INDIANAPOLIS — With Super Bowl LI now completed (and what a game it was), the National Football League has officially shifted into its next season.
For the Indianapolis Colts, however, this transition already began more than a month ago. After completing its second straight 8-8 season — and second straight year in which it was on the outside looking in when it came to the playoffs — you can bet the organization has been hard at work identifying its primary goals for the next few months, heading into training camp and into the 2017 regular season.
For head coach Chuck Pagano and his staff, the task is figuring out which offensive, defensive and special teams-related schemes worked — and which didn't. Meanwhile, new general manager Chris Ballard and his staff are working to figure out which college prospects — as well as which impending NFL free agents — might be worthy of adding to the team's roster.
With so much to do — and seemingly so little time to do it — one might wonder: what is the Colts' top offseason question they must address moving forward? What must be the main focus in order to see improvement in 2017?
For Pro Football Focus' John Kosko, the answer to those questions lies within the team's offensive line. In his piece "Biggest offseason question for every NFL team," Kosko provided a detailed explanation to his Colts-related question: "Will Indy build a better O-line to protect Andrew Luck?"
You can read the entire piece by clicking here, but here's what Kosko had to write about the Colts, specifically:
Indianapolis is a team with serious holes and questions on the defensive side, but the biggest task this offseason should be figuring out how to protect the Colts' biggest investment: QB Andrew Luck. Luck just finished the best season of his career, earning an elite grade of 92.1 that placed him fourth overall among QBs. While he handled the pressure pretty well this year, he was the third-most pressured QB this season, at 44.4 percent of his dropbacks. It's rare for a quarterback to perform better when under pressure, and Luck is no exception, as his passer rating drops from 112.0 from a clean pocket to 72.0 when under duress.
The three QBs grading better than Luck this year benefited from offensive lines that protected them much better—Tom Brady was pressured on 30.7 percent of his dropbacks, Matt Ryan at 32.7 percent, and Aaron Rodgers at 30.0 percent. As good as Luck was this year, put him behind an offensive line that surrenders pressure on just a third of his dropbacks, instead of almost every other one, and see just how good he can become.
The Colts addressed O-line needs last offseason, but injuries made for a lot of shuffling. They seem to be set at LT with Anthony Castonzo and at C with Ryan Kelly, who graded well as a rookie, at 80.7. Joe Haeg was moved all over the line, so his development was difficult to assess, but he finished the season strong playing at guard. LG Jack Mewhort was having another great season until he was injured, but never looked like himself after he returned. Mewhort needs to get back to his pre-injury form, which would make solidifying the right side of the line an easier task. Targeting a high-profile guard, such as Cincinnati's Kevin Zeitler, via free agency would go a long ways towards making this unit strong.
There's obviously a lot to chew on here, but there's some good, detailed analysis about why one might believe getting the offensive line right, specifically, should be the Colts' No. 1 priority this offseason.
It appears Kosko believes the Colts' best possible offensive line moving forward would be Anthony Castonzo at left tackle, Jack Mewhort at left guard, Ryan Kelly at center, Joe Haeg at right tackle, and then keep right guard spot open for competition and/or bring in a quality free agent, like Zeitler. Or, maybe put the versatile Haeg at right guard and hold a competition for the right tackle spot.
Kosko is right, however, that it's tough to completely analyze the play of the Colts' offensive line as a whole in 2016 due to the plethora of injuries it suffered. By season's end, the team had seen Week 1 starters Mewhort, Denzelle Good (at right guard) and Joe Reitz (at right tackle) go down with injuries, paving the way for guys like Jonathan Harrison and rookie Le'Raven Clark to get some quality late-season snaps.
Colts offensive line coach Joe Philbin's crew also appeared to really respond to some adversity in the second half of the season, as they helped keep quarterback Andrew Luck's jersey much cleaner in the final eight games.
In fact, in Weeks 9 through 16, despite at times using an offensive line that featured three rookies, the Colts allowed just nine sacks, a number that tied for the fifth-fewest in the NFL over that span.
So whether or not Ballard decides to address the offensive line in free agency and/or in the draft, it appears the team does have some pieces there that it can continue to try to develop up front.
"It was good to see a lot of guys come in, a lot of young guys come in and play and play good football and step up when called upon," Pagano said in his end-of-the-season press conference. "The development of that offensive line and watching them get better through the course of the year and the way it started and the way we finished. That is a testament to Coach (Joe) Philbin, Coach (Joe) Gilbert and Coach (Frank) Giufre and the job that they did and the players – Ryan Kelly, Joe Haeg, Le'Raven Clark and all those young guys that came in and played a ton of football."
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