It’s been a trying season for the New England Patriots’ offensive line, but the unit has withstood upheaval thanks to depth and innovation.
Going into training camp, the Patriots were expected to start Nate Solder at left tackle, Ryan Wendell at one guard spot, either Shaq Mason or Tre’ Jackson at the other guard role, Bryan Stork at center and Sebastian Vollmer at right tackle. Wendell stayed on the PUP list through most of training camp and dealt with an illness that further slowed his progress and pushed him down the depth chart to start the season, so the Patriots used Josh Kline as a swing guard and rotated Mason and Jackson on the left and right sides, respectively.
Stork suffered a concussion during training camp and was placed on short-term injured reserve to start the season with head and neck issues, forcing undrafted rookie David Andrews into a starting role. Andrews is the lone player on the Patriots’ offense to play every snap through seven games.
Solder tore his biceps in Week 5, and Marcus Cannon, who had been rotating at the left and right tackle spots, took on an every-down role. Cannon then hurt his toe in Week 6, inserting Cameron Fleming, who had just been signed off the practice squad, at right tackle while Vollmer moved over to the left side.
Mason hurt his knee in Week 6, so Kline and Jackson became every-down players at left and right guard, respectively, until Jackson hurt his knee in Week 8, when Wendell played right guard to finish the Patriots’ 36-7 win over the Miami Dolphins.
Suddenly looked like this:
Through it all, the Patriots have protected Brady well and gone 7-0 despite some shaky run blocking. And if there’s a silver lining to the issues at offensive line, it gave young players experience, and it appears as though Solder is the only permanent loss on the unit.
Stork can return from IR in Week 9 against the Washington Redskins, Mason has been practicing despite his knee injury, Jackson’s MRI on his knee came back negative, a source told the Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe, and Cannon’s toe injury was reportedly considered minor after it happened, though he hasn’t practiced since.
The Patriots have a difficult decision to make when Stork returns, however, and they might need to make it in the next week. Stork was solid as a rookie in the Patriots’ Super Bowl XLIX-winning season, but Andrews is holding up just as well this season. The Patriots likely will have to decide on a starter between the two, though they could choose the option of rotating centers.
Mason and Jackson’s knee injuries further complicate matters. If neither can play in Week 9, the Patriots could elect to start Kline and Wendell at guard. They could choose to move either Andrews or Stork to center, too. Andrews is a smaller player who’s been better as a pass blocker so far, which means he could project to left guard. He practiced at guard during training camp, but he never played the position in college.
Stork is a bigger, stronger, less athletic player, which means he could fit at right guard. He played left and right guard at Florida State but primarily was used as a center. If the Patriots expect Jackson to be out for a while, Stork could take over right guard duties, which would allow Andrews to stay at center.
Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels were inconclusive when asked if the Patriots would consider playing Stork or Andrews at center in conference calls Friday.
“The offensive line, (Stork and Andrews), they’ve both played the same position to this point,” Belichick said. “Could somebody play something else? Maybe. They haven’t, so if we did that, there would be a question. I’m not saying they couldn’t, but we haven’t really seen it yet. I think the first thing for Stork is just get him back on the field and get him practicing. That’s number one. So we took a step there a week ago, last week, as I said, we didn’t really practice at all for the Miami week. Hopefully physically he can be ready to go or more ready and we’ll just have to see how it all works out.”
This is a good problem to have, and with the way the Patriots have rotated offensive linemen over the past two seasons, it’s likely we’ll see everyone on the field at some point over the next few games. The Patriots invested a fourth-round draft pick in Stork last season, but injuries dating back to college are concerning. Andrews has far surpassed his undrafted status, but the Patriots might still view Stork as the higher upside player.
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images
Thumbnail photo via Aug 6, 2015; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots offensive guard Tre Jackson (63) with guard Josh Kline (67) and center Bryan Stork (66) during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports