Protecting a Future Hall of Famer

Len Pasquarelli says rookie Anthony Castonzo will be under the ultimate trial by fire – a rookie left tackle asked to protect the blind side of an aging future Hall of Fame quarterback.

Even if Charlie Johnson had re-signed with Indianapolis, instead of defecting to the Minnesota Vikings in free agency as their new left tackle, Colts first-round draft choice Anthony Castonzo would have been under the gun.

Chosen with the 22nd overall pick three months ago, the first tackle selected by the Colts in the opening round since Tarik Glenn in 1997, Castonzo was projected from the second he was chosen as Peyton Manning's blind-side protector. The expectation was that Johnson, the left tackle starter the past two seasons, would slide inside to his more natural position at guard.

The departure of Johnson now means that Castonzo, whose four-year contract is reportedly worth about $8 million, will be operating without the luxury of a safety net. Then again, the former Boston College standout pretty much expected his first year in the league to be a kind of tight-rope existence anyway.

"It's the position that gets the most notice on the line," Castonzo acknowledged after the draft. "And with (Manning) as the quarterback, and the few sacks he's taken in his career, you're going to be even more under the microscope."

Indeed, the 2011 season figures to be one big Petrie dish for Castonzo, regarded by many as the most immediately ready of the left tackle prospects chosen in the draft. Over the past three seasons, Manning has been sacked only 40 times. To put that in some perspective: Jay Cutler of Chicago and Baltimore's Joe Flacco were dumped as many, or more times, in 2010 alone.

Further compounding the situation is that Manning his rehabilitating from neck surgery, the second consecutive season he has gone under the knife, and, at 35, there will be plenty of people observers who will be closely watching and trying to discern if he has physically deteriorated at all.

The last time Manning began a season with a rookie at left tackle was 2007, when second-rounder Tony Ugoh was the starter, and the four-time MVP suffered 21 sacks, the first time since 2002 he had been over 20. But Johnson was hardly the prototype left tackle, and Manning took only 26 sacks the past two seasons with him as a bodyguard.

>Manning had lobbied for the return of Johnson, who will supplant the released Bryant McKinnie in Minnesota, but seemed comfortable this spring with the likelihood that a rookie might line up at the critical left tackle spot. And the fact is that Manning has operated in the past with line units that might be considered less than stellar by others, yet has been sacked 20 times or more only five times in his 13 NFL seasons. Four of those occasions came in his first five seasons.

Certainly the consensus is that Manning's knowledge of the game and his quick release have contributed mightily to the lack of sacks.

Still, Castonzo, who reportedly was whipped for a sack by Dwight Freeney during a Tuesday drill, faces tough odds. Only 10 players from the 2006-2010 drafts have started more than 10 games at left tackles as rookies, and only two played for clubs that earned playoff berths. In 45 Super Bowl games, only two players, Matt Light of New England in 2001 and Green Bay's Ross Verba in 1997, have started at left tackle as rookies.

Len Pasquarelli is a Senior NFL Writer for The Sports Xchange. He has covered the NFL for 33 years and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee. His NFL coverage earned recognition as the winner of the McCann Award for distinguished reporting in 2008.

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