Season in Review: Offensive Line

With several new faces and a load of injuries, the Colts had their share of ups and downs this season along the offensive line. Brad Keller takes a look back at how the unit fared in 2008, and looks ahead to the future, inside.

Season in Review:

Starters: LT Tony Ugoh, LG Charlie Johnson, C Jeff Saturday, RG Mike Pollak, RT Ryan Diem.  Reserves: Ryan Lilja, Steve Justice, Jamey Richard, Daniel Federkeil, and Michael Toudouze.

Of the ten men listed above, eight of them logged at least one start this season and one of them (Lilja) did not play due to injury, as he was placed on the PUP list at the beginning of the season and never reactivated.


Mike Pollak
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

The Colts made a splash in the 2008 offseason by drafting three interior linemen, including two players that were projected as centers and possible replacements for Saturday.

As it turns out, there was no one who could fill Saturday's shoes, though Richard improved over the course of the season.  Diem and Johnson were the iron men of the group, starting 16 games each and providing the unit with a modicum of stability.  Pollak and Justice overcame injuries and their spot on the depth chart to perform well and Pollak in particular finished the season strong.

The hope for every NFL team is that they never need to use their reserve offensive linemen, so things couldn't have gone much worse in that department for Indianapolis.

However, the Colts proved that, with three rookies and two relatively green tweeners in Toudouze and Federkeil, that they could weather the storm and finish the season without getting Peyton Manning killed.  Getting the running game going, however, is something else entirely.

Strengths:

Pollak, Justice, and Richard form the foundation of what will be a very strong interior line for years to come, starting possibly as early as next year, with Pollak slated to start at right guard and the possibility that either Justice or Richard could beat Johnson out at left guard, with Richard most likely taking over should Saturday retire or leave the team as a free agent.

And all if this is not mentioning Lilja, who signed a contract extension before free agency kicked off in 2008.


Ryan Lilja with Dallas Clark
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

Even if Saturday does not return next season, that leaves the Colts with eight capable starters for five positions and they are deepest along the interior, which has always been an area of strength in the Bill Polian era, but perhaps has never been this strong.

In addition, they have the depth and flexibility to possibly cut Diem and his lofty cap number loose and not suffer a dropoff in production, with Johnson most likely sliding over to replace him, reprising his role from Super Bowl XLI.

Needs Improvement:

As deep as they are along the interior, they are just as shaky on the edges.  Ugoh has yet to fully live up to his draft position, though he has not been the weakest link on the line at any point and gave up just two sacks in 11 starts.  Diem is a fine player, but there was not a significant difference when Johnson stepped in for him during the 2007 season. 

Johnson, Toudouze, and Federkeil are good filler players for a half or a couple of games, but a serious injury to Ugoh would be a serious problem for Indianapolis.  Even though he is not among the elite players at his position, the value of his replacements is far lower.

They also need to find a long-term replacement for Saturday.  He probably won't retire this offseason, and both Saturday and the Colts will do their best to find a contract that works for both parties, but he can't play forever.

Perhaps the coaching staff is convinced that Justice, or more likely Richard, is that long term solution, but they would need to make a quantum leap in their development in order to fully fill Saturday's shoes.


LT Tony Ugoh
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

That is not a slight on Richard or Justice, but a lofty compliment for Saturday.  The offense struggled mightily without him in the lineup this season and cannot afford to struggle that badly again.

What's Next?

Provided that everyone returns healthy and Saturday's return is assured, don't look for the Colts to take an offensive lineman high in this year's draft.

They will probably use any compensatory selections that they receive to further bolster their depth, especially if Diem is let go, but they will not use their first selection on a non-skill position player, like they did in the 2008 draft with Pollak.

With what looks to again be a relatively weak free agent group at the position, Indianapolis will also not be a player in that market, preferring to stick with the guys that they already know.

In addition, they have Corey Hilliard, who is about to run out of practice squad eligibility and will need to make a decision on him before the final cutdown to 53 players prior to the 2009 season.

Polian and company have a storied history of drafting players two years before they're needed and the 2008 class, along with Ugoh and Johnson in the 2007 class, and Toudouze and Federkeil has them well positioned to have a fully stocked cabinet when the 2009 and 2010 seasons open.

The Colts will, as they always have, trust their coaches to train and develop the young players that they have on hand instead of looking outside the organization.  This strategy has served them very well in the past and there's no reason to believe that it won't serve them well in the future.

Since Indianapolis finished 31st in rushing offense this season, expect that to be a point of emphasis in the offseason, mini-camps, training camp, the preseason, and the regular season for 2009.  The running backs and the lack of commitment to the running game are partially to blame for the poor 2008 showing, but so is the fact that this group does not run block particularly well and needs to work on the fundamentals of executing the stretch and slant plays that have worked so well for this offense in the past. 

In Howard Mudd they trust.  And that will hopefully be enough moving forward.


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