Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Patriots' Camp Preview: Nasty Changes Coming Along Offensive Line

Editor's note:  The following article appeared originally as a contribution on FirstStopFantasy.com..

Many fans have never heard of the Madden Most Valuable Protectors Award.

Which is too bad, because short of an individual player receiving a Pro Bowl invite or being selected to the NFL's All Pro team, it is the only award that recognizes excellence among offensive linemen - but while the Pro Bowl and All Pro teams recognize players who are best at their individual position, the Madden Award is centered on the play of a team's entire offensive line.

And with the New England Patriots known for eschewing individual accomplishments to focus on the success of the team, there could be no higher praise for the Patriots' "Big Uglies".

Presented annually by former Oakland Raiders' coach John Madden to the best offensive line in the NFL, the 102 pound trophy once resided in Foxborough - after the 2010 season when four of the five current starters along the Patriots' offensive line helped the offense become the highest scoring in the league and allowed just 25 sacks while finishing in the top 10 in total yards and rushing yards...

...and finishing the following year as the runners up to the New Orleans Saints - but despite the best efforts of the coaching staff, the line began to erode, sometimes due to injury, but mostly because the Patriots were relying on try-hard interior brutes that were serviceable, but athletically limited....

...and if 2013 taught us anything, it is that serviceable and athletically limited just aren't going to cut it any longer.

Segregated from the players that are tasked with advancing the football by the words "Skill Position", offensive linemen are generally looked upon as interchangeable parts, and the salaries paid to them - despite playing what are some of the most physically demanding positions on the field - play into that generalization.

But just like any other position, players that are drafted to play along the offensive line fit into a tight rookie pay scale and have their opportunity after their rookie contracts expire to earn a pay raise - but in turn they are also still vulnerable to that same rookie pay scale, as the scale itself promotes turnover at the positions every four years.

Some, such as left guard Logan Mankins and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, have risen above that bias toward the cheap and earned significant pay raises as tenured veterans, and left tackle Nate Solder will be in line for a protracted pay increase after he plays out his team option in 2015...

...even some undrafted free agents find their way into the millionaire's club by working their way into the starting lineup and playing through injury.  Either way it happens, linemen earn every penny of their pay - and all one has to do is to look at the Patriots' salary cap to understand how much they value the men who battle in the trenches.

The incumbent linemen from last season hold down five of the top twenty salaries on the team, and if you add in other positions on the team that typically engage in hand-to-hand combat along the line of scrimmage - tight ends and defensive linemen - that number doubles, but when being just serviceable and athletically limited come into play, the salary structure becomes skewed.

So it doesn't take a genius to figure out why coach Bill Belichick cashed in three of his draft chips for offensive linemen in May's draft, all of them at positions where the team can simply use an upgrade and/or quality depth, with the potential for significant salary cap savings as well.

Individually, there is nothing remarkable about any of the draft picks, as all were projected third day selections, but as we know from studying the Erhardt-Perkins' offensive philosophy, there is no random pick that Belichick hopes will fit the scheme, he selects players from a very shallow pool of players that he feels, from long experience, will be successful it.

With that said, what exactly are we supposed to think when Belichick takes three surly-tempered behemoths with consecutive picks between the 4th and 6th rounds, with only an ankle-breaking, potential three-down running back breaking the trend - and particularly when every one of them came from schools that employ multiple man/zone blocking schemes?

The competition along the offensive line in training camp is positioned to be the most spirited in recent memory, with incumbent center Ryan Wendell and lunchpail-type right guard Dan Connelly particularly in focus, as their play in 2013 dropped off significantly from their previous campaigns, only two years removed from being part of what was considered one of the best offensive lines in the game.

Wendell is simply undersized at 6' 2" and 300 pounds, and while his run blocking is still exceptional, he has become increasingly exposed in pass protection, unable at times to properly anchor and getting shoved around at the pivot by bigger nose tackles - and where quarterbacks have this thing about not being able to throw the football effectively with large human beings impeding their line of sight, or even knocking them on their butts, this is a bad thing.

In fact, things got so bad that Brady started calling more and more play action out of the stretch, which enabled the mostly immobile signal caller to set up shop to the left or right of center - and with a defensive lineman's natural instinct to rush toward the flow of the ball, the ploy set up double teams at the point with either Connolly or grizzled veteran Logan Mankins providing the bracket.

As the weather turned ugly and cold, Wendell's deficiencies in pass protection became masked somewhat as the Patriots turned to their power running game and rendering the opposing defensive line to a less aggressive posture and giving him an extra split second to anchor.

