Each week leading up to the draft, the Foxboro Blog crew will spend a week breaking down a position on the Patriots' roster. We'll start with a quick overview and then move onto a discussion involving potential draftees at that spot as well as free-agents that the Patriots may pursue. Up this week is the Offensive Line...
2010 Recap: The Patriots' Offensive line was dealt some tough blows early into the year. Nick Kaczur, one of the team's top tackles, was sidelined for the entire season with a back injury. His loss, coupled with the holdout of Logan Mankins, put the O-line in a precarious position and had many wondering if Brady would be under heavy pressure in 2010. However, the group managed to hold it together and had a solid campaign.
Early on, the team seemed to barely miss a beat as the Patriots were racking up points and cruised out to a 6-1 start. However, when Mankins returned, his impact was clearly seen. Suddenly the running game, which had been fairly anemic up to that point, caught on fire. Danny Woodhead and BenJarvus Green-Ellis were racking up yards and turned the Pats' offense into a seemingly unstoppable force. I believe BJGE's 1,000 yard season was due in large part to Mankins' brute force on the line opening up holes for him.
Unfortunately, the solid line play came to a crashing halt in the Patriots' first playoff game. Brady, who had barely gotten his jersey dirty and had been able to play mistake-free football for weeks due to all the time he had to throw, suddenly found himself under heavy pressure. The offensive line's inability to muscle up to the Jets' D-line was a major contributing factor to the team's early playoff exit.
Returning Players: Thomas Austin, Dan Connolly, Nick Kaczur, Dan Koppen, Mark LeVoir, Steve Maneri, Stephen Neal, Rich Ohrnberger, Sebastian Vollmer, Ryan Wendell
Patriots Free-Agents: Matt Light, Logan Mankins
2011 Outlook: The Patriots have some major free-agent questions looming for them on the offensive line. Arguably their top two players, Logan Mankins and Matt Light, are both due for a new contract. Locking up at least one of them is a necessity, and hopefully both can be re-signed so that the Patriots don't miss a beat as they stock up for 2011.
Tackle: Out of the two free-agents, Matt Light should be the easier to re-sign. He's a career Patriot heading towards the twilight of his career and shouldn't command a large contract. Sticking with him on the left and Sebass on the right should be able to tide the Pats over until a true replacement for Light can be groomed. Nick Kaczur remains a question as he is coming off that back injury and has a fairly large price tag attached to him this year. Ideally, the Patriots would have all three of these top tackles on the roster next season, while picking up a rookie at some point in the draft.
Guard: Here's where things get really hairy. The Mankins situation has been a veritable powder keg for nearly a year now. In a perfect world, the team would address his situation prior to the draft, and thus be able to plan accordingly at draft time. It doesn't look like that will be possible given the uncertainty involved with the looming CBA negotiations. This makes drafting a guard with one of their top picks a necessity for the Patriots. Hopefully, either via the franchise tag, or preferrably a long-term contract, Mankins will be back in uniform next season. Having a blue-chip guard lined up with him on the opposite side would only make the Patriots line more formidable.
Center: Dan Koppen has been a pillar of the Patriots line for quite some time, but is getting up there in years. The middle of the O-line appeared to be a big weak point against the Jets, so given both of those facts, it is probably wise for the Patriots to start looking for some fresh blood to fill the center position. Dan Connolly has filled in admirably at times, but is probably best suited for a backup-type role.
Summary: The Patriots offensive line had a good year overall, but given the age, injury status, and contract situations of its various members, New England should be looking to do some major re-tooling this off-season. Both the guard and center positions should be major areas to target during the draft, and hopefully both Matt Light and Logan Mankins can be inked to contracts once the new CBA is agreed upon.