Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Training Camp Countdown: Part Two-Offensive Line

The Patriots Training Camp start date is finally set in stone. It has been set to begin on July 26th. At that time, the Patriots season will kick off in earnest and go non-stop through hopefully February. In this lull, the rest of the sports landscape in Boston sees the Red Sox stuck between thinking they can make a run still this season and finally taking the step towards blowing up the team; the Celtics are gearing up for the NBA Draft and for the July 1 free agency date while waiting to hear from Kevin Garnett if he wants to play next season; and the Bruins, for some reason, still haven't traded goalie Tim Thomas.  


Outside of Tom Brady at Quarterback and the Special Teams Specialists trio, questions abound going into training camp next month for the Patriots. I want to see how things shake down on offense and who ends up where on defense.  The running backs got a in-depth review previously here. Let's jump in to the second installment of all things Patriots with the...

OFFENSIVE LINE:

The biggest concern is the most important position: Left Tackle.  Matt Light, who had covered Tom Brady's blindside and kept Brady upright against some of the best pass-rushers out there these last ten years, retired over the off-season.  Contingency plan A had been implemented by the front-office in the 2011 draft when they selected the 6 foot 8 inch offensive tackle Nate Solder in the first round. Teaming him with fellow giant offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer gives the team two young giants to anchor the outside and keep the most important player on the field, TB12, upright.  Vollmer, when healthy, has been solid at right tackle. Solder had an excellent rookie season for an offensive tackle sliding between the right and left side and as 3rd tight end in short yardage situations.

Vollmer's back issues are a major cause for concern, as he missed a good chunk of last season. Without him, the Patriots turn to either former number one pick Robert Gallery or last year's fifth round pick, Marcus Cannon. Gallery is ideally suited to play inside at Guard, and would likely only be available at right tackle, not left. Cannon, who had dropped in the draft due to his cancer diagnosis, came off the PUP list last year as the swing man on the line playing guard and tackle.  The other tackles in camp are Matt KopaKyle Hix, and Markus Zusevics, and all three do have practice squad eligibility.  These three will get a lot of attention in camp as they battle for a spot on the 53 man roster.  Depth is needed at tackle and one of these three need to step up and impress.

At guard, All Pro Guard Logan Mankins fought through injuries last season and had a down year.  His limited mobility in the Super Bowl led to some pressure on TB12 that usually would not exist and likely played a part in the offense sputtering. Mankins back at full-strength is a must for the Patriots, so expect them to take it slow early on in camp with him.  

The right guard position was ably and unexpectedly filled by perennial Pro Bowl veteran Brian Waters who was cut by Kansas City and walked in and stepped right up.  Waters was one of the trio of veterans who came in last year (Andre Carter and Mark Anderson on the defensive line) and contributed to the Super Bowl run (Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth were the 40% wash-out of the veteran equation last season).  He left the question of retirement up in the air, and could very possibly not return at all after missing all off-season team activities. Of course, he could show up at training camp, show-up part-way through training camp, or get a "Veteran's Bonus Injury" where he has an excused absence for most of camp to "rehab". Certainly a situation that bears watching.  

Former Raider and Seahawk and former top pick Robert Gallery signed on this off-season for a season in Dante's Burning Inferno working with offensive line guru Dante Scarnecchia.  Scar, as he reportedly is referred to, is the one and only coach on staff who predated Bill Belichick.  To have a coach like Scar still on staff from the Raymond Berry days is remarkable. That the offensive line has developed so many nobodies into productive players is a huge credit to Scarnecchia.  The respect that Bill Belichick has for him is evident in how he has lasted in the organization.  Believe me, Robert Kraft is not foisting anyone on Bill Belichick's coaching staff, ever. How Gallery responds to Scar and if he takes a step up will definately be something to check in on throughout camp.  


Three other names to watch are the guards trying to hang-on the roster or practice squad: Donald Thomas, Jamey Richard, and Jeremiah Warren.  I admit, not a lot to know about these guys right now.  Thomas was signed last year. He is extremely raw, having not played much in college. Richard is 27 and has the best bet to stick having played for Indianapolis the last four years and can fill in at center in a pinch. Warren is trying to be another undrafted free agent who catches on.

Finally, at center, a position that ran through four players due to injury last year, the Patriots bring them all back with Dan Connolly, Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell, and Nick McDonald coming back.  Connolly signed the big (for a Patriots lineman) money deal this off-season and likely will start the season at Guard or Center, but definitely starting somewhere on the line.  Koppen is the long-time starter at center who missed last year due to injury and is back fighting for a job.  Wendell has flexibility as well and has stuck these past years and filled in without major incident when called upon. McDonald is the prospect "stolen" from Green Bay who stepped in last year during their win against the Colts when Koppen, Connolly, and Wendell were all out. A fourth string center jumping off the practice squad to start without a major hiccup is huge. What a testament to the scouts and front office. 


The depth is there. It wasn't last year, and somehow Waters fell in their lap.  Their starting center went out, and they never skipped a beat.  Now, they need to get Logan Mankins healthy and replace Matt Light.  However, the Pats are in good shape with Scar at the helm yet again to mold and shape the offensive line into a strength.    

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