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Countdown to camp: Offensive line

07.17.14 at 7:00 am ET
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Logan Mankins is the straw that stirs the drink for the New England offensive line. (AP)

Logan Mankins is the straw that stirs the drink for the New England offensive line. (AP)

As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2014 Patriots. We opened wide receiver, tight end and running back. Now, it’s the offensive line.

Depth chart: T Nate Solder, G Logan Mankins, C Ryan Wendell, G Dan Connolly, T Sebastian Vollmer, G/T Marcus Cannon, C/G Bryan Stork, T Cameron Fleming, G Jon Halapio, G Chris Barker, C/G Braxston Cave, G Josh Kline, T Chris Martin, T Jordan Devey

Overview: Traditionally one of the strongest and deepest spots on the roster, in 2013, the Patriots offensive line showed a few cracks. There were times where they had issues, particularly in the early going when it came to pass protection. Some of the problems can also be blamed on the fact that, as a group, the offense as a whole was still searching for an identity and struggling with the acclimation of so many new faces at the skill position slots. (If you think of the offense as a series of chain reactions, Tom Brady has to hold the ball a second longer while a young receiver gains separation. That means an offensive line has to hold his block a second longer. When you are facing some of the most devastating defensive fronts in the league, that can be a challenge for any offensive line.) And some can be blamed on health issues — Vollmer missed eight games because of a leg injury, while Solder was out with a head injury and Mankins suffered several bumps and bruises along the way.

But don’t look for the offensive line to offer any excuses. It’s a proud group that continued to hold itself to an almost impossibly high standard regardless of the opponent and situation. Despite the fact that it lost Vollmer and Solder for a stretch, it’s important to remember Patriots were one of three teams in the NFL last year to rush for at least 2,000 yards and finish with at least 4,000 yards passing. You don’t put up those kinds of numbers without a strong, dependable and versatile offensive line.

THREE THINGS WE KNOW

1. Logan Mankins is one of the toughest guys in the NFL.

When it comes to toughness — both mental and physical — Mankins remains the gold standard for anyone who has ever strapped on a New England helmet. (‘I’ve coached a lot of tough guys,’ said Bill Belichick late last season after Mankins came back from injury. ‘I don’t think there’s any that I would put ahead of him. Maybe some on that level, but none ahead.’) Mankins, who played the entire 2011 season on a torn ACL, came back from an ankle injury late in 2013, and ended up playing the second-most snaps of any left guard in the league, according to Football Outsiders (1,164). He also managed to move from his traditional left guard spot out to left tackle after Solder went down with an injury. He may not have been at his best last season — the combination of injury, age and the fact that New England faced some of the most devastating front sevens in the league all contributed to that. But Mankins at 75 percent is still better than most of the rest of the league.

2. The Patriots feel pretty good about their left tackle situation.

If you could pick one spot on the offensive line where stability and consistency are most important, it would likely be left tackle. And when it comes to New England’s situation, they have to feel pretty good about where it stands with Solder, at least at this point in his career. The first-round pick out of Colorado in 2011, he’s done a good job stepping into the shoes of Matt Light. He’s started 44 of a possible 48 regular-games over the course of his career, and has consistently graded out as an above average left tackle. One more thing about Solder — when you consider the going rate for above average left tackles this offseason, the Patriots made the right move in locking him up for another year when they exercised the club option for 2015 on him at a cost of $7 million. In this era, considering Solder’s play in his first three years, it’s money well spent.

