Protecting Luck becomes premium under Colts new regime

WESTFIELD, Ind. (AP) — The Indianapolis Colts invested heavily in Andrew Luck’s protection plan during the offseason.

Now it’s time to see the payoff.

After general manager Chris Ballard added two potential starting offensive linemen in free agency and used two more in the draft, the Colts believe they’ve finally solved their most glaring need — keeping Luck upright and healthy.

“When Chris and I sat down in the beginning and said how are we building this team, we are building it from the inside out. That all starts with the offensive line,” coach Frank Reich said. “You win and lose games up front on both sides of the ball.”

Indy learned its lesson the hard way.

Luck endured more than 400 hits from 2012-16, the highest total among NFL quarterbacks. He’s been sacked 156 times in 71 career appearances, an average of 2.2 a game. When Luck missed last season recovering from shoulder surgery, the Colts allowed a league-high 52 sacks.

All those shots eventually took their toll.

Since Luck’s 57-game starting streak ended in Week 4 of the 2015 season, the top overall pick in the 2012 draft has appeared in only 19 of the Colts’ last 45 games. Not surprisingly, they’ve missed the playoffs each of the last three years.

So with Luck finally back from surgery on a partially torn labrum in his throwing shoulder, Ballard made a calculated gamble for another revamped line.

“I think being part of — I don’t want to say a rebuild because it is not really a rebuild of the offensive line — but kind of a mentality shift of an offensive line. I have been part of that at a lot of stops and that is something I pride myself in,” new right guard Matt Slauson said.

The Colts have tried everything to solve this tricky puzzle.

After team owner Jim Irsay left a simple note reading “Protect 12” on the desk of then general manager’s Ryan Grigson following the 2012 season, Grigson used two of the Colts’ top three picks in the next draft on interior linemen. Both are now out of the league.

In 2014, Grigson used his top pick, a second-rounder, on versatile lineman Jack Mewhort and a seventh-rounder on tackle Ulrick John. Mewhort’s career was derailed by knee injuries and he unexpectedly retired on Aug. 1 and John is with New England.

After taking Denzelle Good in the seventh round in 2015, Grigson added four more linemen in 2016 — center Ryan Kelly in the first round, Le’Raven Clark in the third, Joe Haeg in the fifth and Austin Blythe in the seventh. Kelly quickly asserted himself as the starter, Good and Clark are among those battling to start at right tackle. Blythe is with the Los Angeles Rams.

The Colts did even worse in free agency. Grigson signed Mike McGlynn, Samson Satele, Gosder Cherilus, Donald Thomas and Todd Herremans — none lasting more than two seasons in Indy.

This year, Ballard went all in.

He signed Slauson and Austin Howard then selected guard Quenton Nelson with the No. 6 overall pick and Braden Smith early in the second round. All four could start this year, and the addition of Nelson has made the Colts’ line bigger, nastier and perhaps better than ever.

The first test for this revamped line came Thursday night in Seattle. In two series, Luck was hit twice — once on a short run, the other on a sack off the left edge against Haeg, who filled in for the injured Castonzo. Luck bounced up both times and later chalked up the sack to a miscommunication.

The Colts have three more preseason games and two joint practices later this week with the Ravens to get in sync before their Sept. 9 opener against Cincinnati.

They’re convinced this latest line dance will finally work.

“It always comes down to the room,” Kelly said Monday. “If you don’t have a room that’s together and you have individual players on that offensive line, I don’t care how good you are, how talented you are, it doesn’t matter.”

Notes: IndyCar racer Alexander Rossi attended Monday’s practice. When he asked Luck a question during the interview session, the quarterback asked Rossi “did you have enough fuel to get here,” teasing Rossi about his fuel-saving Indianapolis 500 win in 2016. “That was a bad joke,” Luck said. ... Indy signed receiver Matt Hazel and running back Branden Oliver while waiving receiver Dres Anderson and placing receiver Deon Cain on injured reserve.

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