Marcus Cannon could get a chance to be a big part of the Patriots offensive line this season. (Getty Images)
Much was made of what the Patriots were going to do with the departure of Logan Mankins to Tampa Bay. Josh Kline got the start at left guard Thursday in the preseason finale and looked strong for the most part, with the exception of getting bull-rushed twice that left him on the ground.
Bill Belichick spoke glowingly about Marcus Cannon on Friday in a conference call, leading to speculation that one might see a line of Nate Solder, Cannon, Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly and Sebastian Vollmer to start the season.
There’s also the possibility that Jordan Devey could see action on the interior at either guard position.
The offensive line in front of Tom Brady has seen its fair share of transition over the years. From Matt Light to Nate Solder at left tackle, and Dan Koppen to Dan Connolly at center, there has always been player movement along the line and somehow Tom Brady manages to still run one of the best offenses in football.
But Brady enters this season with more doubt about who will be helping to protect his blind side. Belichick offered some perspective Sunday, reminding everyone that it’s not necessarily the five best individuals on the line but the best working unit that he’s looking for to protect Brady and provide the holes for the running game.
“I think in the end you want to get your, not necessarily your best five athletes, but the best line that you can put out there,” Belichick said. “That group has a lot of responsibility in terms of protecting the quarterback and protecting the running backs and giving your team an opportunity to move the ball consistently. So, whatever that is, I think you always want your best group out there. That may be your best players, there may be situations where you might have a better player that’s not in there but the position doesn’t fit.”
Belichick also spoke highly of two defensive players who enjoyed good camps and strong preseasons to earn a roster spot, third-year linebacker Darius Fleming out of Notre Dame and rookie undrafted corner Malcolm Butler. Fleming and Butler played in all four preseason games. Fleming showed his value in special teams and as an outside linebacker, with 13 tackles. Butler might have had the most impressive camp of any of the rookie undrafted free agents, amassing 15 tackles (14 solo) and stripping the ball and recovering a fumble all in one play late against the Eagles.
“Darius had an unfortunate start to his career in San Francisco; good player at Notre Dame,” Belichick said. “[He's a] good outside linebacker, defensive end, edge setter, pass rusher and went out to San Francisco hurt his knee and came back the next year after the repair and that gave out. So he had the same procedure on the same knee twice and when they released him we felt fortunate to get him. He’s been able to manage well through camp; got a lot of reps. He’s played well for us, both outside and at times inside and in some occasions as a rusher. So, he’s got some versatility, smart kid, works hard, tough kid. He came from a good program at Notre Dame. He fit into the team and contributed on a number of areas on defense and in the kicking game.”
“Malcolm is kind of the reverse of that. West Alabama, there were a couple players that we looked at down there [and] ending up not signing after the draft. [We] brought him up for our rookie minicamp and [he] showed us some things there and he’s continued to work hard and improve through camp. Big jump, lot to learn and he’s worked hard at it. He’s gotten a lot of snaps in the preseason. I think those plays have helped him and he’s a young player that’s continued to improve through camp.”
Whether it’s Notre Dame (like Fleming) or South Alabama (like Butler), Belichick said Sunday that it’s important not to prejudge a particular player’s ceiling in the NFL based solely on where he played in college.
“I’ve seen a number of examples through my coaching career of situations ‘ some of the ones you described, players who have had great college careers, great college histories, great programs, high individual performances, great teamwork and captains and all those kind of things and for whatever reason it just doesn’t translate to this, to the NFL game. Some of that is the difference in scheme, some of that is the difference in the level of competition.
“But sometimes it just doesn’t translate and then there are other times where for whatever the circumstances are players end up in different college programs that aren’t some of the elite programs in college football, for whatever the reasons are, or in some cases, Steve Neal or guys like that, end up with no college program and still end up to go on to have great pro careers.
“I’m not saying that Malcolm will or won’t, I’m just saying that we’ve seen those guys, there are a lot of examples of guys that had that and don’t have NFL careers too. But I think the most important thing for us, for our organization, is what the players do with the New England Patriots more so than what they do somewhere else, whether that’s with another NFL team or college team or whatever the other places are that we can evaluate them. How do they fit in for us and what do they do when they’re here? What’s their production? What’s their rate of improvement? That’s really what we try to go on is what happens when they’re here as opposed to what happens somewhere else.”