INDIANAPOLIS —With the month of July — and the start of training camp — upon us, it's time for the Indianapolis Colts' Burning Questions series.
We continue today with the tackle position:
» How can Braden Smith benefit from a full offseason solely at right tackle?
Braden Smith was taken early in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft as the Colts' right guard of the future. But by Week 5, after spending the first few weeks of the season learning behind veteran Matt Slauson at right guard, Smith was forced into action at right tackle — and he didn't move the rest of the way. By the end of his first NFL season, Smith had earned All-Rookie honors from the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA), NFL.com and Pro Football Focus, as he played a major role for one of the top offensive line units in the NFL. With all five starters returning up front in 2019, the Colts are hoping to see Smith reach even newer heights now that he has been able to focus solely on the right tackle position since the beginning of the offseason workout program. "I watch what he's doing right now and am really impressed with him," Colts head coach Frank Reich said of Smith last month. "I love everything about Braden. I love his approach. He's mentally as tough of a person you want to be around. This guy wants to be coached hard, owns his mistake when he makes a rare mistake – physically or mentally he owns it. He's really a model. This guys is a model of the way we want to work. And then just the way his technique has continued to improve playing that position rep after rep after rep."
» Is the left edge the key to a more emphasized run game?
We've discussed in detail all offseason how Frank Reich wants to see a more consistent running attack out of the Colts' offense in 2019. Indy didn't exactly struggle in this area last season — it ranked 20th in the league in rushing yards and 22nd in yards per carry, and was much better from Week 6 on — but the coaching staff has issued a clear challenge to the offensive linemen and running backs that they'd like to be ranked much higher in those areas moving forward. With that being said, will the Colts lean on veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo to lead the way in this emphasized run attack in 2019? Last season, for example, the Colts ran the ball 28 times directly over the left tackle, gaining 182 yards and three touchdowns; their 6.5 yards-per-carry average on those attempts was the highest among all directions with at least 24 carries, according to Pro Football Focus. Marlon Mack was especially successful with this approach, gaining 137 yards on 16 total attempts and earning 8.6 yards per carry when running behind Castonzo in 2018. What's clear is Castonzo's edge-sealing abilities, matched with the pulling talents of guards Quenton Nelson and Mark Glowinski, as well as center Ryan Kelly, make these runs off the left edge a success much more often than not; we'll see if Reich leans on that moving forward in 2019.
» Who will win out as the Colts' swing tackle(s)?
While the Colts' starting five is set up front in 2019, the team knows how important it is to have starter-caliber players ready to go when they're called into duty throughout the season (see Braden Smith above). General manager Chris Ballard has emphasized the need for as many as 10 of those starters up front for the offense, and the team feels very comfortable with those competing for those backup jobs heading into training camp and the preseason. At tackle, specifically, there are a few key candidates to back up both Castonzo and Smith. Can Le'Raven Clark step it up in a critical fourth season? Can veteran J'Marcus Webb, who earned the starting job at right tackle Week 1 last season before suffering a season-ending hamstring injury towards the end of that season opener, work his way back into the fold? What about Swiss Army knife Joe Haeg, who can effectively play all five positions up front? Can seventh-round pick Jackson Barton take advantage of his reps during camp and the preseason and earn a spot on the 53-man roster? Then there's Antonio Garcia, a third-round pick by the New England Patriots just two years ago who is looking to put it all together and open some eyes in Indy. So those are five names for what will likely be two or possibly three jobs when it's all said and done; who will make it on the Week 1 roster?