INDIANAPOLIS – The continuity and durability that were so instrumental to the emergence of the offensive line last season has been missing as the Indianapolis Colts have slogged through their first week of padded training camp practices.
More to the point, Braden Smith has been missing.
The starting right tackle isn’t AWOL. He’s been working with the trainers and rehab staff on the side while dealing with a foot injury.
“He’s feeling pretty good right now,’’ Frank Reich said Saturday on a Zoom conference call. “We’re being pretty cautious with him, but I think he’s close.’’
The rarity of Smith’s absence can’t be overstated. Since settling in at right tackle in week 4 of the 2018 season, he not only has started 30 consecutive games, including the playoffs, but been on the field for 2,048 of a possible 2,049 snaps.
Not bad for a 2018 second-round draft pick who was viewed as a legitimate starting guard prospect. Instead, Smith has thrived since being thrust into the tackle rotation during his rookie training camp when injuries decimated the position.
“He’s just such a grinder, so consistent,’’ said position coach Chris Strausser. “You know what you’re getting with Braden Smith. Every day he’s going to show up and compete.’’
Smith’s ability to adjust and grow into the position, along with his durability, were instrumental in the Colts starting the same five linemen for all 16 games last season for the first time since 2000: left tackle Anthony Castonzo, left guard Quenton Nelson, center Ryan Kelly, right guard Mark Glowinski and Smith.
“Obviously we’re hoping to stay healthy again for 16 games – 16-plus games – like we did last year up front,’’ Reich said. “You’ve got some warhorses up there.’’
However, history tells us Strausser probably is going to have to dip into his depth this season. Since the NFL expanded to 16 games in 1978, only two teams have had the same five linemen start every game in consecutive seasons: the 2002-03 Kansas City Chiefs and 2007-08 New York Giants.
The silver lining to Smith’s absence is the added reps for backup tackle Le’Raven Clark. The 2016 third-round draft pick has started 12 of 35 games in four seasons, but never stepped on the field last season.
The extra camp workload for Clark, Reich insisted, is “really important and he’s got a ton of reps. He’s doing well and he’s being challenged every day by our defensive front that’s just really playing well right now.
“Le’Raven came in in great shape. I think this has been a great time for him to kinda gain some confidence working in with the first unit.’’
Turning up the aggression
Every summer, the internal debate is how much “live’’ hitting is required during training camp to properly prepare a team for the season. The lack of preseason games only complicates the discussion.
“I probably came into camp thinking best-case scenario we’d have a couple of live periods,’’ Reich said. “Not many, but a couple. That’s just going to be a day-to-day decision.’’
Live periods means occasional sessions in a particular practice that allows defensive players to actually bring ball carriers and receivers to the ground, albeit with a degree of caution.
A normal camp practice has defensive players hitting and at times wrapping up a ball carrier, but not completing the tackle. That approach will be amped up a bit Monday when the Colts move their camp work downtown.
“Right now the plan is to have a couple of periods down at Lucas Oil on Monday not be live, but even more aggressive . . . an aggressive thud,’’ Reich said. “Right now we’re more or less just tagging off on the ball carrier a little bit.
“There’s a step in between being live and what you’re seeing out here now and that’s just to have a more aggressive thud. We’ve talked about this as a staff and rather than taking that final step and making it live, just having a few periods where we focus on, ‘Hey, we’re going to finish these plays with an aggressive thud on the ball carrier.’ We’ll selectively continue to pick out those periods.’’
There’s been no holding back when the offensive and defensive lines go at each other.
“I think inside we’ve been playing very physical,’’ Reich said. “There’s no way not to play full speed. The whole key about the play up front is you’ve gotta be able to play physical and stay off the ground so nobody gets hurt, and I think our guys are doing a good job of that.’’
The team continues to take a cautious approach with Jack Doyle. The two-time Pro Bowl tight end missed a third day with a neck injury.
“Jack is fine,’’ Reich said. “Jack is an incredibly valuable piece to our offense so we’re being cautious with him with a neck injury. You just don’t want to mess with a neck injury. We’re going to take it slow with Jack.
“Jack is the kind of pro that even though it’s vital to get reps, we know he can handle it. Jack will be fine. We just need him to physically recover and we want to give him a little cushion in that time to make sure he is completely healthy.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.