Patriots Offensive Line Preview: Can Stork, Rookies Deliver An Added Boost?
Position: Offensive Line
Major Players: Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Bryan Stork
Potential Contributors: Jon Halapio, Cameron Fleming, Josh Kline
On The Bubble: Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell, Chris Barker
Every year at this time, we question whether or not the Patriots’ offensive line can keep Tom Brady upright for an entire season. In 2013, doing that was a struggle for the group.
Brady was sacked 40 times last season, one off his career-high of 41 sacks which came in his first year under center (at least that season, they won the Super Bowl). He hit the ground four more times in the playoffs, though in New England’s AFC Championship game loss to the Denver Broncos, it felt like he was looking at the Mile High sky throughout the tilt.
Some of that has to do with Brady’s already limited mobility, and the fact that he was 36. He’ll be 37 this year, and in need of even more protection. That’s why Bill Belichick drafted a trio of offensive linemen in May, hoping to bolster his team’s depth on the o-line.
Veterans Logan Mankins and Dan Connolly will all be back, with soon-to-be-considered veterans Sebastian Vollmer, Nate Solder and Marcus Cannon also back in the mix. Connolly brings a $4 million cap hit with him but his versatility, one of Bill’s favorite traits, will likely save him his spot on the team.
But as each of these rather large gentlemen guide their way through the rigors of another NFL season, durability becomes a bigger question mark. Vollmer’s scream after breaking his leg in Week 9 last season still probably echos throughout Gillette Stadium, and while Logan Mankins is as super-human as they come in regards to playing through pain, it will likely catch up to the 32-year-old at some point.
Enter the youngsters: Bryan Stork, Jon Halapio and Cameron Fleming.
The most exciting name out of that trio is Stork, who Belichick drafted out of Florida State in the fourth round. The 6-4 behemoth already looks the part of a Patriots offensive lineman, and the rookie could see some playing time very early in his career. He was the top center in all of college football in 2013, snapping the ball to Heisman winner Jameis Winston, and took snaps at center and left guard in June’s OTAs at Gillette. He started 39 games at either center or guard for the Seminoles over his four-year collegiate career, and could be a very versatile moving part on the 2014 New England offensive line.
When the season is over, it may be Stork who makes the biggest impact among all of the Patriots’ 2014 draft picks.
Halapio, who Belichick drafted in the sixth round out of Florida, started 36 straights game at guard for the Gators over his final three seasons in school. He is a big and fierce competitor who could compete for playing time throughout the season. Fourth-round pick Cameron Fleming, who graduated from Stanford in three years with a degree in aeronautics and astronautics, is a bit more of a project, but could be an important contributor in 2015.
The Patriots should have plenty of depth on the offensive line in 2014, but how they fare on the field all starts in training camp and in their weekly meetings, and that is where the team may have suffered their biggest loss.
Gone is offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia. Coach Scar retired after three decades in New England, serving as the team’s offensive line coach from 1999 until his retirement. He also served as an assistant head coach since 2000, and was very well respected among all the players in the locker room.
While having their trio of rookies is nice, this is where the group of veteran linemen becomes so important. They’re all familiar with how New England runs their offense, and have endured the wrath of Brady after a missed assignment or block. Each will no doubt play a hand in helping not just the rookies, but new offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo in training camp and throughout the season.
They may have a new man in charge of the group, but the Patriots have a solid group of veteran linemen (albeit ones with some concerns about age and injuries) to mix with a trio of promising young blockers for Tom Brady. Hopefully that means #12 isn’t hitting the ground at the alarming rate he did in 2013.
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