While the Colts’ latest retirement blow doesn’t quite measure up to losing Andrew Luck before his 30th birthday, general manager Chris Ballard faces a steep challenge to replace the team’s longest-tenured player, who just so happens to play the most important position in football other than quarterback.
NFL players have been retiring earlier than expected in recent years
No NFL team understands the pain of losing a star to early retirement better than the Colts. After all, the franchise suffered a major setback when Andrew Luck shockingly called it quits right before the 2019 season began.
Despite entering the league at the same time as Anthony Castonzo, the former Stanford star only started 86 games before he chose to retire. However, Luck hasn’t been the only NFL star to walk away from the game much earlier than expected.
Back in 2015, Patrick Willis surprisingly retired after just his eighth year in the league. The seven-time Pro Bowler struggled to stay healthy toward the end of his San Francisco 49ers career. Still, no one expected him to hang his cleats up that early.
Fellow All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly also ended his playing career prematurely. Concussions forced the former first-round pick to say goodbye to Carolina Panthers fans a year ago.
Plus, Rob Gronkowski spent a year away from football after putting his body on the line for nine seasons with the New England Patriots. His brief retirement allowed him to heal up and prepare for another crack at winning a Super Bowl ring with Tom Brady.
The Colts just suffered a brutal retirement blow
Having already lost one franchise player to early retirement, the Colts just suffered a brutal blow to their roster on Tuesday.
Although he only turned 32 in August, Anthony Castonzo has played his final NFL snap. The team’s longtime left tackle formally announced his retirement Tuesday morning. The 6-foot-7, 307-pound offensive lineman entered the league as the 22nd overall pick of the 2011 NFL draft.
“As a kid, it was my dream to play in the NFL. I played my first full season of tackle football in second grade. Now I have played my last,” Castonzo said in a statement published on the team’s official website. “As I sit here now, after a 10 year NFL career, I am extremely proud of all the hard work and sacrifice that allowed me to evolve that dream into a goal, and ultimately into a reality unlike anything I could have even imagined.”
Although the former Boston College star never earned a Pro Bowl selection, he provided Indianapolis with consistent play for a decade. Although he experienced some injury issues, Castonzo still started 144 regular-season games and eight more in the playoffs. His 2020 season ended early due to an ankle ailment that required surgery.
Colts owner Jim Irsay offered tremendous praise for a player he paid more than $76 million to over the last 10 years.
“The Colts have been blessed with many talented offensive linemen throughout our rich history and Anthony Castonzo is among the best to represent the Horseshoe,” Irsay said in his statement. “He will sorely be missed, but we are so appreciative of AC’s contribution to our organization and we congratulate him on a fantastic career.”
How will Indianapolis fix its huge hole at left tackle?
Despite signing a two-year, $33 million contract extension last March, Anthony Castonzo’s NFL career has officially come to a close. For the Colts, losing such a reliable, beloved player just days after they got eliminated from the playoffs has to sting even worse.
So where does that leave Indianapolis?
Chris Ballard could certainly target a new left tackle in the 2021 NFL draft. However, the Colts will have to hope an elite prospect slips to them at pick 21. Plus, the team may need to use its first-round pick on a quarterback.
If Ballard goes the free-agent route, the options appear bleak.
Future Hall of Fame candidate Trent Williams is set to hit the open market. But does Indy want to pay big money to an aging left tackle who hasn’t played a full season since 2013?
Ditto for Russell Okung, who only played seven games in his first year in Carolina.
Could the lack of attractive free-agent options force Ballard to move Quenton Nelson to tackle? Making the perennial All-Pro switch positions would certainly be a big ask, but the freakishly gifted guard has the skill set to excel wherever he lines up.
Ultimately, Ballard faces a monumental decision about the future of the most important spot on the offense other than quarterback.
Oh, and he needs to find a new signal-caller caller for his new left tackle to protect, too.