INDIANAPOLIS — When general manager Chris Ballard was hired in 2017, he made it a point to fix the Indianapolis Colts' offensive line and to rebuild the roster from the inside-out.
By midway through the 2018 season, the offensive front began firing on all cylinders and ran like a well-oiled machine.
Seth Walder of ESPN Analytics crunched the numbers as well as used his insight to determine the top pass-blocking lines in the National Football League heading into 2019:
"Analysis based on ESPN's pass block win rate (PBWR) -- a metric powered by NFL Next Gen Stats that we first unveiled last season -- led us to that conclusion and can be found right here.
But what about 2019? Which offensive lines will stand out? That's what this space is for.
Since PBWR is a mere 8 months old, we don't have a formal method of predicting pass blocking just yet. But what we do have are past results, expected starters (thanks to ESPN's Mike Clay) and a dash of my own subjectivity. Blend that all together and we're left with our predicted pass-blocking superlatives for the 2019 season."
Only thing you need to know: PBWR is simply the rate at which an offensive lineman sustains his pass block for at least 2.5 seconds. The full methodology can be found right here."
Coming in at the top spot is none other than the Colts. Their offensive line propelled the run game to its fair share of successes in 2018, posting nine games with at least 100 rushing yards, but arguably the most impressive thing they did was in terms of pass protection.
Just two seasons ago, they were the most-sacked team in the league, with their quarterbacks being taken down 56 times. However, from 2017 to 2018, they improved themselves to being the least-sacked team in the league, cutting down to just 18 times, with a 2.7-percent sack rate.
The Colts went all the way from the first drive of Week 5 up to Week 12 without allowing Andrew Luck to be sacked, spanning 239 consecutive passes attempts. That mark as well as the five consecutive games without a sack both rank as the third-longest streak in NFL history.
Here is what Walder had to say about the Colts' offensive line:
"Expected starters: Anthony Castonzo, Quenton Nelson, Ryan Kelly, Mark Glowinski, Braden Smith
The Colts finished the regular season ranked No. 9 overall in PBWR, but there are two main reasons I expect them to fly up the list in 2019 even though they'll play the exact same group they rolled with toward the end of last season.
- Most of the other top pass-blocking teams lost valuable offensive linemen: Rodger Saffold and John Sullivan are gone from the Los Angeles Rams. The New England Patriots no longer have Trent Brown. Mitch Morse bolted from the Kansas City Chiefs to the Buffalo Bills.
- Because the Colts didn't start last season with this exact group: They mixed and matched early in the season while not at full strength before deciding on those five beginning in Week 6. From that point on the Colts had a PBWR of 60 percent, fourth best in the league in that span.
Add in that the oldest player on the line (Castonzo) is only 30 and two others were rookies last season (Nelson and Smith), and there's every reason for quarterback Andrew Luck to expect to have elite protection in 2019."
What potentially makes the Colts' offensive line so good? There are several factors at hand.
First and foremost, the starting five that was assembled last year in Week 6 is back together. Not only is continuity key, but each of the five was a strong contributor to the unit in their own right. They will now be coached by new offensive line coach Chris Strausser, assistant Klayton Adams and senior offensive assistant Howard Mudd, both of whom were brought in this offseason to coach with an emphasis on technique and fundamentals.
Of those starting five linemen, the fresh starters like Mark Glowinski, Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith are still getting better. The latter two were just rookies in 2018, and Glowinski found a starting home in Indianapolis after an inconsistent first three seasons with the Seattle Seahawks. If center Ryan Kelly stays healthy for all 16 games then he's expected to take the mantle as one of the league's few elite centers. When it comes to the veteran left tackle Anthony Castonzo, he says he's even still getting better in his career now that he's pain-free.
Behind the starting five is real, quality depth at every spot along the front, as Evan Boehm, Le'Raven Clark, Joe Haeg and J'Marcus Webb all have NFL starting experience, and guys like Antonio Garcia and Nico Siragusa both have plenty of potential to work with.
When it comes to offensive line productivity, you can't forget the role that the tight ends play, and the Colts have a couple of high-quality in-line blockers in Mo Alie-Cox and Jack Doyle. The pair as well as Eric Ebron all ranked in the top 15 of NFL tight ends in pass blocking in 2018 according to Pro Football Focus. Doyle was also the No. 4 run blocking tight end in the league.
Actual skill, proven productivity and depth aside, the Colts' offensive system under head coach Frank Reich and coordinator Nick Sirianni is designed to get the ball out quickly.
All things considered, 2019 should be another smooth year for those in charge of washing Luck's uniform.