Monday, April 14, 2014

Reloading the Musket - Part 6: Patriots' interior offensive line needs influx of nastiness

When Josh Kline started at left guard in a blowout win over the Baltimore Ravens, Patriots' fans were treated to the start of a career that could see the undrafted rookie free agent find a regular home on the Patriots' offensive line.

Perhaps not in Mankins' spot, because though the wear and tear of nine NFL seasons have taken their toll on the 2005 first round draft pick, he's still tough-as-nails and carries a mile-wide vicious streak into each contest - turning each game into a brutal street fight.
Mankins remains a fearsome blocker despite wear and tear

Why would anyone want to replace Mankins at this juncture, when the Patriots respect what he brings to the field so much that they have not even approached him about ways to trim down his $10.5 million 2014 cap hit, which is second highest on the team behind Tom Brady's - and has an even higher cap hit in 2015.  In fact, the Fresno State product has three seasons remaining on a six-year, $51 million deal, with two installments of $4 million still remaining in guaranteed signing bonus money.

But why wouldn't the team approach the five-time All Pro to gain cap relief, particularly when they had already tried to negotiate similarly with All Pro nose tackle Vince Wilfork?

Because just as it is in the trenches with Mankins and his tempo-setting nastiness, so it is at the negotiating table.

As a restricted free agent following the 2009 season, the Patriots tried to low-ball Mankins by placing a tender on him that would have required any team that signed him to surrender a first and a third round draft pick to New England, which no team would do - but instead of signing his tender, Mankins demanded a trade and sat out of all mandatory offseason workouts, preseason games and a full half of the 2010 season...

...reporting and signing the Tender in week nine, solely to be able to collect the accrued year toward free agency - and he started immediately and earned both Pro Bowl and All Pro honors in his abbreviated season - then immediately slapped the franchise tag on him when able to do so.  Mankins signed the $10 million tender and reported to camp, prompting the Patriots to offer Mankins the highest salary ever tendered to an interior lineman at the time.

His no-nonsense, stand-his-ground approach is what makes Mankins such a trusted and immovable commodity, plus he has been named to the Pro Bowl five consecutive times heading into the 2014 season, and to the All Pro team four straight times - so any talk of Mankins not being able to earn his salary, even when dealing with major injuries, is a pile of bad noise.

So Kline can pretty much forget seeing much of the field on the left side of the Patriots' offensive line for a while, barring another concussion to left tackle Nate Solder, which is why Mankins slid over to tackle in the Ravens' game, opening up the spot for Kline to do his thing...

...but that doesn't preclude him from making some noise on the right side, where Dan Connolly is in the final year of a three year contract and carries a $4.1 million cap hit for this season, but also would count a little over a million in dead money were he cut.  Many have tried and failed to unseat the undrafted free agent, but perhaps this is the season that a similarly obtained player finally sends Connolly on his way.

The worst-case scenario for the Patriots isn't that bad at all.  Assuming health, the Patriots could field the same starting lineup that they've relied upon for the past two seasons, and though the play of the line slipped somewhat last season, at their best they are still a top drawer unit.

Mankins and Connolly flank incumbent center Ryan Wendell, who was surprisingly re-signed by New England last month to a healthy two-year $8 million contract that does not bind the team to much dead money at all if he doesn't make the team, and is mostly incentive-laden if he does....

...and twin giants bookend the line, the aforementioned Solder protecting Brady's blind side and Sebastian Vollmer manning the right if fully recovered from a gruesome broken leg in the middle of 2013 - if not, the enigmatic Marcus Cannon would take the spot, though the wide-load mauler is better at the right guard spot and excellent in spot duty at both tackle positions.

Not a bad lineup, but age, injury history and eroding skill have permeated the unit that the Patriots would be well advised to address in the draft, and by taking stock in what is on the roster already.

With the status of Vollmer's leg up in the air, the decline of Connolly and Wendell, the mystery of Cannon and the concussion history of Solder, the offensive line is sorely in need of capable fill-ins, if not replacements in some instances - and the one lineman available in free agency that could have could have upgraded the line, former Kansas City Cheifs' right guard Jon Asamoah either wasn't pursued or found a better deal in Atlanta...

