INDIANAPOLIS — Even before Indianapolis Colts offensive left tackle Anthony Castonzo retired on Tuesday, there was buzz about if All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson would be the ideal replacement.
Castonzo said he doesn’t have any doubt Nelson could handle the job. Head coach Frank Reich said Monday that Nelson would be a “realistic option.”
The initial reaction to Castonzo’s departure after 10 seasons prompted speculation that general manager Chris Ballard would have to adjust his offseason priorities to address the important position of left tackle.
But think about the impact of a successful switch with Nelson, who has been voted First-Team All-Pro in each of his three seasons in establishing himself among the NFL's best offensive linemen.
Ballard wouldn’t need to select the best available left tackle in the draft’s early rounds. Those picks could be used to bolster other pressing needs, such as edge rusher, wide receiver, and cornerback.
The Colts still need stronger depth on the O-line, as was evident in 2020, when backups Le’Raven Clark and Chaz Green were ineffective. Center/guard Danny Pinter was drafted in the fourth round and could be left guard.
Then again, there’s something to be said for not messing with a great thing. As much as this might seem unlikely, what if Nelson struggles outside? The Colts would have to address left tackle in moving “Big Q” back. That’s why Ballard still needs to add tackles in the draft and free agency, perhaps one draft prospect who can learn and then a couple of proven veterans. The Colts are projected to be among the league leaders in salary cap space at $69 million.
One other factor needs to be considered. Nelson already deserves a raise from a contract that will pay $7.7 million in 2021. The Colts have a fifth-year option for 2022, so it makes sense to pay him when there’s ample cap space.
Looking at the top-five, highest-paid left tackles, the season average on their contracts is roughly $19.5 million. Green Bay’s David Bakhtiari is No. 1 for the moment at an average salary of $23 million through 2024.
That’s not to say Nelson deserves the top contract for a left tackle. But the top-five, highest-paid guards averaged $14.5 million for 2020. Yeah, that’s almost twice as much as Nelson is set to be paid.
Nelson started taking scout-team snaps in practice at left tackle this season. And he asked Castonzo for input. Think about that. Nelson wouldn’t be testing it out unless the thought was in his mind that he could make the transition.
“Yeah, we’ve talked about it and if that’s what happens, I’m going to tell you right now he’s going to do a nice job,” Castonzo said. “He has all the skills to do it and I think he had a lot of fun. Even before it was ever a possibility that he was playing left tackle, he would sometimes go out there on scout team and play it just – he would come up to you and be like, ‘Hey, look at my set, look at my set. What do you think?’ And I’m like, ‘Honestly it’s pretty good. Surprisingly, it’s actually really good.’
“He knows what comes with it out there. There is a lot of space you have to deal with, there are a lot of different things. If that does come to fruition, I bet we’ll end up having a lot of conversations about technical stuff. It was definitely fun to see – when I went out in that Raiders game to see him go out there and do such a good job in that position. It was pretty cool.”
When Castonzo exited for a series at Las Vegas, Nelson moved outside and didn’t have any problem. Reich was asked on Dec. 30th how Nelson looked against the Raiders.
“It was a handful of plays, but Quenton is the kind of player that when we put him out there it is the kind of mindset that this guy – we feel like he is such a great player, that you could put him anywhere and he’s going to figure it out,” Reich said. “He did do a good job out there.”