Ryan Wendell, Bryan Stork and Dan Connolly were all smiles by the end of the season. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
With the Patriots done for the season, we’ve got an end-of-the-year position-by-position breakdown of where the Patriots stand. We’ve looked at special teams, wide receivers, running backs, tight ends and quarterback. Now, it’s the offensive line:
Depth chart: Tackle Nate Solder, tackle Sebastian Vollmer, guard/center Dan Connolly, guard/center Ryan Wendell, center Bryan Stork, guard/tackle Marcus Cannon, guard/tackle Jordan Devey, guard Josh Kline, tackle Cameron Fleming,
Overview: It was a wildly up-and-down season for New England’s offensive line. After losing two mainstays — longtime position coach Dante Scarnecchia retired in the offseason and veteran guard Logan Mankins was default just before the start of the season — the group had to make some serious adjustments over the course of the year. But once he got fully healthy, the addition of rookie center Bryan Stork created some stabilization, and allowed veteran guards Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell to rotate back to areas of strength. And while Nate Solder struggled at times throughout the season, his fellow tackle on the other side — Sebastian Vollmer — continued to hold up well. (Vollmer was named to as a second-team All-Pro by Pro Football Focus.)
Few things are tougher than trying to quantify successful offensive line play — in many cases, you don’t necessarily need the five best pure linemen. Instead, it’s the five who work the best as a unit. As a result, it took some time to sort through what combinations worked and some didn’t. In addition, there was some getting used to the idea of not working with Scarnecchia and Mankins, two constants that had come to define the Patriots offensive line.
With the new group, there were struggles — big ones. The idea of an occasionally shaky left tackle and a rookie center hardly inspired confidence in the fan base. But the group grew and adjusted and evolved over the 2014 season, and while it was far from perfect most of the time (and Brady’s concerted efforts to get the ball out as fast as possible), it all worked. The bottom line is that while it’s always a little dicey to measure pass protection via sacks, Brady was sacked just 21 times in 2014 — almost half of the total he took in 2013 (40) and the lowest since 2009, when he was sacked 16 times overall. And while the running game wasn’t overwhelming (New England averaged 107.9 rushing yards per game, 18th in the league, while becoming the first team to win a Super Bowl without a back finish the season with 100 or more carries), the line cleared a path for the Patriots to top 100 yards on the ground on seven different occasions, including the postseason.
As is the case up and down the roster, the Patriots have to address some personnel/free agent questions. That includes the status of Connolly, who will hit the market this offseason. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see New England chase after an offensive lineman at the end of the first round, likely a guard who could step in next to Stork and continue to bolster Brady’s protection. Bill Belichick tied a personal mark last spring when he drafted three offensive linemen. (He selected three offensive linemen in one draft on one other occasion.) Expect him to equal that this year.
Best moment: The New England offensive line was fairly stout through one of the tougher stretches of the season — through the deadly six-game stretch against (mostly) division leaders that was supposed to sink the Patriots, Brady was sacked three times in all, and had enough time to complete 68 percent of his passes and fire 17 touchdowns and just five picks. In addition, New England averaged 116 yards per game on the ground through that six-game contest. Not bad for a team in desperate need of Richie Incognito.
Worst moment: The first four games. Brady was sacked nine times in all in the first quarter of the season, as the offense couldn’t gain any sort of traction through that stretch in large part because the offensive line was so wildly ineffective. In the first quarter of the season, Brady ended up with a 59 percent completion rate, and averaged just under 200 passing yards and one touchdown per game. As a team, the offense averaged just 20 points per game on the way to a ragged 202 start.
By the numbers (courtesy Ryan Hannable): Here’s a look at the final regular-season numbers for the New England offensive line with the starters and with any other combination:
– Solder, Connolly, Stork, Wendell, Vollmer (7-1 record) — Weeks 5, 8-14: Brady: 214-320 (66.9 percent), 2,433 yards, 21 TDs, 6 INTs, 103.6 QB rating, 4 sacks
– Any combination besides above (5-3 record) — Weeks 1-4, 6, 7, 15, 16: Brady: 160-263 (60.8 percent), 1,675 yards, 12 TDs, 3 INTs, 89.8 QB rating, 17 sacks
Money quote: “I understand how the media operates. I understand you all have a job to do. I was doing the same thing, if you will, in a little different way. But I understand that. Does it affect me, less or more because I did that? I don’t know if I could say that. … All I care about is that my men come out of a game like they did after last game and say, ‘Coach, I feel good. I’m healthy. We did it right. We had success.'” — offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo in early November after he and the rest of the offensive line struggled with a rough start, but managed to right the ship, getting healthy at the right time