Colts training camp preview: Offensive line

Indy Blitz

Indianapolis Colts center Ryan Kelly (78) warms up on the field before an NFL football game between the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – There are several givens as the Indianapolis Colts prepare for another training camp at Grand Park Sports Campus.

They’ll follow the lead of yet another starting quarterback. Carson Wentz, c’mon down. He follows Philip Rivers, who followed Jacoby Brissett, who followed Andrew Luck, who followed Brissett, who followed Luck.

Confusing, right?

They’ll draw on the experience of T.Y. Hilton and Jack Doyle. Hilton is the longest-tenured Colt and heads into his 10th season. Doyle is a step behind and entering his 9th.

Fans at training camp – players report July 27 with the first on-field work the next day – will be entertained by Darius Leonard’s incessant barking and gyrating.

And coach Frank Reich will oversee one of the NFL’s best offensive lines.

According to Pro Football Focus, the Colts’ group ranks 2nd only to the Cleveland Browns. That’s up from 7th a year ago.

“The Colts have one of the best offensive lines in the league once again,’’ PFF wrote, “especially when Eric Fisher is healthy and ready to go.’’

And that’s the rub.

When Eric Fisher is healthy and ready to go.

Fisher still is in rehab mode after tearing an Achilles tendon in the Kansas City Chiefs’ Jan. 24 AFC Championship game win over Buffalo.

There’s no universal timeframe on recovery from an Achilles injury, but the Colts are optimistic eight or nine months is a realistic target. But even the most encouraging target has Fisher missing perhaps the first month of the season.

“We’re not just going to force a guy,’’ general manager Chris Ballard said. “We’re going to make sure he’s healthy.’’

Fisher was Ballard’s second-most significant offseason free-agent acquisition, trailing only Wentz, and necessitated by Anthony Castonzo’s retirement in January.

The Colts suddenly had a void at the most critical spot on the offensive line.

When the April draft didn’t offer the necessary replacement – a slew of quality tackles, scant few top-tier left tackle prospects is how Ballard viewed it – Ballard turned to the option that might have been his top priority all along.

Eric Fisher.

The two-time Pro Bowl selection had been released by the Kansas City Chiefs and was signed to a one-year deal, $9.4 million contract.

Until Fisher is cleared and ready to endure 60-70 snaps a game, the Colts will feature four-fifths of a premier offensive line: left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski, right tackle Braden Smith.

They’ll adjust at left tackle. The early frontrunner to hold Fisher’s spot is Sam Tevi, another of Ballard’s offseason additions. He started 44 of 58 games with the Chargers the last four seasons but it should be noted the Chargers opted not to re-sign a young tackle (26) who had started at least 14 games in each of the last three years.

And the one-year, $3 million free-agent deal indicates Indy’s view of Tevi is as a swing backup tackle, not a starter. Will Holden, who started week 16 at Pittsburgh, also figures to be in the early mix.

The long-term answer? Perhaps Eric Fisher.

“You would like for it to work out,’’ Ballard admitted. “He’s 30 years old. We think he’s still got a lot left.’’

Fisher has started 113 of 117 regular-season games since the Chiefs selected him with the 1st overall pick in the 2013 draft. His Pro Bowl selections have come in two of the past three seasons.

“As a player getting to the second half of your career, there’s a lot of questions, especially coming off an injury,’’ Fisher said. “As soon as I got that call I was being cut, it was like an automatic reset in my brain.

“I was like, ‘I’m nowhere near being done. I felt like I’ve got a lot of years left in me.’’

PFF ranked Fisher 16th among tackles in 2020, tied with Braden Smith. Castonzo checked in at No. 32.

Here’s a look at the position:

  • Starters: LT Eric Fisher*, LG Quenton Nelson, C Ryan Kelly, RG Mark Glowinski, RT Braden Smith. (* – expected to miss start of season while recovering from Achilles injury).
  • Backups: T Sam Tevi, T Will Holden, T Julie’n Davenport, G/G Danny Pinter, G Chris Reed, T Carter O’Donnell, C Joey Hunt, G Will Fries, G Jake Eldrenkamp, T Jake Benzinger.

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For those who weren’t in favor of Ballard investing the 6th overall pick in the 2018 draft on a guard (OK, we weren’t on board with taking a guard with a lottery pick), Quenton Nelson continues to quiet the skeptics.

The Colts considered filling Castonzo’s void by sliding Nelson to tackle, but thought better of it.

“That was not an option that we wanted to have to do right from the very start,’’ Reich said. “You’ve got a guy who’s one of the best left guards in the game. Maybe he’ll end up being one of the best ever . . .’’

Nelson has set a high bar for himself and is on the verge of joining exclusive company. Since the 1970 merger, he’s just the fifth player, and the only offensive lineman, to be selected first-team All-Pro in each of his first three seasons. If he makes it 4-for-4, the list will include just Nelson and Lawrence Taylor.

While the offensive line requires continuity, chemistry and five players working as one, there’s no denying Nelson’s impact. Since he settled in at left guard in 2018, the Colts have allowed the second-fewest sacks (71, one more than Pittsburgh) and generated the 10th-most rushing yards (5,844).

The run game has churned out consecutive 1,000-yard rushers – Jonathan Taylor with 1,169 last season, Marlon Mack with 1,091 in ’19 – for the first time since Joe Addai 2006-07.

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As much attention as Nelson commands, the mauling 6-5, 330-pounder has plenty of top-drawer help.

Kelly is coming off his first Pro Bowl season and being paid accordingly. He signed a four-year, $50 million extension last September that makes him the league’s third-highest paid center. He’s just 28.

Smith has developed into one of the NFL’s top right tackles and is expected to soon sign an extension making him one of the top-5 at his position. PFF ranks him 13th among all tackles heading into 2021, and has him ranked 5th among all right tackles since 2019.

Smith’s durability has been impressive. He’s started 45 of the last 47 games, including the postseason, and been on the field for 3,066 of a possible 3,067 snaps during that stretch.

Glowinski, meanwhile, has started the last 36 games at right guard, including the playoffs. He’s taken all 2,455 snaps.

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You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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