...a deal that was just slightly above Connolly money, which mixed in with Wendell's deal tells us one of three things:  Either the Patriots feel that last season's decline in efficiency was an aberration; they feel that the answer to their dilemma are already on the depth chart; or they plan on addressing their needs in the draft.

And, as always, it's probably all of the above.

Wendell's slip in performance level from 2012 to 2013 was so abrupt that one has to wonder if he was dealing with some nagging ailments that affected his lateral agility, as he was atrocious in pass protection - and as the anchor of the protection unit, his deficiencies impacted every position along the line, particularly the play of the guards who were forced to lend a hand at times so that Wendell and Brady didn't get bulldozed.

Whatever the case, the middle rounds of the draft are filled with nasty-tempered centers eager to mix it up on the NFL level, and there may even be an answer already on the roster.

Braxston Cave spent all of 2013 on the practice squad and was one of only a handful of players that survived the roster purge just before the beginning of the league year in early march and signed to a Future's contract.  The 6' 3", 305 pound Cave earned third-team AP All American honors his season due primarily to his grit and determination, and is well acclaimed for his football intelligence.

He's not terribly athletic, though he makes up for that with technique and leverage and probably spent many hours working with position coaches on his choppy footwork and his inadequate handwork - which means that he's a project with no guarantees, which also means that the Patriots likely will draft a guy or bring some competition in with some rookie free agents.

Colorado State's Weston Richburg headlines what looks to be a shallow pool of NFL caliber centers, but fits better in a zone blocking scheme where his limited athleticism won't be as readily exposed - same with Florida State Bryan Stork, who offers better size but is even more a plodder than Richburg, as does Utah State's Tyler Larsen, but none of these guys offer more than what New England already has on the depth chart.

Penn State guard John Urschel may be the answer.  Urschel has the size and mobility to man the pivot and is already familiar with the offensive terminology and mindset from working under former New England offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, not to mention being named team captain in the scheme.

Urschel played some center in Happy Valley, but mostly guard and had the bulk, skill and IQ to take over the job and anchor the line for years.  Even if drafted and developed as a guard who could slide over to center when needed, Urschel would be well worth a third round draft choice.

If the Patriots don't take him, there's a new head coach in Houston who will, and probably in the third round.

But that's about as high as New England is likely to go with draft capital for an offensive line that needs depth, at worst, which means that names like UCLA guard Xavier Su'a Filo, Stanford's David Yankey and possibly even Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson would be out of the question...

...but would have to include Canadian collegian Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, who plays both tackle and guard positions for McGill College and is expected to be the top pick in the Canadian Football League draft, plus Clemson mauler Brandon Thomas and Baylor's Cyril Richardson, who may be the best road grader in the class.

But one would have to think that all bets would be off if versatile, athletic and large Notre Dame tackle Zack Martin were to somehow slip to the bottom of the first round.  He's small for an NFL tackle at 6' 4" and 310 pounds, so a move inside to guard is probably in the offing, with the knowledge that he's stout and athletic enough to slide outside on occasion, much like Mankins.

A move inside with the Patriots could be a boon for Cave in his quest to start at center, as he and Martin played side by side for two years with the Irish and work off of each other well.

New England may also look at the tackle positions, though they probably feel well protected in Mankins and Cannon, plus having 2nd year prospect R. J. Mattes on a futures contact and swing tackle Will Svitek on the speed dial as an almost certain camp invitee...

...though one thing to monitor is the contract status of Solder, his rookie deal expiring at the conclusion of the 2014 season and, as one of the better left tackles in the league, he may command top money to remain with the team - so a developmental tackle such as Duvernay-Tardif, Furman's Dakota Dozier, or even Virginia's Morgan Moses or intriguing prospect Wesley Johnson out of Vanderbilt, who could really be something with a year of strength and conditioning at the pro level.

Despite the fact that Tom Brady was sacked 40 times in 2013, the blame can be spread around quite liberally, particularly pointing towards the inexperience amongst the receivers in the Patriots' system making the line have to hold their blocks longer coupled with Josh McDaniels' less-than-imaginative play calling being a big part of that.

Losing Vollmer didn't help, either, so while it's true that the Patriots' offensive line left us wanting more last season, it is equally true that help is probably already on the roster, to be supplemented by someone like Urschel in the draft.

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