As a rookie, Bryan Stork became an absolutely vital part of New England’s offensive line. (Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
As training camp approaches, we’ll offer a position-by-position breakdown of the 2015 Patriots. We started with the wide receivers and moved on to the tight ends. Now, it’s the offensive line.
Depth chart: David Andrews (rookie), Tre Jackson (rookie), Chris Barker, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming, Caylin Hauptmann, Josh Kline, Shaq Mason (rookie), Bryan Stork, Ryan Wendell, Jordan Devey, Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer.
THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. While there are other players with more experience in the system, the new leader of the line is Bryan Stork. The FSU product, who remains the spiritual descendent of Logan Mankins (right down to the occasionally questionable facial hair, the nasty attitude and preternatural skill set), stepped into the center spot last year as a rookie and immediately stabilized the line. There were some durability issues as the season went on (he missed the AFC title game with a knee injury, and he was actually listed as questionable in the days leading up to the Super Bowl), but he was far and away the pick for New England’s Rookie of the Year in 2014. As long as he stays healthy, there’s no reason to think that Stork won’t be the Patriots’ franchise center for the next decade.
2. Nate Solder probably deserves a pass for any issues he may have had last season. The left tackle out of Colorado appeared to struggle at times over the course of 2014, but still managed to hold up well while protecting Tom Brady‘s blind side over the course of the season, and earned his first Super Bowl ring along the way. But in hindsight, the news that he had been treated for testicular cancer last spring means he fundamentally gets a mulligan for what happened in 2014. Bottom line? Solder isn’t the sort to make excuses, but we’ll give him an out here. Given a clean bill of health, we fully expect Solder to return to the same high-level status he enjoyed over the course of his first three seasons in the NFL.
3. While there are some questions about how he reacts under pressure, Tom Brady still remains really good at gauging the state of the New England offensive line. We’ve hit on this many times over the last few years, but it’s tough trying to quantify good 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, so it takes time to find the best combinations. While the Patriots were going through those issues at the start of the 2014 season, one of the things that appeared to help turn things around (in addition to the evolution of Stork) was a concerted effort from Brady to speed up his release times. It’s important to remember that things vary from week-to-week depending on opponent, scheme and personnel, but looking at Brady’s release times over the course of the 2014 season, it was clear that getting the ball out fast in the passing game was a real point of emphasis for the New England offense. (For a deeper dive into those numbers from last season, check out Ryan Hannable’s excellent story here.)
1. How are the Patriots going to replace Dan Connolly? The retirement of Connolly likely opens the door for one of the youngsters — either Jackson or Shaq Mason — to step in immediately at the left guard position. Jackson is probably more prepared for the gig, as he worked more at guard over the course of his college career in the Florida State offense, while Mason was a guard for a run-based scheme at Georgia Tech. At the same time, don’t discount the versatility that some of the already established veterans have in the system, including Ryan Wendell (last year’s starting right guard can play both guard spots, as well as center), Marcus Cannon (who has played both guard and tackle in his professional career) and Cameron Fleming (who played tackle last year, but has reportedly spent time this offseason working out at guard). There are lots of questions here, and hopefully, things will become clearer this summer.
2. Where will Cameron Fleming end up playing? The 6-foot-6, 325-pounder out of Stanford is one of many versatile New England offensive linemen. He played tackle in college, but served as an extra lineman/tight end/tackle eligible several times over the course of the 2014 campaign, most notably in the November win over the Colts where he had a remarkable 37 snaps at the position. His presence brought a physical edge to the Patriots’ offensive line, allowing New England to bully the Indy run defense to the tune of a season-high 246 rushing yards as a team. Looking forward, he could serve as the backup swing tackle. There’s also the possibility he figures into the mix for one of the guard positions. Regardless, his performance as a rookie could portend an even bigger role in some capacity in 2015.
3. Is there a need to bring in anyone else between now and the start of the season? Given the fact that they used a pair of draft picks on Mason and Jackson on a line where there are four established starters and a few backup candidates who have some experience in the system, it’s unlikely New England will actively pursue any other offensive linemen between now and the start of the season. That’s not to suggest that they would turn away an established veteran who might drop into their lap (as was the case with Brian Waters in 2011), but at this point, things appear pretty well set up front for the New England offensive line.
By the numbers (courtesy of Ryan Hannable): Here’s a look at the 2014 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
Key new player: While you could make a real argument for Jackson (who was Stork’s teammate at Florida State), our pick here is with Mason. The Georgia Tech product carved out a rep as one of the best run blockers in college football last year. (Of course, he was working in one of the run-heaviest offenses in the game in 2014.) But the 6-foot-1, 300-pounder apparently showed a tremendous leap in his pass blocking skills in his week at the Senior Bowl, and it’s reasonable to think that his performance there played a role in New England going after him in the fourth round this past spring. We speculated on this shortly after he was drafted, but given his skill set and the state of the New England offensive line, perhaps Mason will follow the same rookie path as Fleming. While Fleming was mostly a tackle who worked as an extra tight end on occasion ‘ he also played some right guard ‘ his presence in the lineup usually signaled a run-heavy approach for the Patriots. Given Mason’s background as a run blocker and his potential positional versatility, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him get work as a situational run blocker as a rookie while he continues to hone his pass-blocking skills. Throw in some work as an all-around backup for the likes of Stork and Wendell and (perhaps) Jackson, and you have a full set of responsibilities for Mason at the NFL level.
The skinny: Last year, it was a bumpy transition for New England’s offensive line, as the Patriots not only made the coaching switch from Dante Scarnecchia to Dave DeGuglielmo, they traded stalwart left guard Logan Mankins just before the start of the season, all while trying to incorporate a rookie into the mix at center. As a result, it was hardly a shock that the group started as slowly as it did. While there will be things to keep an eye on over the course of the summer, including the Mason/Jackson combo, as well as the evolution of Stork and the health of veterans like Vollmer, Solder and Wendell, the start to the 2015 season should be nowhere near as dramatic.