INDIANAPOLIS – Ryan Kelly has been where Bernhard Raimann finds himself: a rookie starter trying to keep his head above water.
The circumstances – and expectations – are different, but not the demands.
Kelly was the Indianapolis Colts’ starting center the day they made him the 18th overall pick in the 2016 draft.
Raimann was the 77th overall pick in the April draft, and the second of the Colts’ third-round selections, four spots behind tight end Jelani Woods.
“As a rookie, you just take your licks,’’ Kelly said Wednesday. “You learn from your mistakes and then you move on. Your rookie season just flies by.
“You just have to deal with it as best you can.’’
His mind flashed to 2011. The Colts selected Anthony Castonzo with the 22nd overall pick in the draft, and tossed him into the deep end of the pool. He was their starting left tackle from day 1.
“I know when Castonzo started, he’s still probably got nightmares of blocking Freeney and Robert Mathis,’’ he said.
Castonzo retired after the 2020 season and remains one of the more underappreciated players in the Indy era. He never made the Pro Bowl, but was a top-tier tackle who started 144 of 160 regular-season games.
His rookie season was difficult from a team – 13 losses to open the season en route to a 2-14 record – and individual perspective. Practices were a daily hit to Castonzo’s confidence.
“I swear, that’s one of the first things I thought about when I looked back on my career,’’ he said when discussing his retirement. “I’m like, ‘If you would have told me after training camp of my rookie year I was going to have a 10-year career, I would have laughed in your face.’ I was like, ‘I can’t block anybody in the NFL.’ Dwight Freeney did that to me.
“As a rookie I was just trying to survive.’’
The demands at left tackle are undeniably harsh and mistakes often unforgiving, which are reasons only five rookies have started a game for the Colts since 1988: Castonzo, Tony Ugoh (2007), Makoa Freitas (2003), Adam Meadows (1997) and Raimann.
Eleven games into his rookie season, and Raimann is just trying to survive and deal with the expected growing pains.
“Obviously a learning curve,’’ he said. “Lots of mistakes. Too many mistakes out there. You’re just trying to learn from them.’’
Because of his position, it’s as if a spotlight shines on each of those mistakes. He’s given up five sacks – two in his first career start at Denver and two more in last Sunday’s loss to Philadelphia – and been penalized six times, including four times for holding (one declined). He’s allowed 14 pressures and two quarterback hits. And that’s in five starts.
Interim head coach Jeff Saturday was the Colts starting center in ’11 when the team went through the developmental hiccups with Castonzo.
“Listen, like I tell people all the time: offensive linemen, you’re never going to get highlighted for the good that you do,’’ he said. “And there are some really good plays that (Raimann) has and there are some good things that he does exceptionally well that will never get noticed.
“But you’re always going to get noticed for your negative plays. No different than defensive back, right? When it’s bad, everybody knows. When it’s really good, it’s like a play nobody cares about.’’
It’s imperative, he added, to have “that mental toughness to understand ‘We are getting better.’’’
Saturday has made it clear the team is sticking with Raimann at left tackle, warts and all.
“Some of it’s growing pains when you talk about Bernie out at left tackle and (Will) Fries at guard,’’ he said. “There’s some things that they’re just going to have to learn, and you learn by experience.
“As rough as that sounds, it happens.’’
Saturday also indicated the alternative isn’t exactly appealing.
“I think it was (Tony) Dungy or (Jim) Caldwell who used to say, ‘It’s always easier to fire guys, but who are you hiring.’’’ he said with a laugh. “So, if guys are having a hard time, our job is to coach them to be better and to be the players that we know they can be.’’
This isn’t how the team envisioned Raimann’s rookie season unfolding. He was viewed as something of a project after switching from tight end to offensive tackle his junior season at Central Michigan. His college resume consisted of just 18 starts at the most demanding o-line position.
“The difference in college and the NFL is you don’t get those Louisiana-Monroe games,’’ Kelly said. “It’s every week you’ve got to bring your best effort.
“But he’s a tough kid.’’
Every week it’s different elite edge rusher: Bradley Chubb, Josh Allen, Maxx Crosby, Haasan Reddick or Brandon Graham. When the Pittsburgh Steelers visit Lucas Oil Stadium Monday night, it’s T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.
Every week, Raimann self-critiques and moves on.
“You watch the film and get better from it,’’ he said. “You learn from the mistakes. There are improvements I’ve made, but obviously not good enough. It just needs to keep going.
“I need to play better on Monday.’’
Again, the Colts have done Raimann no favors.
They settled on Matt Pryor as their starting left tackle during the offseason, and had Raimann work with the second unit throughout training camp. The Colts stuck with Pryor until his ineffective performance forced them to turn to their rookie for the week 5 Thursday night game at Denver.
Raimann started and struggled against the Broncos – two sacks allowed, four penalties (one declined) – and started the following game against Jacksonville before being benched after two series and replaced by veteran Dennis Kelly.
Kelly started the next two games, but calf and ankle injuries re-opened the door for Raimann.
“As a rookie, you’re trying to be a sponge and absorb as much as you can,’’ Ryan Kelly said. “I think he’s done a great job, just because there were weeks when he’s playing, weeks when he wasn’t playing. That can be a really hard thing to do. You know you’re not starting, so you’re working with the 2s.’’
The more Raimann plays – the more he’s able to absorb – the more he’s able to settle in.
“Obviously you feel more and more comfortable each time you play,’’ he said. “You get more used to the game speed. Then you build more chemistry with the guys on the line and the communication gets better.’’
Even so, Raimann is like most players. He tends to harp on the negatives rather than draw on the positives.
“Yeah, I think that’s just part of the business,’’ he said. “Those are always the plays that are going to stick with you, the plays that are going to keep you up at night and the plays you’re going to remember in the long run.
“It should be that way because those mistakes can’t happen.’’
You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.