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Countdown to Patriots Camp: Offensive line

07.25.12 at 2:10 pm ET
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In the days leading up to the start of Patriots’€™ training camp, we’€™ll take a quick look at how each position shakes out. We’€™ve looked at quarterback, tight end, running back and wide receivers. Now, the offensive line:

Roster: Nate Solder, Kyle Hix, Marcus Zusevics, Logan Mankins, Robert Gallery, Jamey Richard, Jeremiah Warren, Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Nick McDonald, Brian Waters, Ryan Wendell, Donald Thomas, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Matt Kopa.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW:

Nate Solder will be the heir apparent to Matt Light. Light, who called it quits this offseason, will give way to Solder. The Colorado product had an impressive rookie season, flip-flopping back and forth between right and left tackle (and playing a little tight end for good measure), but will now be the primary protector of Tom Brady‘€™s blind side. Last season, he did very well for a rookie who had no offseason work because of the lockout. Barring injury, there’€™s no reason to think he won’€™t be one of their starting tackles for the next 10 years.

Marcus Cannon is one of the most interesting players on the Patriots’€™ roster. Not expected to contribute much last season as a rookie after recovering from cancer treatment, the rookie out of TCU did play well when called upon, playing 168 snaps (including 77 in a late-season game against the Dolphins where the Ne England offensive line was shorthanded because of injury) according to Pro Football Focus. Right now, he sits behind Solder and Vollmer on the depth chart, but could be an important piece if either one of them goes down this season.

If there’€™s a problem, the Patriots are happy with their offensive line depth. That was proven last season, when New England was forced to use four different starting centers (Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Nick McDonald) and go with multiple youngsters at tackle and guard because of injury over the course of the season. History tells us that at least one projected starter will miss some time over the course of the season, and when that happens, Dante Scarnecchia will have a backup ready to go. ‘€œDante is by far one of the best coaches in that staff,’€ former Patriots offensive lineman Joe Andruzzi said of Scarnecchia, who will be entering his 31st season in the league and his 13th straight year as New England’€™s offensive line coach. ‘€œYou can give him five guys off the street and he’€™ll get them ready to play at a high level.’€

THREE QUESTIONS

How will the center position shake out? Dan Koppen, starting his 10th season in the NFL, spent almost all of last season on the sidelines, as he fractured his ankle in the regular-season opener against the Dolphins and ended up on season-ending injured reserve. He will likely open camp as the starter, but he’€™ll likely be pressed by Dan Connolly, who was re-signed as a free agent in the offseason and was paid like a starter. One of the better positional battles on the roster.

Will any of the injury worries for the linemen be long-term? Logan Mankins suffered a knee injury in the Super Bowl, and a back issue made Sebastian Vollmer look like a 70-year-old man when he was running sprints during spring workouts. Both were put on active/PUP to start the season, and their overall health certainly bears watching throughout camp and into the preseason. If they’€™re healthy, both are certainly capable of playing at a All-Pro level.

Does Robert Gallery have anything left in the tank? If there are long-term injury problems along the offensive line, the massive (6-foot-7, 320 pounds) Gallery could be asked to step in and provide support. The 31-year-old veteran, who signed with New England as a free agent this offseason, does have some positional versatility — he’€™s played both guard and tackle in the NFL — and saw action at both positions throughout spring practices. He might not have the same sort of impact that Waters had last season (it’s worth mentioning that Waters is expected back for another year with New England), but if he can give the Patriots something if their offensive line is in trouble, it’€™ll validate his signing.

By the numbers: Per Pro Football Focus, Brian Waters played 1,340 snaps last season, the second-most offensive snaps on the team behind quarterback Tom Brady (1,350).

The skinny: Under Scarnecchia’€™s tutelage, the Patriots offensive line has always been a steady and consistent presence. (As we’€™ve previously stated, this team turns out NFL-ready offensive linemen at a dizzying rate.) There are some questions, including the overall health of the interior and whether or not Vollmer can hold up. But if Mankins and Vollmer are OK for the long haul, New England shouldn’€™t worry about things up front.

Read More: Countdown to Camp,
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