In his first few months on the job, new Indianapolis Colts GM Chris Ballard gutted the defense, added playmakers in the draft and depth on offense. The one main area he didn't overhaul: the offensive line.
A longtime trouble spot for Indy, Ballard didn't add a big-name (mostly overpriced) free agent lineman or use an early round draft pick to upgrade the blocking in front of Andrew Luck.
While ex-Colts GM Ryan Grigson took heat from Indy fans for his repeated failures to build a solid offensive line, upon taking over the gig, Ballard decided those players on the roster weren't as bad as they've been made out.
"I'll give Ryan Grigson a lot of credit for this -- he drafted [center Ryan] Kelly, [tackle Joe] Haeg and [tackle] Le'Raven Clark all in one year," Ballard said. "Thank God he did, because [the 2017 draft] was a down year for offensive line. We gotta let those guys develop. So it's the combination of [left tackle] Anthony Castonzo, [guard Jack] Mewhort, Kelly, Haeg, L'Raven Clark, Denzelle Good, we signed Brian Schwenke from Tennesse, we drafted [Zach] Banner [in the fourth round]. ...
"Are we perfect yet? No. But do we have a good group to work with? I do believe that. There's definitely hope there. Now we gotta let those guys develop."
The Colts enter 2017 with great expectations for the left side of the line, where Castonzo (tackle), Mewhort (guard) and Kelly (center) are all coming off solid seasons when healthy. The right side of the starting unit with Good at guard and Clark at tackle need to show the development of which Ballard spoke -- the unit played much better down the stretch when the young right-side players began to jell. The depth behind the starting unit is wafer thin, as the Colts experienced when Mewhort missed games last season.
Last year the group was much better in the run game than pass protection. Indy's O-line ranked third in Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards metric in run blocking and 28th in pass blocking. The Colts allowed 128 QB hits (second-most in the NFL) and 44 sacks (fifth most) last season.
Much of the consternation between Grigson and coach Chuck Pagano during their tenure together was whether the GM gave the coach inferior players on the offensive line or whether the staff failed to get the most out of those players.
Ballard's comments suggest he sees quality in the blockers Grigson brought in. Now the pressure is back on Pagano and his staff to finally make those players work.