INDIANAPOLIS – The transformation is well underway.
There’s Shane Steichen, Jim Bob Cooter, Gardner Minshew II, Matt Gay and others who have reshaped the coaching staff and influential positions. Stephon Gilmore is in Dallas, but Ryan Kelly and Kenny Moore II remain in Indy.
The next franchise-shaping decision comes in 23 days when general manager Chris Ballard decides whether the April 27 NFL draft offers a quarterback capable of returning the Indianapolis Colts to prominence, or at least relevance.
In the days leading up to the draft – the Colts hold the No. 4 pick and nine overall – we’ll take a look at a few prominent positions. There’s still a lot of work to be done. Remember, this is a franchise that has missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons and six of the last eight since reaching the 2014 AFC Championship game.
Today: Offensive line.
Starters: LT Bernhard Raimann, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Will Fries, RT Braden Smith.
Backups: Danny Pinter, Carter O’Donnell, Wesley French, Arlington Hambright, Dakoda Shepley, Jordan Murray.
Departed: OT Matt Pryor (San Francisco).
Free agent: Dennis Kelly.
Any chance of 2022 matching everyone’s expectations – the Colts were considered at least co-favorites with Tennessee to win the AFC South – were sabotaged up front. An offensive line that was expected to protect immobile and 37-year-old Matt Ryan and give reigning league rushing champion Jonathan Taylor room to once again flash his game-changing skills underperformed from the outset.
The protection allowed 60 sacks, the second-most in franchise history, and another 68 quarterback hits. Ryan was sacked 38 times in 12 games. In a week 9 loss at New England, Sam Ehlinger went down nine times. In a week 16 loss to the Los Angeles Chargers, Nick Foles was sacked 7 times. A week later, Foles was knocked from the New York Giants game with a concussion.
A running game that averaged 149.4 yards (No. 2 in the league) and 5.1 yards per attempt (tied-No. 1 in franchise history) in 2021 never found its footing. The averages plummeted to 109.8 and 4.3 last season as rushing lanes shrank or disappeared altogether and Taylor battled toe and ankle injuries.
There was more than enough blame to go around.
Ballard and his personnel staff erred by giving the left tackle position to Matt Pryor and the right guard spot to Danny Pinter without training camp competition. Each struggled and was benched a month into the season.
That was compounded as the three cornerstones – left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Braden Smith – endured erratic/poor seasons.
Nelson was named to his fifth Pro Bowl in as many seasons, but wasn’t a dominant force. Pro Football Focus handed him a 68.4 grade, 20th among guards and the lowest of his career. He allowed 5 sacks, six quarterback hits and 31 pressures.
Kelly ranked 16th among centers, according to PFF, and allowed 5 sacks and 25 pressures. Smith was 18th among tackles after yielding 7 sacks – he had given up a total of 4 the previous two seasons – and 30 pressures.
The most scrutinized player was rookie Bernhard Raimann. The third-round draft pick worked almost exclusively with the No. 2 unit until Pryor became a liability. Raimann made his first career start on the prime-time stage at Denver in week 5, and the results were disastrous. He wasn’t credited with giving up one of the Broncos’ 6 sacks, but was penalized three times for holding – one was declined – and once for a false start. He appeared overmatched whether dealing with speed or power.
The growing pains continued and seemed to bubble over after the 9-sack game against the Patriots. Ballard saw Raimann walking to the bus with tears in his eyes.
“Bernhard is passionate and cares and wants to do the right thing,’’ Ballard said. “I said, ‘You are going to have days like this in his league, but your mental toughness and your ability to reset is important.’
“To the kid’s credit, he battled his ass off. He got better each week. We thought he performed at a winning level the last seven, eight weeks of the season.’’
Raimann finished with a 73.3 grade, according to PFF, 18th among 81 qualifying tackles.
A recurring phrase is pertinent: There’s work to be done.
A major decision was made to retain the anchor of the line. Despite receiving trade interest in Kelly, Ballard opted to pay his three-time Pro Bowl center a $1 million roster bonus due in mid-March and bring him back for an eighth season. The team needs its 2016 first-round draft pick to bounce back from a couple of subpar seasons; parting with him would have created a significant void in the middle of the o-line.
As things currently stand, reliable depth is as bad as it’s ever been. The six projected backups combine for 68 appearances and eight starts, and Danny Pinter has accounted for 46 games and seven of the starts. Wesley French, Jordan Murray and Carter O’Donnell have yet to appear in a regular-season game.
It’s impossible to overstate the need for proven depth. Since the same five started all 16 games in 2019, the Colts have used 23 different starting combinations the last three seasons and 50 games. That includes seven in 2022 when performance, not injury, was the overriding reason for change.
The positive spin is the season opener is five months away, so there’s time to address the deficiency through the draft and the more affordable phase of free agency.
The negative spin is it’s tough asking for a rookie to step in and contribute right away – especially one taken outside of round 1 – and it’s risky hoping to find another Matt Glowinski or Chris Reed.
Steichen knows the landscape.
“There’s some pieces there,’’ he told reporters last week at the owners’ meetings in Phoenix.
He knows it very well.
“Obviously we want to add some pieces there as well,’’ he said.
Four-fifths of the starting group seems set: Raimann at left tackle, Nelson at left guard, Kelly at center and Smith at right tackle. Will Fries probably is penciled in at right guard, but an upgrade is required.
But there’s no denying the keys moving forward. Raimann must prove he’s grown into the no-doubt starter at the most important position as he heads into his second season, and Nelson, Kelly and Smith must play up to their contracts. They’re three of the Colts’ top five players in salary cap allotment: Smith, No. 3 at $19 million; Kelly, No. 4 at $12.375 million; and Nelson, No. 5 at $12.2 million. And it’s worth pointing out Nelson’s financial burden from his four-year, $80 million extension skyrockets starting next season ($25.2 million against the cap).
Speaking of extensions, the Colts invested roughly $136 million in guarantees with Nelson, Smith and Kelly.
Perhaps a non-player will provide the most impact. That would be Tony Sparano Jr., who replaces Chris Strausser as position coach. It’s impossible to argue a change wasn’t necessary considering the steady regression of the group.
Sparano, 36, has been an NFL coach for 12 seasons, including the assistant o-line coach the past six seasons with the New York Giants (2022), Carolina Panthers (2021) and Jacksonville Jaguars (2017-20).
Although he hadn’t crossed paths with Steichen, Sparano made a strong first impression. Steichen said he interviewed five or six candidates, and each meeting lasted six or seven hours.
“Just the way he saw the game, the accountability he’s going to have with those guys,’’ he said of Sparano. “He’s very, very bright, intelligent.
“Some of the things he talked about, midway through the interview I said, ‘Yeah, this is going to be the guy.’ I knew. He was phenomenal.’’
Steichen described Raimann as “a young player that’s progressing. We need to keep developing him, and Tony’s going to do a heckuva job with those guys.’’
The obvious objective: rebuild what not that long ago was one of the NFL’s top offensive lines.
“They’ve had tradition here with those guys and want to get that back, the standard where it needs to be at,’’ Steichen said.
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