The Indianapolis Colts have long been criticized for their mediocre offensive line, but was it really as bad as everyone thinks?
For four years, the Colts have struggled to protect their most important asset: Andrew Luck. Those failing culminated in an injury plagued season for Luck in 2015. The offensive line has been an issue since GM Ryan Grigson took over in 2012 and his repeated attempts to fix it have all failed.
Pro Football Focus has graded all of the offensive lines in the NFL, and the Colts weren’t nearly as bad as many might guess. They were right in the middle of the pack with the 15th best line in the NFL. In 2014, the Colts were ranked 17th by PFF at the end of the year.
Here’s what PFF had to say about the Colts:
"Pass-blocking rank:12thRun-blocking rank: 19thPenalties rank: 16thStud: Sophmore lineman Jack Mewhort showed promise as a rookie, but he really took his game to a new level this year. Starting off at right tackle before starring at left guard, it was a true breakout season.Dud: Bringing in Todd Herremans really didn’t pan out, with the former Eagle struggling in each of his 140 snaps.Summary: A so-so year for the line. Problems at center and right guard were a constant, and whileAnthony Castonzo played well, we’ve seen him look a lot more assured on the blindside. There’s young talent here, but can it be developed into a better group?"
Looking at individual grades, only two players finished above average (all grades are on a 100 point scale, Madden style). Jack Mewhort, at left guard, had the best grade at 85.6 (which PFF has as a Pro Bowl level player) and ninth among guards in the league. Anthony Castonzo was at 79.4 which is above average but a down year for him.
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After those two, it is a slippery slope for the line. Jonotthan Harrison had a 50.1 grade at center which is a below replacement level player for PFF. Hugh Thornton was even worse at right guard with a 46.8. Joe Reitz managed to make it somewhat respectable with a 67.1, but that puts him just below average.
We can also look at the end of season offensive line rankings over at Football Outsiders to get an idea of how efficient the Colts were. Football Outsiders was not as favorable to the Colts run blocking abilities, ranking them 27th in that department. However they were 16th in pass protection, allowing 37 sacks and an adjusted sack rate of just 6.1 percent.
It isn’t a surprise that the Colts were downgraded as a run blocking unit. Despite how badly Chuck Pagano wants to run the ball, this team has never been built for that purpose. If that is the kind of team he wants, they need a new center and right guard.
The first two weeks of the season, the line really struggled. Mewhort was moved from a more natural guard position to right tackle and new addition Herremans was playing the role of turnstile at right guard. In Week 3, the Colts moved Mewhort back to left guard and Reitz was moved to right tackle. Additionally, Herremans was benched and Thornton took over at his position.
That stabilized the line, and the Colts had much better protection from then on. But by then the damage was already done. Luck was hurt (probably in Week 1 on an interception return) and suffered a shoulder injury against the Titans as the line was attempting to get settled. There likely wasn’t a single game where Luck was even 85-percent healthy this season, but that wasn’t completely the offensive lines fault.
It should also be noted that only six of the 14 teams ranked ahead of the Colts made the playoffs. The Cowboys had the best line in the NFL but have the fourth pick in the Draft. Having a good protection is important, but a healthy quarterback is paramount.
What we can take from this is that the Colts line was average and that a healthy Luck, who is very mobile, would have had success behind this unit. This also means that the Colts don’t have to burn the unit to the ground and adding a player or two to the interior would make a significant impact. That said, almost every single move the Grigson has made has failed. He’s attempted to address the line time and again only to see those moves not pan out.
Owner Jim Irsay put a point of emphasis on the offensive line not long ago, making it clear he wants to keep his soon to be obscenely rich quarterback upright and in the game.
The offensive line is clearly an area the Colts have to address this offseason, but it isn’t the most important one on the list of needs.