Brady’s Back, But Who Will Be Protecting Him?

Assuming Tom Brady's surgically repaired knee is ready to go on Sept. 14, the very big responsibility of keeping it safe will belong to five very big men.

Who, exactly, will make up that group is not yet determined. While mainstays like Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Stephen Neal and Dan Koppen will no doubt be Brady's first line of protection, rookie Sebastian Vollmer will make training camp interesting at the right tackle position.

The fact that Mankins, Neal and Nick Kaczur are all in the final years of their contracts will only add to the intrigue.

While the story lines on the offensive line don't generate the buzz of, say, a quarterback at a golf tournament, they are unquestionably important. One of the oldest football realities is that the guys doing the dirty work the best are the ones least likely to make the paper the following morning.

And with the return of the Golden Boy, this year's unit is as significant as ever.

Light, a 2001 draft pick, will once again anchor the line. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder has proven to be extremely durable throughout his career, playing in all 16 games in six of the past seven seasons (he missed 13 games in 2005 with a broken fibula). Light is known as one of the best left tackles in the NFL, and at 31 years old, the Patriots have reason to believe he's not yet on the decline. They also, however, don't mind having the 24-year-old Vollmer around to learn a thing or two from Light.

Though Kaczur has been in the system for four years, the team appears to be high on Vollmer, who was drafted 58th overall in this year's draft. A relative giant, the 6-foot-8, 315-pound Vollmer hails from Germany and did not start playing football until he was 14 years old.

It's likely that Kaczur will be the starter on the right side to begin the season, but depending on Vollmer's development and the constant threat of injuries, it wouldn't be surprising to see Vollmer thrust into game situations early in his career.

Among the other ironmen on the line are center Dan Koppen and guard Logan Mankins. Koppen has averaged more than 14 starts per year since 2003, while Mankins has started all 64 regular-season games since being drafted in 2005. Meanwhile, former wrestler Stephen Neal has proven to be a worthy member of one of football's best offensive lines.

The team will also have fourth-round draft pick Rich Ohrnberger in camp, ready to see what the funny man can do in the NFL. Playing at both guard and center at Penn State, Ohrnberger showed versatility that could prove valuable enough to earn a roster spot with the Pats.

With as strong a unit as there is in the league, the Patriots look to be in a good position heading into camp. And with the game's best quarterback returning to his spot behind it, they could be better than ever.

Who's hot?
George Bussey

Fifth-round pick George Bussey has agreed to a four-year deal with the Patriots, according to Mike Reiss of the Boston Globe. The versatile offensive lineman turned down a scholarship to culinary school for the chance to play at Louisville.

Who's not?
Patrick Chung

The safety out of Oregon was left out of the rookie signing barrage of early July. But despite the delay in signing, there's no reason at this point to believe the Pats' No. 1 pick will hold out of training camp.

Quote of the week
"The hardest hit I ever took was when I was with San Diego, when I hit Jermaine Lewis … [a] little bitty return guy. And I absolutely demolished him coming across the middle. It was on a deep in-route. Yeah, I destroyed him. But when I woke up, the whole stadium was spinning around for, like, five minutes. I stayed in the game, but, I mean, that was probably one of the most vicious hits I had that hurt me! The ironic part about it was he was only 180 pounds. I hit him so hard, I knocked myself silly.”
–Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, to Patriots.com, on his hardest hit

What to watch for
The first step toward kicking off the new season is approaching quickly. On the morning of July 30, the first practice session of training camp will take place, and it will be open to the public. Admission and parking will be free, as will admittance to "Patriots Experience," a football-themed playground for kids. The full schedule can be seen by visiting the Patriots' official Web site.

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