Centers of attention: Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, Bryan Stork all in spotlight
|08.04.14 at 7:00 am ET|
One of the more interesting positions over the first week-plus of Patriots training camp has been center, where Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Bryan Stork have all gotten plenty of work.
Wendell enters the 2014 season as the incumbent, having served as the No. 1 center for the better part of the last two years. A favorite of both Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, he’s played almost more snaps than anyone else in the league since the start of the 2012 season.
It’s been a long journey for the 28-year-old Wendell, who signed as an undrafted free agent in 2008, got his first series of starts along the interior in 2010 and moved into the starting center position in 2012.
“When Ryan first got here, he couldn’t even make our practice squad,” Belichick recalled earlier this summer when asked about the 6-foot-2, 300-pound Wendell. “He was a camp player [and] wasn’t on our practice squad at the beginning of the season. We brought him back to the practice squad during his first year.
“I’d say it’s been about as big of a progression as really any player could have, any player I’ve had or any player could have — maybe Steve Neal. But it’s the same kind of thing — guys [who] weren’t even on the practice squad that eventually became starting players in the NFL. That’s a pretty big jump. It took a lot of time, a lot of hard work and he’s certainly done his part and worked hard. He’s a very smart football player, and doesn’t have many missed assignments.”
At the same time, he figured to be pushed by the 23-year-old Stork, a rookie with a peerless college resume — he won the Rimington Award last year as the best center in college football in 2013, and was a captain for the national champions from Florida State.
“Bryan was a pretty durable player,” Patriots personnel chief Nick Caserio said of the 6-foot-4, 313-pound Stork, who started 41 games as a collegian with the Seminoles. “He played a lot of football. He played against good people.
“Smart guy, tough, good playing strength, had a good playing style, good demeanor. He did a lot of good things, and there was a lot to like about him.”
However, one player who has really emerged has been the 31-year-old Connolly, a part-time center who has really made his bones the last few years as the starting right guard. When Stork went down with an undisclosed injury — he’s missed three of the eight practices this summer as a result — the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Connolly stepped in as the backup, while Marcus Cannon took many of the reps at right guard. The move appeared to be a chance to take some of the reps from Wendell and give the starter a bit of a rest. But to this point, Connolly has performed well, and has added some more spice to the mix.
Connolly is an intriguing presence for a number of reasons, not the least of which he’s on the books this year (the last of his current contract) for $3 million, an awfully steep price for an offensive lineman not named Logan Mankins or Nate Solder. It was thought that number might ultimately lead to him being released before the start of the season in a cost-cutting/value move by the team. However, his solid summer, as well as his versatility, has likely solidified a roster spot, at least at this point. Even at a relatively inflated rate, the fact that he can play multiple spots on the offensive line and has extensive experience at the center position make him an attractive part of the line going forward.
The rest of the guard spots remain an intriguing mix of old and new faces: Josh Kline played well in relief late in 2013, going wire-to-wire at left guard in a win over the Ravens that saw Mankins slip out to the tackle spot. Meanwhile, Cannon also has some positional versatility, having played both guard and tackle spot over the course of his career, while Stork and fellow rookie Jon Halapio also present themselves as solid depth options along the interior at this point.
In the end, the New England offensive line prides itself on being a steady and consistent bunch, but the fluid situation at the guard and center spots could present some interesting dilemmas for the Patriots between now at the start of the regular season.