The Patriots will be in better shape than most teams once the lockout officially makes its transition into the NFL's abbreviated offseason, but they've still got one significant question to sort through.
What will the offensive line look like in 2011?
The answer hinges on the fate of left tackle Matt Light and left guard Logan Mankins, who were each voted to the Pro Bowl last season and are also working through very different circumstances right now.
The 33-year-old Light is an unrestricted free agent who would almost certainly like to return to New England. He continued to speak of the Patriots in the present tense at a charity event in April, and the thinking is he would re-sign for a hometown discount.
The problem with that is two-fold. First of all, teams will have to meet a very strict salary floor this season, and that will cause a lot of teams to shell out exorbitant amounts of money to reach that and avoid league-mandated penalties. Since Light will be one of the three to five best left tackles on the market, it's not crazy to think he could be insanely overpaid due to the importance of his position.
Second, since the Patriots used their first-round draft pick on left tackle Nate Solder — who might be best served sitting for a season before starting in 2012 — Light might be less willing to sign a team-friendly deal. The Patriots could front-load it for the first season, but they might want an easy out in 2012. Even without that, Light probably wouldn't be interested in the strong possibility of fading onto the bench to take on a mentor role in 2012.
A month or two ago, I thought there was a strong chance Light would be back in New England, but the new cap developments have swayed my opinion in the other direction. Frankly, he'd have to turn down a whole lot of money to remain in New England, where his starting job would be anything but secure.
Mankins' case is much different because the Patriots slapped him with the franchise tag, which is expected to be worth about $10 million in 2011. Barring any unforeseen changes prior to the end of the lockout, the tag will hold up, and the Patriots will still retain Mankins' rights. Obviously, Mankins just wants to test free agency, and there's a good chance he'll hold out to try landing a contract extension. Otherwise, the Patriots might just try to trade him because they probably won't want to invest that type of cash in a guard for a single season.
There's another scenario, too. (Seriously, my head has never stopped spinning while trying to predict his fate for the last two years.) If the NFL adopts the rule that players can only be franchised once in their career, it would be wise for Mankins to sign his tender, show up, play out his contract and depart in 2012. But then again, it would be more surprising to see Mankins in camp than the alternative.
For this, let's assume Light accepts an exceptionally generous contract to play elsewhere, and Mankins is a no-show for the start of the season. If that's the case, Solder would likely start at left tackle, with Dan Connolly at left guard, Dan Koppen at center, Ryan Wendell at right guard and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. While there are still some things to determine after that, Marcus Cannon, Quinn Ojinnaka, Rich Ohrnberger and Mark LeVoir would be available off the bench. It was reported a few months ago that Nick Kaczur would be cut before training camp unless he planned to take a pay cut, which he apparently doesn't want to do.
If Mankins is in the mix, he would start at left guard with Connolly at right guard. There's also a possibility the Patriots could start Vollmer at left tackle and open up a competition at right tackle between Ojinnaka, LeVoir and a veteran free agent.
While there are a couple of major moving parts to sort through, the depth chart appears to be easy to decipher.
Jeff Howe will answer one Patriots-related question every day through Aug. 1.
Friday, July 22: Can the Patriots match their 14-2 mark in 2011?
Sunday, July 24: What's in store for Brandon Meriweather?