The quarterback section of NESN.com’s New England Patriots season preview was a lot more interesting four days ago.
Now that Tom Brady’s four-game suspension was vacated by U.S. District Court Judge Richard Berman, however, there isn’t a lot to discuss. Brady will start, Jimmy Garoppolo is the backup, and the Patriots might or might not elect to sign a third quarterback to take scout-team reps. The Patriots didn’t sign a third quarterback until Dec. 17 last season, when they added Garrett Gilbert to the practice squad.
Brady showed some signs of slowing down in 2013 and for the first four weeks of the 2014 season, but then he was back to his masterful self. We expect that dominance to continue this season.
The one thing that could slow Brady down, though, is his offensive line.
Part of the reason Brady got off to a slow start in 2014 is because the Patriots thought Marcus Cannon, Jordan Devey and Cameron Fleming were better guards than Ryan Wendell. One year later, Cannon is back at offensive tackle, while Devey — traded to the San Francisco 49ers — and Fleming — cut Sunday — are no longer on the Patriots’ roster.
Center Bryan Stork has been in and out of practice recently as he recovers from a reported concussion, so for now, we’ll assume he won’t play against the Pittsburgh Steelers, though that could change.
It’s tough to predict how the Patriots’ offensive line will look in Week 1 and beyond. Nate Solder will start at left tackle, Sebastian Vollmer will start at right tackle and Stork will be the center when healthy. Rookies Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson started all four preseason games at left guard and right guard, respectively, so it’s possible head coach Bill Belichick views them as regular-season starters, as well.
Jackson mostly played well in the preseason games and should start on the right side, while Mason struggled as both a run- and pass-blocker. That’s understandable and is definitely not a shot against the young guard, who has high upside once he picks up the Patriots’ pro-style techniques, but he didn’t look ready to protect Brady in a regular-season game.
Wendell should be the other starting guard, but he might have to play center to begin the season if Stork can’t go. Josh Kline would be next on the depth chart at left guard. He played well in the preseason and shined in the Patriots’ AFC Championship Game last season, when he started at right guard.
The Patriots also have undrafted free agent David Andrews, who started all four preseason games at center and also received work at guard in training camp, and Cannon, who backs up Solder and Vollmer, as depth. Michael Williams played offensive tackle before being traded by the Detroit Lions, but he wears No. 85 and is listed at tight end, his college position, with the Patriots. Williams could serve as an emergency tackle in a pinch.
The Patriots’ offensive line isn’t in as rough of shape as it was to begin the 2014 season, but that’s assuming the Patriots don’t roll with two rookie guards. One — preferably Jackson — is fine, but the combination of Mason, Jackson and Andrews had trouble opening holes in the running game during the preseason.
Starting Wendell at left guard is the right move when Stork comes back. Whether Belichick concurs is the question.
Coming this week:
Monday: Quarterbacks and offensive line preview
Tuesday: Offensive skill position preview
Wednesday: Front-seven preview
Thursday: Secondary preview
Thumbnail photo via David Butler II/USA TODAY Sports Images