Heading into their preseason opener against the New Orleans Saints last Thursday, the New England Patriots were widely considered to have an offense to rival that of their historic 2007 team. But one thing was clear when the Patriots offense hit the field — they were not firing on all cylinders and questions needed to be addressed.
The most pressing area of concern was that of their offensive line. Once an area of stability and reliance, quarterback Tom Brady now faces turnover and uncertainty among those protecting him for the first time in his career.
The turnover begins at left tackle. With the retirement of Pro-Bowler Matt Light, big shoes were left to be filled by Nate Solder — last year’s first-round pick. It was clear early on that Solder still has work to do, as Saints defensive-end Will Smith continually beat Solder and twice had Solder grabbing more then he should which led to two holding penalties.
When asked to assess his performance after the game, Solder said, “You know, I’m not satisfied with the way that I play and I want to continue to get better, definitely.”
Uncertainty filters in at the left guard position where Logan Mankins, the team’s three-time All-Pro, was just taken off the physically-unable-to-perform (PUP) list this past Sunday. Mankins is still rehabbing from offseason knee surgery and has yet to fully participate in practices but has suited up.
While it is a good sign that Mankins is back already, he was considered to start the season on the PUP list which would cause him to miss the first six games at least, the question is still up in air if he’ll be ready to start the season.
“I’ve never been hurt, really, so not being out at practice was something new for me, which I didn’t enjoy too much,” Mankins said on Sunday. “It’s good to be back out and just trying to get better as fast as possible.”
In his absence Donald Thomas has seen most of the reps with the first-team. Thomas, while having a solid camp, was not the intended backup to Mankins. It was originally penciled in that free-agent signee Robert Gallery would be the second-string left-guard but on Aug. 4, the eight-year veteran abruptly retired.
Thomas has been a pleasant surprise, showing enough improvement to get reps with the first-team.
Head coach Bill Belichick described Thomas as “a smart guy” and he’s certainly shown that through developing steadily since signing with the team last September after center Dan Koppen went down in the team’s Monday night opener against the Dolphins, the team that originally drafted him.
Continuing with Koppen brings us to center. Before last season’s injury, Koppen had started 119 of a possible 120 games since coming into the league in 2003. Stepping into the starting role with Koppen down was veteran Dan Connolly, who entered the league as an undrafted free-agent with Jacksonville before joining the team’s practice squad in 2007.
Connolly has gone from practice squad to starter in his time in New England. In his 28 starts over the past three seasons, Connolly has started at both guard positions and center. But for all the versatility and experience Connolly has provided, even he has been bit by the injury bug leaving the door open for Ryan Wendell.
A former Fresno State Bulldog, Wendell has worked his way into playing time and started three games last season after Connolly went down. As recently as Tuesday, the four-year veteran was taking snaps with the first-team, splitting duties with the veteran Koppen, as Connolly did not practice.
Coach Belichick spoke recently of Wendell’s progress saying, “Ryan has had a good year, going all the way back to the spring: healthy, out there every day, getting better, really improving. He’s performed well, performed consistently, and he’s done well.”
With the left side of the line, including center, up in air, stability comes hopefully from the right side. Specifically right guard.
One of the reasons the Patriots are thin along the line is the absence of starter Brian Waters; however, as questions arise over where he has been, note must be taken as to what happened last season.
Waters, a widely respected veteran and winner of the Walter Payton Man of the Year Award (2009), was unsigned until the Patriots added him to the roster eight days before their opening game last season and went on to start all 16 games and postseason games and was voted to his sixth Pro Bowl. So it is worth noting that Waters may simply resting his body until the season is about to kickoff.
But until Waters returns (if he returns), he leaves an open spot on the starting line with many different options to be placed there with Connolly (the favorite sans Waters), Thomas, and Jeremiah Warren as candidates.
Warren, an undrafted rookie free-agent from South Florida, is an intriguing candidate as he has made the most out of his opportunities. Most critically last Wednesday, where after being signed less than a week earlier, Warren was thrust into the first-team unit and looked to have held his own alongside Connolly (at center) and Marcus Cannon (at right tackle).
The final spot is arguably the spot with the most potential along the line. The right tackle position was supposed to be manned by Sebastian Vollmer, who was a second-team All-Pro in 2010, but last year was bit by the injury bug and only started five games. With Vollmer dealing with an intense back injury, and no real timetable set to return, the door is open for second-year man out of TCU Marcus Cannon.
Cannon joined the team last October after coming off the PUP list and instantly earned playing time. A highly valued player, thought to go in Rounds 2 or 3 a year ago, Cannon fell to the Patriots in the fifth round of the 2011.
“He’s improved so many things from where he was at the end of the season because he just didn’t have that base to build on last year,” Belichick said of Cannon’s progress. “I would say he’s way ahead of where he was last year. I don’t think he would have been able to do a lot of the things that he’s been able to do so far this year.”
The Patriots next preseason game is against the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night. How the line holds up or who will play where is yet to be determined, but each preseason game gets them one step closer to nailing down the starting rotation for the offensive line tasked with the responsibility of protecting one of the league’s best passers.
By Nathan Rickard