Although originally planning to move on to defense after looking at the New England Patriots’ rushing attack and passing attack, the offensive line deserves a review and preview as well. The Patriots finished first in yards per game at almost 428 yards per game and first in converting 110 3rd downs at a 49% success rate, and a large part of that success was due to the stellar play of the offensive line. Despite these gaudy stats, the offense sputtered in the AFC Championship Game and only scored 13 points against the stingy defense of the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. Despite being the best in the league in the regular season, the offense needs upgrades in order to improve the team’s chances to win the Super Bowl next season in New Jersey. So today the focus is on the offensive line, with a look at the defense to follow soon.
The New England Patriots came into the 2012 season with serious questions about the offensive line. The retirement of long-time left tackle Matt Light and non-reporting/hold-out/retirement/disappearance of right guard Brian Waters left gaping holes in the line and much media speculation about the unit’s ability to keep quarterback Tom Brady upright. In addition, the team was contending with uncertainty at the center position, as long-time center Dan Koppen had missed a majority of the 2011 season and was fighting for his job.
As it turned out, only left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer (both who had injury issues previously in 2011) were the only starters to return to the same position. Center Dan Connolly ended up moving to right guard to replace Waters. Center Ryan Wendell, in a somewhat surprising move, took over at center as Dan Koppen was released, and young left tackle Nate Solder stepped in to protect quarterback Tom Brady’s blind side.
Despite the turnover on the line, Wendell and Solder stepped-up and started all sixteen games and kept quarterback Tom Brady’s jersey clean. Despite some injuries, guard Logan Mankins and tackle Sebastian Vollmer performed well when healthy. Guard Dan Connolly moved from center to guard without any major issue, and backup guard Donald Thomas and tackle Marcus Cannon filled in adequately when called upon. Nick McDonald served as the swiss army knife of the offensive line, providing depth at all five positions.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is a free agent this offseason. After an impressive rookie campaign, the unheralded second-round pick had injury concerns derail what appeared to be a future pro bowl career. Finally healthy this season, Vollmer once more took his place as a potential dominant force at the end of the line. The Patriots front office find themselves in a bind with Vollmer, as he is one of the best right tackles in football when healthy. “When healthy” is the caveat, as the Patriots may be averse to breaking the bank to pay someone whose back issues could flare up again and miss big chunks of time during the season.
The question becomes whether they can sign Vollmer to a team friendly contract, as he is likely to garner a lot of attention on the open market. Since most teams don’t have the luxury of one very good tackle, the Patriots, with both Solder and Vollmer, may be vulnerable if teams start bidding for a big, mobile tackle who can play left or right tackle. Backup tackle Marcus Cannon, who seems to have a frame better suited for guard, raises concern as a potential starter at right tackle.
The Patriots have no financial concerns under the salary cap, being almost $19 million under the cap and with flexibility to restructure contacts to double that without breaking a sweat (don’t believe the public relations hype and misinformation coming out of Foxboro, MA about needing to be mindful of the cap). Vollmer is arguably as important, if not more so, to resign as much as other key free agents cornerback Aqib Talib and wide receiver Wes Welker. There are other cornerbacks and wide receivers available through free agency and the draft, but quality tackles are few and far between.
Left tackle Nate Solder, guard Logan Mankins, and center Ryan Wendell appear to be locks to return to the offensive line in 2013. Wendell and Solder lined up for over 99% of the offensive snaps (stats from ESPN Boston). The Patriots should re-sign Vollmer and bring back guard Dan Connolly. Vollmer was on the field for 88% of the offensive snaps, while Connolly played over 70% of the time. Mankins was lost a few games and was only out for 60% of the snaps, while backup guard covered on the left and right side throughout the season and ended up playing nearly 50% of the time.
Keep an eye on guard/center Dan Connolly’s status this offseason, however, as he has a high cap number, had some injury issues, and did not have a particularly effective season when out at right guard. Connolly appeared to have issues with inside rushers, and had issues that stood out in the AFC Championship as Baltimore brought pressure through him throughout the game. Free agent guard Donald Thomas could be brought back to replace Connolly, but Thomas is stronger in the running game rather than as a pass blocker. At guard, the depth is thin, especially if Thomas leaves, as that would have Nick McDonald as the only back-up inside.
The Patriots will likely bring in their usual assortment of undrafted offensive linemen to sort through in the preseason. Tackle may be a position identified to address through the draft, especially if Vollmer finds a higher offer on free agent market (think of how much the Jets would love to steal Vollmer away from New England to fill their gaping hole at right tackle). Marcus Zuseviks and Kyle Hix are the young, developmental tackles brought in, but neither is expected to step in and start anytime soon.
The offensive line was a strength in 2012, but there is definitely need for improvement, decisions to me made regarding free agents, and a need for depth. Expect a lot of moves that may not make headlines, but will go a long way towards making the offense go at high efficiency.