Colts' touted rookie Nelson prepares for 1st start at guard
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Quenton Nelson heard all the adjectives before this spring's NFL draft.
The "experts" called him nasty, a generational guard, the best player available and even suggested he could change the long-term image of all future interior offensive line prospects.
Nelson didn't pay much attention to what was being said then or now. The 6-foot-5, 330-pound rookie remains focused on the only thing he believes matters — keeping Andrew Luck upright and healthy.
"I'm just trying to improve every single day and get better," he said Monday as his pro debut against Cincinnati nears. "That's all I'm worried about is getting better each and every Sunday — and not letting down my teammates."
The Colts couldn't expect much more out of the soft-spoken Nelson, who they took No. 6 overall.
He was the highest-chosen guard since Leonard Davis went No. 2 in 2001, and he's not just another big body on the offensive line.
His mobility and athleticism make him an effective pulling guard, and he possesses rare flexibility that helps him stay in front of defensive linemen — as he demonstrated routinely at training camp and throughout the preseason.
Now the real tests begin.
In Sunday's season opener, Nelson will no longer be working against vanilla defenses and backups trying to win roster spots. He'll be trying to slow down sack artists such as Geno Atkins and Michael Johnson in a more complex scheme.
With each game comes a new challenge. Against Washington in Week 2, he could face Ryan Kerrigan. Against Super Bowl champion Philadelphia in Week 3, Nelson might line up against Fletcher Cox or Tim Jernigan. When the Colts start playing AFC South rivals Houston, Jacksonville and Tennessee, he could be blocking J.J. Watt, Marcell Dareus or Jurrell Casey, among others.
And if Nelson unleashes the full arsenal each week, those who have monitored his steady progression believe the highly-touted rookie will meet the hype.
"I think it (cohesion) just naturally comes along," center Ryan Kelly said. "But when you're playing next to a guy every single day — OTAs, training camp and now — it's just great. He has really come a long way."
Kelly understands Nelson's situation better than most.
Three years ago, Kelly arrived in Indy as a first-round pick out of Alabama and immediately was plugged into a spot that had been a revolving door for Luck's first three seasons. Kelly played admirably as a rookie before missing nine games last season with injuries.
This year, a healthy Kelly reclaimed the starting job playing next to Nelson and free-agent signee Matt Slauson. All three have worked hard to get in sync, and all three have been leaning on one another for help.
"Ryan has shown me how to be a pro and handle yourself off the field and on the field, too," Nelson said. "I feel like it's not only been Ryan, though, it's been a bunch of the veteran guys, especially Matt Slauson. He's been great and (Anthony) Castonzo, too."
With Nelson at left guard, Slauson is expected to start at right guard, and the Colts remain hopeful Castonzo can return from a hamstring injury for Sunday's game. Castonzo has been the starting left tackle since being a first-round pick in 2011 but missed most of training camp with a hamstring injury.
That leaves one opening on the line, at right tackle, with no clear-cut starter.
"We have made decisions on all those areas and feel good about those decisions," first-year coach Frank Reich said when asked who the starters would be at right tackle, defensive end and cornerback. "But just to protect our team and our fans and our players, we are going to hold off on announcing those decisions."
Still, there's little doubt about Nelson's skills — or even his own goal of breaking the will of an opponent each week as he first explained during the NFL's annual scouting combine in Indy.
"Yeah," Nelson said when asked if he still embraces such a notion. "I feel like we've grown as an offensive line, as a unit, playing together and trusting in one another that each of us will do our job on each and every snap."
Note: Luck returned to practice Monday and is expected to start against the Bengals. He missed practice Monday and Tuesday last week with a minor foot injury. ... The Colts signed tight end Ryan Hewitt to the active roster and put defensive lineman Tyquan Lewis on injured reserve. Lewis was one of the Colts' four second-round picks last spring. ... The Colts also added offensive lineman Jamil Douglas, defensive end Carroll Phillips, linebacker Ahmad Thomas, defensive tackle Jihad Ward and running back Jeremy McNichols to the practice squad.
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