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With Patriots training camp set to open on July 26, CBSBostonSports.com will break down the outlook for every position on the roster. Today’s breakdown is on the offensive line.
Position: Offensive Line
Major Players: Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Ryan Wendell, Donald Thomas, Nick McDonald
On The Bubble: Robert Gallery, Kyle Hix, Matt Koppa, Brian Waters
With the very pass-happy New England offense, there is a premium on keeping quarterback Tom Brady from hitting the ground each time he drops back after the snap. Last season, the Patriots did a very good job keeping Brady on his feet, allowing just 32 sacks in the regular season – good for 10th in the NFL (St. Louis surrendered the most sacks in the NFL at 55).
But there have been a few changes to the New England offensive line this season. Luckily, they should have the depth to withstand the loss of an 11-year veteran.
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Gone is Matt Light, who spent all 10 of his 11 NFL seasons guarding Tom Brady’s blind side (the other was for Matt Cassell) after being taken in the second round in 2001. There are also questions as to whether Brian Waters will return for his 13th NFL season, and the status of injured linemen Logan Mankins (who played in the Super Bowl with an ACL tear) and Sebastian Vollmer (limited to just six games in 2011 with a slew of injuries).
Enter the youth.
Replacing Light at left tackle should be second-year blocker Nate Solder, who saw some action his rookie year after being selected 17th overall out of Colorado. In a perfect world, it be Solder with Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer lining up in front of Brady, but the health of the squad could put a damper on that.
Should Mankins’ knee not be ready, and Vollmer can only play in a handful of games once again, the Patriots do have a few suitable replacements waiting in the wings. They picked up former number-two overall pick Robert Gallery, who spent the last two seasons in Seattle, as a possible backup for Mankins, as well as four-year center Ryan Wendell, who has some experience as a guard.
Another intriguing name on the offensive lines’ depth chart is second-year tackle Marcus Cannon. The 24-year-old missed the first half of the 2011 season as he recovered from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but was able to see some action in the later part of the season. He could see some time at right tackle, a spot he helped fill the void last year when Vollmer remained out. The team was impressed with what the rookie was able to bring to the table, especially given the fact he had just gone through chemotherapy during the lockout. He joined the Patriots in Week 11 against the Chiefs, familiarizing himself with the system and earning respect from the coaching staff and teammates alike.
For further depth, assistant head coach and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia will have linemen Donald Thomas (who appeared in 10 games in 2011 including one start), Nick McDonald (four games, two starts) and Matt Kopa, who spent all of 2011 on the practice squad, at his disposal.
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It would certainly help New England if Brian Waters returns, as he was the consummate professional in the locker room and helped protect Brady on the field. He started every game at right tackle and made the Pro Bowl for the sixth time. But New England has the depth to withstand his loss if he chooses to hang the cleats up at the age of 35.
But as New England, and other teams around the NFL will tell you, there is no such thing as too many offensive linemen.