It's no secret that one of the Indianapolis Colts' biggest weaknesses heading into the 2014 season is the offensive line. The Colts have ranked in the bottom 10 in both pass and run blocking in Pro Football Focus' cumulative team grades (subscription required) in each of the past two seasons.
Of course, you don't need numbers to tell you that if you've spent any notable amount of time watching the team over the last two years. The Colts have had issues with their offensive line since Tarik Glenn retired after the 2006 season, and the last two years have been as bad as ever.
The lone bright spot on the line in those years? Anthony Castonzo.
Bill Polian's last gift to the Colts was a competent left tackle, something that the Colts had struggled to obtain for years. It seems that Castonzo has become a decent starter, at the very least, which is a huge win for the Colts offensive line, especially considering the price they're paying for him.
But now Castonzo's price is about to go up. Being drafted in 2011 and signed to a four-year contract, Castonzo was slated to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2014 season. But the 2011 draft brought the first wave of first-rounders with fifth-year team options on their contracts. The Colts chose to pick up Castonzo's option back in April, and will now pay him just over $7.4 million in 2015, according to Spotrac.
From there, however, the Colts have decisions to make. Sign Castonzo to a long-term deal, or let him go and go a different direction. But we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.
For now, we're going to look at who Castonzo is and how the Colts can continue to use him going forward.
A Brief History
Before we look ahead, let's look back at how Castonzo has developed over the last three seasons. Coming out of college, Castonzo was one of the more pro-ready offensive tackles, but lacked the elite athleticism of players like Nate Solder and Tyron Smith.
Considering the success of those players and the failures of players like Gabe Carimi and James Carpenter, I'd say his draft selection was right on point with his respective talents.
Before he went on to work at Bleacher Report, Matt Miller had this to say about Castonzo on his scouting website New Era Scouting:
Castonzo will be a high-class professional on and off the field. In him an NFL team is drafting a high-character, hard-working player who may not have the high ceiling of other offensive tackles but also does not carry the risk either.
Castonzo should not see himself fall past the Colts with the 22nd pick in the first round.
The specifics on Castonzo's scouting at the time included a sound technician with solid quickness who would excel in zone blocking and screens, but who needed to bulk up to handle NFL-sized defensive linemen. Miller also had this to say about Castonzo:
Has the quickness to jump out of his stance and set up against the edge rush. Can be turned by speed rushers and may see a move to right tackle because of this. Is very quick off the ball in run blocking.
Based on how he's developed, it's safe to say that the predraft scouting reports were fairly accurate. Take a look at Castonzo's grades from Pro Football Focus over the last three years.
|2011||+3.8||-2.4||0.0||40 (Out of 76)|
Pro Football Focus
The table confirms what most have observed about Castonzo over the last two seasons: He's been a mediocre pass-protector (especially against speed-rushers), but has developed into a good run-blocker who excels in space.
Castonzo has also been an iron man since recovering from an ankle injury during his rookie year. He did suffer a mild MCL sprain in training camp last year, but was able to play Week 1 and went on to play every game for the second consecutive season. In fact, over the last two seasons, just two offensive tackles have played more offensive snaps (playoffs included) than Castonzo.
Outside of a "probable" status on the backside of the MCL sprain last year in Week 1, Castonzo hasn't even shown up on the injury report during the last two seasons.
The Tape Reveal
In comparison to the rest of the Colts linemen last season, Castonzo stuck out as the best most of the time. Gosder Cherilus was likely better overall, but that was because of his consistency. Castonzo's lows were more common than Cherilus', but Castonzo's highs were much more impactful.
According to Ben Gundy's offensive line charting for Colts Authority, Castonzo had better success rates in both pass and run blocking than every other starting lineman by the end of the season.
Castonzo also stuck out in second-level blocks. To illustrate, his successful block rate on second-level blocks was 73 percent, compared to a team average of 58 percent. Agile rookie lineman Hugh Thornton was the only other lineman to reach levels anywhere close to that (74 percent).
As far back as 2011, those second-level blocks have been impressive from Castonzo. I first really noticed it in the Colts' first win during Castonzo's rookie year, when his downfield blocking helped Donald Brown break loose on a couple long runs that powered the win.
Now fast-forward two years, and Castonzo is still powering long runs by Donald Brown.
Castonzo has also improved his strength immensely since coming into the league, which is a big reason why his run blocking has gotten so much better. Not only can he get out and move, but he can hold his own at the line of scrimmage on simple power plays off of the tackle.
Now, the biggest area of concern for Castonzo comes against speed-rushers. Robert Quinn forced major issues against Castonzo last season, for example, including this game-changing sack-fumble-TD early on. It's things like that that cause people to question whether or not he'd be a better fit at right tackle.
This is especially applicable when you factor in Castonzo's run blocking as well. The Colts tended to use their pulling plays and athletic linemen going right more often than left, and Castonzo was left behind as a backside protector. If you put him at right tackle, you could take advantage of his athleticism and vision in the run game more often while exposing him to fewer speed-rushers.
But when you've played left tackle for seven consecutive years, the switch might not be as easy as it seems on paper.
So, rather than forcing a position switch, I'd propose that the Colts view and use Castonzo as what he is: a decent but inconsistent pass protector who can run block very well and understands how to attack defenders on the second level with the right angles. For the final two years on his rookie contract, try to maximize his talents to see what his ceiling really is, and pay him accordingly.
A long-term deal can't be more than a mid-level deal or the Colts won't be able to afford him. Fortunately, he likely won't merit more than that from any team. For Indianapolis, a boring, but decent left tackle is a bright spot that the team would rather not lose.
But for at least two more years, they don't have to worry about that.