Late-Drafted Players, Free Agents Helped Colts Offensive Line be one of NFL's best in 2009
INDIANAPOLIS – A year ago, Kyle DeVan didn't know what his NFL future held.
Actually, a year ago, DeVan didn't know if he had an NFL future.
DeVan, who helped define the grit and gutsiness of the Colts' offensive line in 2009, this time last year was playing for the Boise Burn of Arena Football2. He signed with the Colts last offseason, and after moving into the starting lineup, started the last half of the season, the playoffs and Super Bowl.
He was hardly a prototype. He was hardly a household name.
He wasn't an early-round, can't miss prospect.
He was, Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said late in the season, a good story. And he was a key contributor on a line that helped the Colts to a second Super Bowl in four seasons.
"A lot of people said I was too short, too slow, too this, too that," DeVan said late this past season, shortly after he became a starter on the offensive line, which is the subject of this entry in the ongoing position-by-position series running this month on Colts.com.
"I didn't want to listen to it and fall into that category of being, 'He's a good high school football player, but he can't play in college.' Or, 'He's a good college player, but he won't ever make it in this.' I just kind of put it in the back of my mind and used that for motivation. It was my motivation. I didn't know if I could play in this league in college. This is a tough league. This is day-in and day-out physically and mentally demanding, but, heck, I wanted to give it a shot.
"It took me a little while to actually make it to what I wanted. I just kept working for that goal."
Said Caldwell, "He's an individual that came up through the ranks in the Arena League. It's a great story because of the fact that oftentimes very rarely do you find guys that have gone his route that actually have an opunity to play and start like he's been able to do for us. A lot of it has to do with his grit and determination and his will power, and also he's got this attitude about it.
"Whatever job you assign him to, he's going to get it done and that's a great trait."
Such was the makeup of the Colts' offensive line this past season.
There were young players and veteran players, and even the well-known players weren't prototypes. None were selected in the early rounds of the NFL Draft, but as was the case for much of the past decade, they allowed the fewest sacks in the NFL and once again helped the Colts be one of the NFL's most-productive offenses. For much of the season, the lineup was:
• Ryan Diem, right tackle.
• DeVan, right guard.
• Jeff Saturday, center.
• Ryan Lilja, left guard.
• Charlie Johnson, left tackle.
The entire interior of the line – DeVan, Saturday and Lilja – went undrafted, and none began their NFL careers in Indianapolis. DeVan spent time with the New York Jets and Washington Redskins before signing with the Colts, and Saturday signed as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens shortly after the 1998 NFL Draft.
He was released shortly thereafter, joined the Colts in 1999 and has made four Pro Bowls in the last five seasons, developing into perhaps the NFL's top center of the 2000s.
Lilja, originally signed as a free agent rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs in 2004, joined the Colts shortly before the 2004 regular season. He started from 2004-2007, missed the 2008 regular season with a knee injury, then returned to start 16 games and three postseason games this past season.
The pattern holds on the ends of the line, too.
Because even though Diem and Johnson were drafted, they hardly were guaranteed of becoming starters on one the NFL's most consistently effective lines in recent seasons.
Diem, a fourth-round selection in the 2001 NFL Draft, started his career at guard, then in 2003 moved to right tackle, where he has started the past seven seasons. Johnson, a sixth-round selection in 2006, has played all offensive line positions except center in four Colts seasons and started 12 games at left tackle this past season.
The group in 2009 not only helped the Colts finish with 5,000 yards or more total offense for a 12th consecutive season, it once again made Peyton Manning the NFL's least-sacked quarterback.
The Colts this past season allowed 13 sacks, with Manning being sacked a career-low 10 times, and the team's ratio of one sack for every 47.2 passes attempted this past season was the best in franchise history.
While the entire line contributed to that success, a key – as has been the case for nearly a decade – was the play of Saturday. At one time, he – as was the case with DeVan last offseason – didn't know what the future held. He joked late this past season that he knew he wouldn't be with the Ravens long when he arrived in their camp late last decade because everyone on the offensive line was substantially bigger than him.
Saturday, after missing the Pro Bowl several seasons early this decade despite being one of the NFL's best centers, made it from 2005-2007 before missing it in 2008 when he missed four games because of injuries. He nearly became a free agent last offseason before the Colts signed him just before the start of free agency, and he not only returned this past season, he returned to the Pro Bowl.
"Jeff has been unbelievably important to our team success," Manning said. "I'll always be indebted to Jeff for what he has done for me, just protecting me as a quarterback. So I have never taken him for granted. I stay real close to him.
"Our lockers are next to each other. We ride next to each other on the plane. We are in constant communication. We are golf partners in the offseason. I am very grateful for how he has played, what he has done for me, what he has done for our team."
Note: The 2010 Colts.com position-by-position series that will run during March is meant to serve as an overview of the Colts' roster as it stands entering the 2010 offseason and to provide fans a detailed look at how the position groups fared during the 2009 Super Bowl XLIV season. Any analysis included herein does not reflect the opinion of Colts management.