Indianapolis Colts head coach Chuck Pagano watches as players run during an NFL football training camp, Wednesday, July 27, 2016, in Anderson, Ind. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Darron Cummings
July 30, 2016

Jim Irsay spent 11 months trying to keep the Indianapolis Colts' offensive cornerstones in place.

Last summer, the team owner rewarded left tackle Anthony Castonzo and receiver T.Y. Hilton with lucrative contract extensions. Just before the start of free agency, he made an irresistible offer to tight end Dwayne Allen. Then last month, he made Andrew Luck the NFL's highest-paid player.

Now comes hard part - making sure the offensive line holds up.

''In years past, we haven't been up to par,'' left guard Jack Mewhort said when training camp opened this week. ''When you've got a guy like that (Luck), you have to protect him.''

Instead, Luck has taken more hits (375) than any other NFL quarterback since entering the league in 2012. Some of those could be blamed on Luck himself, but many were the result of leaks along the line.

The continual shots finally took their toll when Indy's brightest young star missed nine games with myriad injuries last season and never really looked like himself in the worst season of his pro career.

As a result, the Colts' offense was overhauled.

After firing Pep Hamilton during the 2015 season, coach Chuck Pagano promoted Rob Chudzinski to offensive coordinator and hired former Miami Dolphins coach Joe Philbin to fix the line and quarterbacks coach Brian Schottenheimer to refine Luck's fundamentals.

General manager Ryan Grigson used half of his eight draft picks on offensive linemen, the most important being the selection of Ryan Kelly in the first round.

The Colts expect Kelly to solidify a position that has been a revolving door the previous four seasons.

''He has made mistakes, like everybody is going to make mistakes,'' Pagano said. ''But he is unflappable and he doesn't get rattled, he doesn't get shaken. He is able to move on when bad plays happen.''

With Castonzo, Mewhort and Kelly, the Colts think they have three pieces in place.

On the right side, though, it's a different story.

Indy hopes third-round pick Le'Raven Clark or Denzelle Good can emerge as a starter at one spot. Veterans Hugh Thornton and Joe Reitz and rookies Joe Haeg and Austin Blythe are also in the mix for the final two starting jobs.

So far, the Colts like what they've seen.

''They all can move and run around and they have a tough mentality, so I'm excited,'' Chudzinski said. ''I'm excited about our offensive line.''

Until Friday, none of the rookies had put on pads as a pro, and they might not get a real chance to flash their talent until the NFL's annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, next Sunday.

But the biggest upgrade might not be a player.

Philbin has a reputation for developing good offensive lines and has taken a more hands-on approach than his predecessor, and it didn't take long for Philbin to earn the respect of Colts players.

''He's worked with a lot of guys who have been really successful. You try to be a sponge and get whatever knowledge he's willing to give,'' said Castonzo, who has repeatedly acknowledged he had a poor season in 2015. ''He's out there and he wants us to get reps in. It's a lot of reps on the field so we can watch it on film and correct it. It's great.''

The question, of course, is can Philbin get these linemen to perform as one unit by the time Indy opens its season Sept. 11 against Detroit?

First, the offensive line intends to spend the next two weeks at Anderson University getting accustomed to Kelly's protection calls and working in sync.

Perhaps then, the Colts will finally get a chance to see how all the offensive pieces fit.

''We've got talent,'' Pagano said about the linemen. ''We've got guys that are capable, they are just unproven.''

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