3. As camp dawns, there are questions about the interior, specifically right guard and center.

It’s telling that two of the three offensive linemen drafted by the Patriots this year were interior linemen — specifically, a highly-regarded right guard (Halapio) and center (Stork). When it comes to the Halapio/Connolly debate, the issue with Connolly is not so much his level of play. Instead, it’s whether or not he performs to the level of his contract: Entering the final year of a contract that is set to pay him $3 million, he could be a veteran cut if Halapio appears ready for prime time. (For what it’s worth, Kline also played well at guard in his lone start last season against the Ravens.) As for center, Wendell has performed well since taking over on a full-time basis in 2012, but he’s played a ton of snaps the two years. (Per Football Outsiders, he was fourth among all offensive linemen last year with 1,197 snaps, and second in the league with 1,231 in 2012, trailing only Solder.) However, Wendell was second on the team in 2013 with 42.3 snaps per blown block. Has he worn down slightly from overuse? Or is it the stress of having to deal with guys like Mo Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Haloti N’gata on a weekly basis? It’s debatable — the Patriots faced some of the best fronts in the league in 2013 season. But New England’s decision to use a fourth-round pick on Stork, as well as the fact that Wendell drew almost zero attention on the market as a free agent this offseason (he signed a two-year deal to return to New England), might not be completely coincidental.

THREE QUESTIONS

1. How will the change in coaches affect the overall level or quality of play?

The move from Dante Scarnecchia to Dave DeGuglielmo as the position coach makes an already intriguing situation all the more interesting this season. Scarnecchia, who had coached the New England offensive line for the last 15 years, was a rock-solid presence for not just the offensive line, but also the franchise as a whole. As a result, even if DeGuglielmo followed his approach to the letter, there’s bound to be some bumps in the transition.

2. Who is going to be the backup swing tackle?

The Patriots were hoping veteran Will Svitek could have filled that role last season, and while he saw limited action, the Patriots turned more toward Cannon to fill the position. (New England also got a game at left tackle from Mankins after Solder went down late in the season — Kline filled Mankins’ old spot at left guard when the veteran moved to tackle.) Cannon held up pretty well while showing some nice positional versatility. (He also stepped in at right guard briefly for Connolly when he went down with a foot injury.) This year, there are two candidates to fill the role — Cannon and Fleming. Expect that to be one of the more interesting positional battles of the summer.

3. How many of the rookies will make the 53-man roster?

We are believers in Stork (more on him shortly), and sincerely think that the Patriots find a way to sneak Fleming through somehow. (You’ve got to get a rocket scientist on your roster.) Halapio is a very interesting case — a sixth-round pick out of Florida, he looked impressive throughout the course of the spring practices while working along the interior. However, our pal Miguel Benzan had an interesting note about the chances of a sixth-round pick making the roster.

Regardless of his odds, and based on how he looked in spring workouts, it appears that Halapio has a shot.

By the numbers: Over the course of the regular season,. the Patriots utilized four different starting lineup combinations along their offensive line. (That’s down from five in 2012.) Overall, as a result of injury and personnel decisions, New England had 14 different starting lineups on offense over the course of the regular season, tied for third in the league. (By way of comparison, Seattle, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Tampa Bay tied for the league lead with 16 each.) The league also listed the Patriots with 293 unique offensive lineups, which was seventh highest in the NFL. And among the final four teams left at the end of the playoffs, they had the lowest percentage of plays featuring the most common lineup at 2.45 percent.

Key new player: Stork. At times over the course of the spring practice sessions, it appeared the rookie was on a continuous loop around the practice fields because of some infraction, either real or imagines, in the eyes of the coaching staff. But his versatility (he played tackle, guard and center as a collegian) and his resume (he was the Rimington Award winner while starting every game this past year at center for the national champions) suggest he could push for a job sooner rather than later. While he does have a background at multiple positions, the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder will most likely get his best chance at center, where he could challenge incumbent Wendell.

The skinny: The offensive line has played a sizable role in the success of the New England offense over the last decade-plus, and this year will be no exception. The veteran leadership of Mankins, the steady and consistent work of the tackles (health willing) and the infusion of youth and arrival of a new position coach in DeGuglielmo should all make for an interesting mix up front for the Patriots in 2014. Certainly one of the positional groupings worth keeping an eye on this summer.

Read More: Countdown to Camp,
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