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Countdown to Camp: Offensive line

07.22.13 at 7:45 am ET

As training camp approaches, we’€™ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2013 Patriots. We’€™ve looked at the special teamers/specialists, linebackers, safeties, cornerbacks and defensive line. Now, it’s the offensive line.

Depth chart: Nate Solder, Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Logan Mankins, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Kevin Haslam, Josh Kline, R.J. Mattes, Chris McDonald, Nick McDonald, Matt Stankiewitch, Will Svitek, Marcus Zusevics.

Overview: No position on the team went from more of a state of flux to rock solid dependability last year than the offensive line. Dan Koppen and Brian Waters (and his locker) were gone, and while the Patriots kicked the tires on a few vets like Robert Gallery, their roles were ultimately filled by Wendell and Connolly. And a season that started with injury-related questions about Mankins and Vollmer were pretty much dispelled. As a group, they started 11 games together in 2012 (including the postseason) and held up remarkably well as a unit. While there are a handful of intriguing new faces on the roster (including Svitek and Chris McDonald) and a talented young backup (Cannon), the quintet of Solder, Mankins, Wendell, Connolly and Vollmer should be slotted in as the starting offensive line in 2013.

Three Things We Know:

1. While the center is usually accorded as the leader of the offensive line and the left tackle is the one that gets the most pub, it’s the left guard who is in charge in Foxboro. No one on that offensive line says “boo” unless Mankins says so. And while he’s occasionally been accused of playing until the “echo of the whistle” (according to quarterback Tom Brady) and erring on the side of being too physical, there’s no doubt that he sets the tone for the offensive line. He opens his ninth season in New England and will be gunning for his fifth consecutive Pro Bowl spot and sixth of his career. He missed six games last season (a career high for games lost because of injury; his previous high was one), but the 31-year-old figures to be at his familiar left guard spot when camp convenes later this month.

2. If this group stays healthy, none of the backups will play significant snaps this season. Continuity and consistency are hallmarks of any successful offensive line, and the fact that this group made 11 starts together last season allowed them to really come together as a unit. While there were some hiccups about two-thirds of the way through the season, the group finished on a solid note, and were one of the big reasons the New England offense was able to have the level of success it enjoyed last year.

3. Brady is occasionally his own best offensive lineman. Even at the age of 35 — he’ll be 36 next month — the quarterback has tremendous pocket awareness. And while he’s never been especially fast, he has the ability to keep plays alive with his feet on a consistent basis just because he’s so good at determining the situation around him. In 2012, three favorite moments of Brady being able to sense the rush and adjust accordingly came in a September win over the Bills in Buffalo. In that game, there were three separate occasions where Brady looked off his first read, assessed the myriad of other options that were presented to him, made the necessary adjustments by moving ever-so-gradually from one spot to another one, and simply showed the requisite patience, trusting his receivers until something positive developed. The first two came on pass plays ‘€” one to Rob Gronkowski that eventually was broken up and another to Danny Woodhead that went for a 17-yard touchdown pass ‘€” and the third on his 4-yard scramble for a touchdown in the third quarter. A good offensive line helps, but it also helps to have a smart, aware and patient quarterback under center.

Three Questions

1. Is Wendell one of the most underrated players in the game? According to Football Outsiders, Wendell lead the league in total snaps, and Pro Football Focus gave him an absolutely ridiculous +27.5 run blocking grade, the best among all starting centers and third-best among all offensive linemen. His durability, consistency and overall skill set have allowed him to evolve into one of the most important parts of the New England offensive line.

2. Who will take over Donald Thomas’ old role as backup guard? Cannon only played a handful of 182 snaps last season at guard, but with New England’s decision to sign Svitek — who will likely take over as the No. 1 backup at tackle — Cannon figures to bump inside to be the leading choice as the top reserve at either guard spot. In fact, if Connolly stumbles at any point this season, Cannon would be the top choice to take over at right guard. (In the context of this conversation, it’s also worth mentioning that while both are signed through 2014, Cannon is for far less money. While Connolly has a deal that will pay him $2.25 million this year and $3 million next season, Cannon is making base salaries of $587,562 in 2013 and $693,843 in 2014.)

3. If Gronkowski isn’t around for the first month-plus because of injury, how will that affect the offensive line? If the tight end is indeed placed on PUP as many expect, that would rob the Patriots of one of their best blockers for the first month-plus of the season. The bottom line is that while we tend to get caught up in Gronkowski’s pass-catching abilities, he doesn’t get near enough respect as a blocker. In many ways, he served as an extra tackle at the end of the line, wiping out opposing linemen when the Patriots kept the ball on the ground. Before he went down with his forearm injury, our pals at Pro Football Focus had him as New England’€™s second-best run-blocker, grading out at a +9.6 over the first 10 games of the season. (In that stretch, he was second only to Wendell, who is at +14.6.) He finished the year at +7.6 as a run blocker last season, tied for fourth on the team (and behind only Wendell, Mankins and Solder) and good enough to be one of the best tight ends in the league.

By the numbers: According to Football Outsiders, Wendell lead the league in snaps taken with 1,379, while Solder was second with 1,339.

Key new player: Chris McDonald. Like his brother Nick McDonald did in 2011, he could surprise as that extra interior lineman who provides depth at the guard and center position. He’ll likely face competition from Stankiewitch, but if he displays positional versatility — like his older brother — and some special teams value, he’ll have a good chance of sticking around. (He does have practice squad eligibility.)

The skinny: Led by the indefatigable Dante Scarnecchia, there’s a lot to like about the New England offensive line. (For what it’s worth, the immensely knowledgeable Evan Silva of Rotoworld says the Patriots have the best offensive line in the league.) There are teams out there who give this group troubles — namely, any team that can consistently get a good push on the quarterback with just four elite rushers — but those teams are simply few and far between. Provided they stay healthy, their history suggests that this group of offensive linemen, particularly the starters, will continue to provide Brady with excellent protection, and help clear the way for a running game that gave the New England offense real depth over the course of the 2012 season.

Read More: Countdown to Camp,



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