By Bruce Allen, Patriots Daily Staff
Now, the other “big fatties.” Because there are so many of them on the roster right now, we’re going to forgo the individual capsules and instead look at each position on the offensive line. Overall this is still a very strong group, even without Logan Mankins, who may never play for the Patriots again after tossing bombs at the Krafts. The Patriots have built in a system for developing offensive lineman under Dante Scarnecchia, they bring guys in, perhaps stash them on the practice squad for a year or two, and work extensively with them on exactly what they need to do under this system.
Of course, the priority which trumps all others for the Patriots offensive line is keeping Tom Brady upright and healthy. The last two seasons have been rougher on Brady with the knee injury and the broken ribs, so he’s definitely getting hit more than in the past. That needs to change if the Patriots hope to hold off the historic defenses of the Jets and Dolphins (planes and porpoises) in the AFC East. (That was a little sarcasm there, if you didn’t catch it.)
Dan Koppen is still the man in the middle of the line, though he gets pushed a little more each year. A bit undersized at the position, Koppen sometimes needs a little help against the bigger nose tackles, but usually still holds his own quite well. The Patriots drafted Ted Larsen in the sixth round this season, and he’s got a bit more bulk than Koppen. Could he possibly be the Patriots center of the future? Koppen was a fifth round pick, so the Patriots have shown that you don’t necessarily need to find a top center at the top of the draft. Dan Connolly has also played some center for the Patriots, though he is more of the utility type on the offensive line.
Logan Mankins is one of the top guards in the NFL. Unfortunately it seems more and more likely that he’s played his last game for the Patriots after coming out with strong statements against the owners and demanding a trade. If he does play this season, it might be just to get the necessary service time to get through to unrestricted free agent status. The Patriots were able to re-sign Stephen Neal for another two seasons after there were rumors that the former wrestling star was thinking of retirement. Even at his age, Neal continues to perform at a high level. With Mankins out, the Patriots may turn to Nick Kaczur to man the guard spot, moving over from tackle. Mankins’ holdout might even save Kaczur’s job with the Patriots. Second year players Rich Ohrnberger and George Bussey may see more of the field this season, Bussey spent last season on IR. Undrafted free agent signee Ryan Wendell will also get a look, and the Patriots have hopes of developing the next Neal in John Wise, also a converted wrestler.
Matt Light remains Brady’s primary bodyguard at left tackle. Though he too may be showing signs of age, he is still the one most responsible for keeping Brady upright. There was some talk in the media of moving Light over to right tackle, but that was quickly dismissed by all involved. Sebastian Vollmer was perhaps the biggest surprise on the Patriots last season, as the second round pick, who many ridiculed as a reach, stepped in and became one of the Patriots top performers on the offensive line. In the game against the Colts, the massive (6-8, 315) Vollmer handled Dwight Freeney exceptionally well. Listed as a tackle, the 6-7 306 lb Mark LeVoir actually took some snaps at guard last season, and also lined up as an eligible receiver on a few plays. Seventh round pick Thomas Welch is another massive (6-7 310) lineman who looks to be a Scarnecchia project this season.
With or without Mankins, the Patriots offensive line figures to be a solid, if aging, unit. Younger players such as Vollmer, Ohrnberger and perhaps Larsen need to be able to grow into larger roles with the line, eventually stepping in for some of the veterans. The line has been steady pretty much throughout the Belichick era, and figures to be so again this season.
Vollmer needs to be the LT of the future. He’s wasted on the right side. I’m most worried about Koppen. He’s degraded from Pro Bowl Center to being blasted up the middle every other 3rd down. Might be a tough, inconsistent year with this group.
I’m less down on this unit than many others (I think!). I don’t really remember many games last year where Brady was getting his head knocked off by free rushers. Only gave up 18 sacks last year (3rd lowest), and that’s with a “gimpy” Brady in the pocket.
I still think the o-line got caught in a transition, from spread offense/screen game to power run – and the latter is where they don’t do well. Now, it’s not that I don’t think they don’t have the ability, but I’d like to see coaches come up with some better, less predictable schemes to help with getting the run game going.