Thursday, February 6, 2014

Reloading the Musket: Part 5 - Offensive line at a crossroads

Braxston Cave.  Remember that name.

Not because it screams "Offensive Lineman", which it does, but because he may just be the next big thing along the New England Patriots' offensive line - or maybe not, depending on who you talk to.  But one has to realize that there was a reason that coach Bill Belichick snatched the former Fighting Irish center of the waiver wire.

A final cut by the Cleveland Browns, who were looking to back up former 1st round draft pick and two-time Pro Bowl selection Alex Mack, and who were hoping that Cave cleared waivers so they could assign him to their practice squad as a developmental project - but the Patriots beat them to the punch.

Tough as nails but not terribly athletic, Cave is a road grader with a nasty disposition that the Patriots signed to a futures contract immediately after the season and will be given the opportunity to display his wares in training camp this summer - this much is certain.

The question is, who will he be competing against?

Ryan Wendell will most likely be gone, while primary backup at center, guard Dan Connolly, will have to take a serious pay cut to stay with the team.  That leaves Cave and whomever the Patriots bring in through either free agency or the draft - and the options are not that plentiful in free agency - but there are optionsin the draft nevertheless.

The free agent market for interior linemen is likely to look much different in March than it does in February, particularly at the top where Brian De la Puente of New Orleans, Alex Mack of Cleveland and Evan Dietrich-Smith from Green Bay reside.

The Saints are locked into a lot of money at the guard position and are perhaps too far in to be able to make De la Puente an offer that he can't refuse, and the Patriots are locked into the same situation as guard Logan Mankins's cap hit is almost as much as what New Orleans' interior linemen make combined, so that's a dead stick.
Stork at Florida State

Mack, the two-time All Pro, is likely to be franchised by the Browns and Dietrich-Smith has Aaron Rodgers pleading his case in Green Bay.

Not even Detroit's Dominic Raiola is a good fit in the long-term for New England as he is 35 years old and on his last legs.  Obviously free agency is not going to be the direction that the Patriots will be able to improve at center, but if they are to bring in players to compete at the position, there are several good ones available on the second and third days of the draft.

Florida State's Bryan Stork tops the list of draft worthy centers, but it will require an investment of a second round draft pick for a team that is serious about improving their interior blocking - and there are options in later rounds that could be an improvement for the Patriots as well - including Weston Richburg of Colorado State in the third or fourth round and a sleeper in Utah State's Tyler Larsen in the fifth round.
Richburg at Colorado State

Just as with the center position, free agency at guard - where the top of the class is a mixture age and injury - also looks to be lacking in viable options for New England.

Long-time Carolina Panther Travelle Wharton is the top rated guard in free agency, but is 32 and has bad knees.  Kansas City's Geoff Schwartz isn't going anywhere and the Jets' Willie Colon tore his biceps in December and is facing a long road in recovery - after that, well, how does Brian Waters and Richie Incognito strike you?

Right.  The lone possibility in the veteran mix is Kansas City right guard Jon Asamoah, who has quietly become one of the better right guards in the NFL despite splitting time with Schwartz, and if there's any way that the Patriots could lure him to Foxborough with a contract similar to Connolly's, it gives Belichick and his new line coach some flexibility.

Asamoah took over as a sophomore for Brian Waters, and while he struggled initially with run blocking, he excelled at pass blocking, and then returned in 2012 with a renewed emphasis on run blocking and has succeeded in becoming a more complete player in the past two years, Chiefs' backs averaging nearly five yards a pop running behind him.
Asamoah with the Chiefs

Of course, if things got really tight the team could just roll with what they already have and be competitive, but this accomplishes just two things: the team is settling for what wasn't good enough last season and it puts them in even more dire straits next offseason when left tackle Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon and Connolly come up for a pay raise.

It is critical to make improvements along the line now to start the process of improvement and to avoid a bigger mess next offseason.

But if they decide to go with what they have, Connolly could compete for the center spot and third year man Cannon could assume his natural guard position, but this is assuming that right tackle Sebastian Vollmer returns completely healed from a nasty broken leg, which is no guarantee - and this is where things become dicey because of the unknown. 

What is known is that the interior of the offensive line is an area where New England has just been making due with Wendell at center and Connolly at right guard, both full effort guys without a lot of gumption, technically sound competitors that were either unable or unwilling to mix it up underneath - and that's what this offensive line needs - attitude and nastiness...
Martin playing tackle at Notre Dame

...which the draft is abundant in, particularly given that this is a deep draft for guards, the Patriots may be turning their attention to all of the interior talent available in the first three rounds.

Top tier prospects such as Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson, Baylor's Cyril Richardson and Stanford's David Yankey will most likely be gone before New England gets a chance to select, but names like Notre Dame's Zack Martin and Florida State's Tre Jackson are possibilities on the second day - with Martin being intriguing not just for his talent, but also due to the fact that he played next to Cave for two years.

A sleeper on the third day is Nebraska's Spencer Long, a top prospect until tearing his ACL in October, so there would be no guarantee that Long would be able to go when training camp came around.  Regardless, Belichick has made a career on picks like this, and as most scouts agree that he is a "nasty mauler" that "fights through the echo of the whistle", taking a sixth or seventh round flyer on the little brother of St. Louis Rams' Jake Long would be worth the effort.
Long at Nebraska

As things stand now, on the edges Solder and a fully-healed Vollmer are solid bookend tackles, and third year guard/tackle Cannon is road grader on the right and guard Logan Mankins showed surprising agility filling in for Solder when the big man went down with a concussion late in the season.

Currently on the depth chart, undersized scrapper Josh Kline backs up both guard spots and was impressive at left guard when Mankins slid over to take over for Solder, while Chris Barker is listed as a back up to Wendell, but has little experience.  Both second year players will be given every opportunity to earn roster spots in 2014.

But are Cave, Klein and Barker the future on the interior?  If Belichick thinks so, then there won't be a lot of movement in the market or draft in this area.  But if he can get Asamoah within Connolly's price range as a free agent right guard and draft a guy like Notre Dame's Martin - who can play both guard and tackle - and pick up a late rounder at center like Utah State's Larsen...

...the infusion of youth mixed with the veteran core could make the next several years painless both in transition and on the cap, freeing up cash to resign or extend Solder and be to able to absorb Mankins' hefty salary if he is unwilling to restructure.

There is little doubt that the Patriots must address the offensive line now to avoid cap and performance issues in the near furture - and doing so combined with resigning LeGarrette Blount, bringing in an athletic tight that can take the heat off of the current pass catchers and getting everyone healthy should be the priorities on offense for the Patriots.


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