The Patriots' offensive line took a lot of hits this season, but they played well as a unit despite the health concerns. And their best lineman, right guard Brian Waters, adjusted to a new position after getting signed before Week 1.
They mixed in a combination of young and old, and New England's ability to retain its veterans will be a key aspect in maintaining solidarity heading into 2012.
Offensive Linemen on Final Roster: Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly, Brian Waters, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Nick McDonald, Donald Thomas, Ryan Wendell, Matt Kopa (practice squad), Dan Koppen (injured reserve), Rich Ohrnberger (injured reserve), Kyle Hix (injured reserve).
Key Statistic: The Patriots allowed 32 sacks this season, which was tied for the ninth fewest in the NFL. They were 13th in rushing yards (1,764) and tied for third in rushing touchdowns (18).
Hot Topic: Waters has one year remaining on his contract, but he's going to consider whether or not to retire. The Patriots will have a backup plan, but Waters' decision will affect other areas along the line. Koppen and Connolly are also free agents, and it would be surprising to see Koppen playing in another uniform. But Connolly has proven he can start at all three interior positions, and if both Koppen and Waters return, Connolly would have every right to seek a more stable opportunity elsewhere.
From there, the Patriots like Wendell and Ohrnberger as backups, but the possibility exists that Cannon could play guard, which would be ideal due to his potential and the existence of Solder and Vollmer as the tackles of the future.
Waters' decision is important for two reasons. First, he's a heck of a player who the Patriots don't want to lose. Second, it will trigger a snowball effect with the other linemen on the roster.
Offseason Question: What will happen with Light?
Light also has another year left on his contract, and he played well again in 2011, making it look like he should return for his 12th season. But with a $3.4 million base salary and reported bonuses that could inflate his contract even more, the Patriots might usher in their wave of young tackles sooner than later. If injuries showed them anything in 2011, it's that the Patriots could afford the luxury of having three starting-caliber tackles on the roster, but they could also be comfortable enough to use Cannon as their primary backup next season.
Both Light and the organization will have to decide whether or not they belong together for a 12th season. It would make sense for him to return, but if Belichick is confident enough in Solder and Vollmer, the Patriots' third-longest currently tenured player could suit up somewhere else next season.
Postional Reviews: Defensive Line I