Patriots Positional Preview: Can Dante Scarnecchia’s Return Help Fix O-Line?

As the New England Patriots count down the final days before training camp begins July 27, NESN.com is taking a position-by-position look at this year’s team. Next up: the offensive line.

The Patriots’ O-line was a disaster last season. There’s no sugarcoating that.

Injuries to Bryan Stork, Marcus Cannon, Tre’ Jackson, Shaq Mason, Sebastian Vollmer and, most importantly, Nate Solder stretched New England far too thin up front, and a downright miserable performance by the unit in the AFC Championship Game squashed the Pats’ Super Bowl aspirations and cost offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo his job.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hFFZws3Apbo

After DeGuglielmo’s firing, which came one day after Von Miller and the eventual champion Denver Broncos beat the stuffing out of quarterback Tom Brady, head coach Bill Belichick wasted no time in dialing up an old friend: Dante Scarnecchia, who coached New England’s O-line for 15 years before retiring in 2013.

Within weeks, Scarnecchia was back on the job, tasked with turning around what was the Patriots’ weakest position group in 2015.

How tough will that job be? Well, a lot depends on health.

Solder, who was lost for the year in Week 5, and Vollmer, who was forced to play out of position for much of last season, both are solid to above-average tackles and roster locks. New England also has two viable options at center in Stork and David Andrews, who proved to be a surprisingly effective fill-in last season as an undrafted rookie. The Patriots haven’t yet lost a game started by Andrews, going a perfect 11-0.

The guard position, meanwhile, is more of a question mark. Mason, Jackson, Josh Kline, newcomer Jonathan Cooper (acquired in the Chandler Jones trade), third-round draft pick Joe Thuney and sixth-round pick Ted Karras all will battle for reps during camp, and Stork can play anywhere on the line in a pinch.

The group must quickly get its act together, however, as it’ll be protecting an inexperienced quarterback for the first four weeks of the season.

QUICK HITTERS
— Neither Jackson (knee) nor Kline (shoulder) participated in any of the organized team activities or minicamp practices that were open to the media. Their status for Week 1 remains to be seen.

— For what it’s worth, the folks over at Pro Football Focus see brighter days ahead for the Patriots’ line. The site dubbed the unit the 18th-best in the NFL in its preseason positional rankings, a seven-spot improvement over last season.

“The Patriots’ offensive line was a frequent topic of conversation last season due to their ever-changing combinations,” PFF’s Nate Jahnke wrote. “While they had one of the worst lines in 2015, things should get a little better in 2016 with the return of Nate Solder, which pushes Sebastian Vollmer back to right tackle. On the interior, Josh Kline played well as a run-blocker last season. Even if just one or two of their young interior linemen can improve, those players can win starting jobs and help this unit move up the ranking.”

The Patriots trotted out 41 different O-line combinations last season, per Pro Football Focus, far and away the most of any NFL team.

— Stork was ejected from one offseason practice for fighting with defensive lineman Woodrow Hamilton.

“It’s an intense game, so it happens,” Cooper said of the scuffle. “But honestly, it’s just work. Just continue to work and realize that sometimes (tempers) may flare, but handle it to the best of your ability on your field and not doing anything out of regulation.”

Cooper, the seventh overall pick in 2013 NFL Draft, is looking for a fresh start in Foxboro after failing to live up to his lofty draft status in three seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.

Check back in the days leading up to Patriots training camp for preview of each position. Here’s the full schedule:

Tuesday, July 12: Defensive line
Wednesday, July 13: Defensive ends/linebackers
Thursday, July 14: Safeties
Friday, July 15: Cornerbacks

Monday, July 18: Running backs
Tuesday, July 19: Offensive line
Wednesday, July 20: Wide receivers
Thursday, July 21: Tight ends
Friday, July 22: Quarterbacks

Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images

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