How Improved Will the Indianapolis Colts Offensive Line Be in 2014?

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How Improved Will the Indianapolis Colts Offensive Line Be in 2014?
Rob Carr/Getty Images

There has been one glaring issue with the Indianapolis Colts since the Andrew Luck era began, and that is the performance of the offensive line.

Last season, even owner Jim Irsay brought up the need to improve Luck’s protection.

With the AFC South starting to improve (I’m looking at you, Jacksonville), the need for a strong offensive line that can both protect Luck and take the run game to the next level has never been more urgent.

In the second season under Chuck Pagano and the first under offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, the Colts made a slight improvement in Pro Football Focus’s pass-blocking and run-blocking efficiency ratings from 2012 to 2013 (subscription required).

In pass protection, they went from the 31st-rated unit (minus-46.4 rating) to 25th (rating of minus-20.4).

They moved from 24th to 23rd in run blocking, although their efficiency actually went down. That could be a bad sign considering they want to be a team with a power run attack (part of this could be attributed to Trent Richardson’s subpar season in 2013, but that’s an completely different issue).

Luckily for the Colts and their fans, former guard Mike McGlynn has departed. McGlynn was the worst guard in football to play at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps, per Pro Football Focus. (The craziest part is that McGlynn played 1,118 snaps last year before the team realized he needed to be removed. Maybe the front office should buy a subscription to Pro Football Focus?)

Like McGlynn, former starting center Samson Satele is also no longer a part of the team. Satele was the fourth-worst overall center in football last year, posting a minus-nine pass-block efficiency rating (second-worst to David Baas). Although he was horrid in pass protection, he was the 19th-best center when it came to run blocking.

Removing two of the worst linemen in football will surely help the Colts improve next year, which helps in a division where they will be facing J.J. Watt, Jadeveon Clowney and Chris Clemons twice a year.

So, with that in mind, let’s take a look at the 2014 unit as whole and what to expect from it.

First are the two tackle positions.

On the blind side, former first-round pick Anthony Castonzo is expected to retain the starting position that he has had since joining the team as a rookie in 2011, while Gosder Cherilus will man the strong side of the line at right tackle.

The tackle duo allowed 69 quarterback hurries (Castonzo’s 39 were the eighth-highest amount in the NFL), the fourth-highest amount of a team pairing of tackles in the league.

Last season, Castonzo was the 22nd-rated left tackle in pass protection.

Despite his mediocre play in protecting the quarterback, he was effective in run blocking, posting the highest efficiency rating of any player on the Colts.

Unfortunately, he plays at a position where protecting the quarterback is his No. 1 priority.

Another interesting tidbit that came up while looking at Castonzo’s performance was how he fared against team’s with a premium pass-rusher.

Against the Oakland Raiders (Lamarr Houston), Seattle Seahawks (Michael Bennett and Clemons), St. Louis Rams (second-leading sack artist in the NFL with Robert Quinn) and the Kansas City Chiefs twice (the dangerous duo of pass-rusher Tamba Hali and Justin Houston) Castonzo posted five of his seven games with a negative efficiency rating in pass protection.

In addition, he gave up three of the four sacks he allowed all year and 21 of his 46 quarterback hurries allowed in those games.

Look at the following play in Week 1 against the Raiders.

NFL Game Rewind

On the play, Houston is lined up against Castonzo. Castonzo starts the play well, but he bends at the waist, which allows Houston to overpower him and turn Castonzo into a turnstile. Castonzo ended up on the ground at the end of the play, which was a product of bending at the waist. Luckily for the Colts, Luck escaped and completed a 16-yard pass to Darrius Heyward-Bey (yeah, you read that right—Heyward-Bey made a catch).

For every play that Castonzo commits a minor mistake on, he has about three of these like the one against Jacksonville.

NFL Game Rewind

On the play, Tyson Alualu (I know, not the most lethal pass-rusher the league has ever seen) slants over, and Castonzo takes him out of the play with ease. His footwork is perfect, there is no bending at the waist and the result is him taking his man completely out of the play.

He needs to get more consistent, especially against premium pass-rushers, but he has shown flashes of being a very good left tackle.

Also, another thing to consider, Castonzo will be 26 when the season starts with three full seasons under his belt.

The following is a graph showing the ages at which the top left tackles in the NFL had their best seasons (Note: I left Tyron Smith off the graph due to a lack of room. He was drafted in the same season as Castonzo and, up to this point, Smith’s performance is on another planet.)

Player Peak Age Player Peak Age
Trent Williams 25 Jason Peters 30
Joe Thomas 29 Joe Staley 27
Jordan Gross 27 Eugene Monroe 27

Pro Football Focus

As you can see, the ages of the top-tier left tackles when they hit their peak vary, but most of them had their best season at the age of 27.

Add in that Castonzos rookie deal is set to expire after the 2015 season (the Colts have already accepted his fifth-year option), and all of the ingredients are there for him to have a breakout year.

If he doesn’t continue to improve, however, the Colts could look to address the future of the position in the upcoming draft.

Cherilus, meanwhile, was the most effective pass protector on the Colts roster, although he benefited from playing on the right side of the line.

He was the most efficient lineman for the Colts last season, but he was mediocre in comparison with other right tackles throughout the NFL in run blocking, which is the most important aspect of playing on the right side.

The best part about Cherilus is his ability to pass block despite playing on the right side of the line (well, aside from allowing 30 quarterback hurries). He allowed as many sacks (four) as his counterpart Castonzo. He was also the 11th-most efficient right tackle in protecting the quarterback.

With Cherilus, you dont exactly know what you’re getting on a yearly basis. Through six seasons, he has been a bit inconsistent in run blocking, specifically in his Detroit Lions days.

Luckily, he has the added advantage of having a tight end on his side of the line a majority of the time in power-run situations who can cover up his mistakes at times.

Overall, Id expect Cherilus to have a slightly better season in 2014 than he did in his first year under a new system.

(Hey, maybe the Colts can switch Castonzo and Cherilus around since each seems to be able to do the other’s job better...I’m only partially kidding.)

Next is the interior of the line, specifically the two guard spots.

Donald Thomas—the Colts’ “Secret Superstar,” according to Pro Football Focus—is set to return to the lineup after suffering injuries to his biceps and quad in Week 2 against the Miami Dolphins that kept him out for the remainder of the season. He will likely start on the right side of the line due to the emergence of second-year man Hugh Thornton.

During his first six seasons (didn’t play in 2010) with the Dolphins, New England Patriots and Colts, Thomas started 24 games, completing 1,484 snaps in those starts. He was incredibly efficient, posting a 20.0 efficiency rating overall, a 3.3 in pass blocking and a 17.1 in run blocking as a starter.

From his limited sample size, Thomas really looked the part of an effective starting guard.

On the following play, Vick Ballard runs a counter through the A-gap. Thomas and Satele throw a double-team on Raiders nose tackle Pat Sims. Due to Thomas blowing Sims off the ball and sealing off the play, Satele is able to work up to the second level, springing Ballard on a 12-yard gain.

NFL Game Rewind

If he can stay healthy, Thomas is going to be a huge part of the Colts offensive line in 2014.

At the left guard position, second-year man Hugh Thornton will likely return to man the starting position he took over when Thomas went down with an injury.

Advanced metrics weren’t Thornton’s friend, as he posted a minus-19.3 overall blocking grade, a minus-15.8 in pass blocking and a minus-7.8 in run blocking as a rookie, per Pro Football Focus.

The one thing advanced metrics don’t account for is his awesome full-armed tribal tattoo.

But, in all seriousness, Thornton could become a key piece of the offensive line if he improves heading into his second season.

Thornton’s quick feet allow him to execute effectively when pulling to the play side. Also, the Colts utilized a lot of zone blocking from the shotgun with Donald Brown. Although he left for San Diego, Vick Ballard and Ahmad Bradshaw will allow the Colts to use zone blocking on a consistent basis.

There are some negative things I noticed about Thornton. Firstly, he appears to have very tight hips. Secondly, there were times when he would be slow to complete his blocking assignments, like on the play below.

NFL Game Rewind

Thornton pulls to the right side to throw a block through the B-gap. He stops for a second, which forces him to get in the way of Donald Brown, which makes a play that could have gone for a first down go for just three yards instead. This issue can be improved with both experience and coaching.

Thornton still has a long way to go, but he is going to develop into a solid player by the time the 2014 regular season rolls around.

Now comes the biggest question mark on the line, which is at center.

The Colts signed Phil Costa, but he made a surprising move and decided to call it a career shortly after signing with Indianapolis.

As of right now, it looks to be a two-player race.

2014 second-round pick Jack Mewhort is my favorite to take over the spot in the middle, although he has never played the center position before.

At Ohio State, Mewhort played both tackle positions and guard before settling in at left tackle as a senior.

Mewhort could beat out Thornton for one of the guard positions, but the Colts’ use of him at center in some drills during rookie workouts gives reason to believe he could make the move to center.

Plus, why else would they place his locker directly next to Andrew Luck’s?

If it isn’t Mewhort, second-year man Khaled Holmes out of USC has a good chance at earning the starting nod.

Holmes didn’t receive much playing time last season, appearing on just 13 snaps as a fourth-round pick out of USC.

Considering that the Colts invested a fourth-round pick on him and passed on USC’s Marcus Martin in favor of Mewhort, that gives reason to believe that they think they have their center of the future on the roster.

Although a lot can happen in training camp, the Colts are looking at having one of the most improved offensive lines in the league in both pass protection and the running game.

 

Advanced stats courtesy of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

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