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INDIANAPOLIS — This offseason has shed light on something that the Indianapolis Colts will need to keep in their minds moving forward.
At the conclusion of the 2019 season, Anthony Castonzo, the team's starting left tackle for the last nine years, said that he needed to take time to ponder his football future. At 31 years years old (32 in August), it's about that time for Castonzo to think about life after football.
On Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine, Colts general manager Chris Ballard announced that Castonzo intends to return to the field this year, but also said they will take a year-to-year approach with him moving forward as they work something out with the impending unrestricted free agent.
With the long-term future of your blindside protector being up in the air, it's time for a plan. Luckily, this year's crop of offensive tackles in the NFL Draft is really, really good.
One of the top tackles in the 2020 group is Iowa's Tristan Wirfs.
The reigning Rimington-Pace Offensive Lineman of the Year in the Big Ten Conference, Wirfs had a decorated career in just three years in Iowa City.
At a program heralded for its offensive line play through the years, Wirfs was the first ever true freshman to start at tackle for head coach Kirk Ferentz, and was one of only two true freshmen appointed to Iowa's Leadership Group in 2017.
"I think it's pretty important," Wirfs told Colts.com Wednesday at the Combine about the importance of leadership. "Growing up in a small town — I don't want to say I was a designated leader — but just being a bigger kid, guys look up to you. Coming to Iowa and being able to do that was pretty special to me. I've never been a 'rah-rah' kind of guy, like yellin' and trying to lead people that way. It's always been leading by example, so I try my best."
In his final season, he was named a Second-Team All-American, First-Team All-Big Ten and was one of six semifinalists for the Outland Trophy, which honors the top interior offensive or defensive lineman in the country.
Wirfs enters the NFL with plenty of experience for a non-senior as a three-year starter, accruing 33 starts (29 at right tackle, four at left tackle), including three bowl games.
With his versatility and ability to play either tackle spot, which spot he plays in the NFL isn't of particular importance to him.
"It really doesn't matter to me. Coach Ferentz doesn't think there's much of a difference," Wirfs said. "I played right (tackle) most of the time, (but) if I need to flip over to left I can do it in the middle of a series, in the middle of drive, so it doesn't really matter to me."
He has an ideal frame at 6-5, 320 with a wingspan of over 7-8 and over 10-inch hands. He's got ample height, and is heavy enough to anchor in but not too heavy to be immobile. In fact, he's expected to test very well athletically when he hits the Lucas Oil Stadium turf for testing this week.
Wirfs has a wide upper body and can envelop defenders. He plants his legs in on pass protection and is rarely pushed back. When he is, he has the balance to recover and regain his ground.
Overall, he displays good technique, chopping his feet in the run game, and keeping legs bent with his back straight in pass protection.
Those feet are coordinated very well with the rest of his body, moving quickly to cover ground and keep defensive linemen mirrored. He keeps defenders at bay, pushes them around the arc and away from his quarterback.
Although he's plenty athletic, he's also got the "dog" mentality that you want in an offensive lineman, showing a nasty streak and trying to maul the defender every snap. He tries to drive defenders back, both in pass protection and in run blocking. Still, he says teams want to see it more consistently.
"Some teams said they want to see me finish more. And some teams want to see me be meaner, which I've been hearing that for I don't know how long," Wirfs said. "I tend to open up in my pass sets a little bit. Some teams have told me that, so I'm working on that."
Many blockers simply use their punch on the defender at the point of attack and don't smother their opponent, but Wirfs isn't like that; he gets locked onto the defender, displaying very strong hands.
Wirfs doesn't just operate in a phone booth, though; he's a very mobile lineman who can get to the second level, and get out in front and lead block. It's one of his strengths, really.
He is always looking for work and can take on multiple defenders in a single snap. To be honest, I don't remember watching an offensive lineman take on multiple blockers in the same play as often as he does.
Wirfs is very knowledgable of opposing offenses and possesses good instincts, identifying defensive line stunts and handling them well. He reacts instantly off of the snap and covers a lot of ground with his kickslide.
Something that helps Wirfs as an athletic offensive lineman is his high school background as a wrestler as well as being a track athlete in the discus and shot put. He was highly decorated in those sports, winning a state title in all three as a senior, both track events as a junior, and in discus as a sophomore.
"Wrestling is a pretty big thing in Iowa, but I think the big things you can take away from wrestling that translate over to football is body control and awareness and hand movement," Wirfs explained. "Being able to do that shows teams how competitive I am. It takes a lot to be a wrestler, especially people from Iowa will attest to that. They are individual sports, so it's just you versus another guy, and I hate losing so I'm not gonna let another man beat me. I'm gonna do everything I can to stop it, so I think it's the same thing on the offensive line."
An area in which Wirfs could improve is being able to play lower. As they say, "tackles don't like to play below their bellies." Quick defenders can make moves to get beyond Wirfs' reach.
Although he's well above average at getting outside and playing at the second level, occasionally when the bullets are flying and he's in more of the open field with multiple defenders around, his accuracy in block placement can slip.
FIT WITH THE COLTS
As mentioned, Castonzo's future dictates a lot of the Colts' eventual need at tackle. However, there are other factors at play.
The Colts' primary depth at both left and right tackle, Joe Haeg and Le'Raven Clark, are both due to hit free agency in March. Both also provide depth at guard, so if both do not return then it adds a little more urgency.
The Colts finished seventh in the league in rushing last season with 133.1 yards per game, so they'll want to keep their momentum going in that facet of the game, stoking the fire that is offensive line play.
They do have some improvements they can make in pass protection, as they allowed 32 sacks in 2019, including eight games with multiple sacks.
One big hurdle in this Wirfs-to-Colts scenario is his availability. If there are only a few elite tackle prospects, then he's certainly one of them, and the Colts aren't on the clock until No. 13.
Will he be available at No. 13? At this point, the chances are, no. However, this draft is very top-heavy at tackle, with about five guys who could go in the top 20, and a couple more who may go in the rest of the first round. There's also no consensus top tackle. Most people's top three tackles probably feature the same guys, but they're likely not all in the same order.
Let's also not forget that Florida's Jawaan Taylor was the top tackle for many people last year, but somehow slipped into the second round.
Anything can happen in the crap shoot that is the NFL Draft.