Editor?s note: NESN.com will go position by position to break down the Patriots? depth chart heading into the 2015 offseason. Next up: the offensive line.
When the New England Patriots traded Logan Mankins before the start of the 2014 season, all hopes of improving the offensive line should have been dashed.
The Patriots weren’t content to abide by that thinking, so they tried to prove that they could upgrade their offensive line and not depend on veteran mainstays by any means necessary.
It didn’t work.
The Patriots experimented by starting Jordan Devey, Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming at guard with various degrees of failure, before settling and realizing that Ryan Wendell was their best option at right guard, and their offensive line would not be better than it was in 2013.
Wendell was one of the team’s most consistent blockers after he regained his starting role, and the Patriots’ willingness to accept defeat helped turn the season around.
2015 DEPTH CHART: Nate Solder, Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming, Josh Kline, Jordan Devey, Chris Barker, Caylin Hauptmann
2015 FREE AGENTS: Dan Connolly
Connolly was a captain in 2014, and he carried a $4.083 million cap hit. He was hampered by injures and had his second consecutive shaky season. In order to come back to the Patriots, the 32-year-old Connolly likely will need to take a pay cut, and his starting job shouldn’t be guaranteed.
The Patriots’ decision to lock up Cannon to a two-year, $9 million extension this season was an odd one, but it might have showed their hand regarding the future of Fleming, a college right tackle. The experiment of moving Cannon to guard was a failure, so he will be the team’s swing tackle for the next two seasons.
The Patriots used Fleming at guard multiple times in 2014, and the transition didn’t go smoothly, but the rookie had never played the position before.
With a full offseason to work on improving at guard, perhaps Fleming can complete for a starting role next season. The Patriots also should spend an early draft pick on an offensive lineman.
The Patriots’ best course of action should be to do what they did in 2005, when they selected Logan Mankins in the first round. Mankins was a college left tackle who they successfully converted to left guard.
Starting left tackle Nate Solder is a free agent in 2016, so drafting a player who can play either tackle or guard would be valuable. Solder had an up-and-down 2014 season, and the Patriots will have to decide over the next 12 months if he’ll be worth keeping long-term. The Patriots have shown a willingness to use a first-round pick on a college tackle, but they’ve never used a high pick on a college interior lineman.
For the short term, the Patriots are set at left tackle, center and right tackle, with Solder, Stork and Vollmer, and they could have a training-camp competition between Wendell, Fleming, a rookie and Connolly, if he comes back as a free agent, for the two starting guard spots.
The Patriots will be fine if they are forced to start the same line that they used in 2014 — they won a Super Bowl, after all. But hopes are much higher that the offensive line can and should improve in 2015 with some new blood injected in the group.