But despite the late success, Wendell was absolutely mauled in the AFC Championship Game in freakish 60 degree weather in Denver, when New England's receiving corps were so broken that the Broncos simply lined up in their base defense to stop the run and dared Brady to pass - and when he did, he took a brutal beating from the interior pass rush.

If the Patriots are to move past this ugly trend, health and balance on offense is paramount - but neither of these are guaranteed and Belichick just can't afford to take that chance.  Changes have to be made.

Connolly is actually a better option at center - he took over at the pivot when Dan Koppen went down with a broken ankle in 2011and performed well enough to allow the team to cut Koppen in training camp the following season - but when enigmatic right guard Brain Waters refused to report to Patriots' training camp after a Pro Bowl season in 2012, Connolly was forced to slide to the right, and Wendell took over at center.

That's the way the line has looked since, with twin 6' 8", 320 pound Pro Bowl-quality tackles in Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer, the perennial All Pro Mankins manning left guard and the combination of Wendell and Connolly accounting for the the rest of the interior...

...and while the team already has a potential starter in Marcus Cannon to plug in at right guard so Connolly could slide back to center, Cannon is much too valuable a swing tackle and capable interior reserve to be tied down to one spot, though he did a yeoman's job in filling in for Vollmer after the right tackle broke his leg halfway through the season.

Second year man Josh Kline flashed enough promise in filling in for Mankins late last year that the team is probably comfortable with him being the top option at the guard positions - so with depth along the line mostly set, Belichick went after players in the draft that he feels are going to be replacements for his incumbents at center and right guard.

Wendell is almost certainly gone, although Belichick signed him to a very tenuous contract with minimal guarantees at the start of the free agency process as insurance in the event that he couldn't get his targeted center at a position of value in the draft - but he did in Florida State's Bryan Stork.

The 6' 4", 315 pound Stork is a solid anchor with his football IQ and leadership qualities off the charts, and the fact that he took first team reps during OTA's and minicamp is compelling.  Of course, when the pads go on in training camp it will be the first look at him exerting his physicality, so he is still a bit of an unknown to the pro game and the Patriots' offense, but chances are he will be the starting center in Week 1.

Connolly has a better chance of sticking on the roster, though his value to the team will probably be as an experienced back up to both Stork and Florida rookie Jon Halapio at right guard - but Connolly's cap hit could trump his value somewhat, and if Halapio turns out to be the player Belichick desires at the position, Connolly could find himself being released as well.

In that scenario, he would be a candidate to be resigned to a more cap friendly contract - but he would have to clear waivers for that to happen, and chances are that his experience would preclude that and he would end up elsewhere - regardless, Halapio is an absolute mauler with mad strength at the point of attack and really dim view of his opponent.

As far as health is concerned, the one true concern is with Vollmer at right tackle, as his chronic back issues took a back seat to gruesome broken leg last season - and though Cannon was reliable as a backup, his rookie contact is up after this season - So as insurance for both, Belichick drafted Stanford tackle Cameron Fleming.

Fleming is huge, but has the potential to get even bigger.  His mild-mannered disposition belies his intelligence - he says he's looking forward to "Geeking out" with fellow aeronautics fan, offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels - but he is a certified road grader that probably has a year to add more muscle and to develop a nastier temperament.

The Erhardt-Perkins offense has been noted as the original "Ground and Pound", and while there are as many variations of the philosophy as there are coaches running it, they are all predicated on Erhardt's axiom that for a team to be successful on offense, they must "Pass to score, run to win".

What Erhardt meant by this is that he wanted his offense to gain a lead quickly utilizing the passing game, then run the equivalent of the four minute offense - a run-heavy concept that utilizes short, high percentage passes as an extension of the running game...

...and while the personnel packages change among the "skill" players and quarterback Tom Brady can audible to put these players in position to create potential mismatches, the lone constant in this concept has to be the intelligence of the linemen and the quality of their play, or else nothing else really matters.

The Patriots are loaded in these "Skill" positions - pass catchers and running backs - but questions remain along the offensive line.  If those questions are answered in camp, look for Wendell and Connolly to be released early enough to have a shot at making another team's roster, with Connolly potentially returning at a reduced salary.

This is Part four of what will eventually be a nine part series previewing the New England Patriots' upcoming training camp, with part five focusing on the pass catchers, while parts six, seven and eight look at the defense. Part nine will cover special teams.

Next up, how the changes in philosophy impact the pass catchers in training camp. 

In case you missed them, be sure to go back and read the first three pieces:

Part 1: Kraft's Business Sense, Belichick's Comittment Keys to Patriots' Way 
Part 2: Offensive Philosophy Grounded in History 
Part 3: Running Back Competition Wide Open

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