issues in ’21, Nelson was named second-team All-Pro. He’s one of five players selected first-team All-Pro in each of his first three seasons since the 1970 merger.
“Some players add value just by their influence,’’ Ballard said. “Who they are, what they are, what they are in the locker room, what they stand for.’’
Putting it simply, the starting left tackle spot is Matt Pryor’s to lose. The overriding issue? He’s still learning the position.
Since being selected in the 6th round of the 2019 draft by Philadelphia – the Colts acquired him in an Aug. 31 trade with the Eagles – Pryor has started 15 of 44 games. Only one has been at left tackle, and that was in week 17 of ’21 against the Las Vegas Raiders when injuries sidelined Eric Fisher.
“Before last season, I never thought about playing (left tackle),’’ Pryor said. “The comfortability level kind of fame while playing the game, but this offseason I really focused in on working that out when I was training in Texas.
“I did some boxing classes, and I worked southpaw so I could get used to my hips being flipped the opposite way.’’
Gradually, the 6-7, 332-pounder has settled in, and he’ll open camp with the starting unit.
The team determined during the offseason Pryor, 27, was worth a reinvestment. Fisher was not re-signed – he remains a free agent – and Pryor returned with a one-year deal worth roughly $5.4 million.
“Of course being a starter is what anybody wants to do. That was a big role in it,’’ Pryor said of re-upping.
Finding the Right Combo
Three-fifths of the offensive line is set and solid with Nelson at left guard, three-time Pro Bowler Ryan Kelly at center and Smith at right tackle.
Training camp competition will determine the final two spots, including Pryor at left tackle.
“We’ll get the best five on the field,’’ Ballard insisted. “Whatever the coaches think are the best five, we’ll get them on the field.’’
Third-round pick Bernhard Raimann will be given every opportunity to wrestle the left tackle spot from Pryor. Danny Pinter, a 2020 5th-round pick, should open camp at starting right guard following the offseason departures of Mark Glowinski and Chris Reed.
But competition figures to be fierce, which always is the objective during camp.
If Pryor secures left tackle, perhaps Raimann slides to right guard and competes with Pinter. And that would enable former Purdue standout Dennis Kelly or Indiana product Jason Spriggs to vie for swing tackle responsibilities. Kelly has started 51 of 114 games in 10 seasons with Philadelphia, Tennessee and Green Bay. Spriggs has appeared in 60 games with 10 starts in six seasons with Green Bay, Chicago and Atlanta.
“I think we’ve got a solid core group of guys,’’ said Kelly, 29 and the longest-tenured Colt along with long-snapper Luke Rhodes (2016). “Braden, myself and Q . . . know the standard of what this group holds itself to. At times last year we kind of fell off that standard.’’
By the numbers, Part I
Anyone remember 2019 when the Colts’ offensive line started all 16 games? The streak reached 22 games, including the playoffs, before an injury sidelined left tackle Anthony Castonzo in week 5 of 2020.
Since then, it’s been a mix-and-match approach. Sixteen different combinations have been used over the last 30 games.
By the numbers, Part II
The Colts are hoping Raimann, the 77th overall pick in April, develops into their long-term answer at left tackle. If so, he’ll buck a recent trend.
According to The Athletic, since 2019, players drafted in the 1st round have accounted for 49% of the snaps by starting left tackles. Second-round picks have accounted 15% of the starting snaps and 3rd-rounders just 8%.
It should be noted Pryor was a 2018 6th-round pick of Philadelphia (206th overall).
By the numbers, Part III
Despite the constant line shuffling and revolving door at quarterback, the Colts have featured a running game that has finished among the top 11 in three consecutive seasons – 2nd in 2021, 11th in ’20 and 7th in ’19. It’s the first time since 1975-77 the team has three straight top-11 finishes.
Whatever its issues have been, the offensive line hasn’t forgotten how to run block. Backs have cracked the 1,000-yard barrier for three straight seasons – Jonathan Taylor a franchise-record 1,811 yards last season, Taylor with 1,169 in ’20 and Marlon Mack with 1,091 in ’19 – for the first time since Edgerrin James took care of that himself in 2003-05.
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.