The position I’m most interested in during Patriots’ training camp and preseason is the offensive line. They need to vastly improve from what they had on the field at the end of last season and I’m not confident they did so through free agency or the draft.
The team does get better with Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder returning from injury to replace Marcus Cannon and Cameron Fleming, who were torched by Denver in the AFC Championship. I’m comfortable with Vollmer and Solder at tackle and, more importantly, I think Tom Brady is too.
The big question is the interior of the line. New England has a few pieces returning from last year in Tre Jackson, Shaq Mason, Bryan Stork and David Andrews. They also added a couple by acquiring Jonathan Cooper from the Cardinals and drafting Joe Thuney.
So we have six players fighting for three crucial spots because it doesn’t matter how many targets Brady has, he can’t hit them if he’s on the ground.
The reason why this position is so intriguing is because we know and have seen little of all six players.
The x-factor in the group is Cooper, who was a hot commodity coming out of North Carolina in the 2013 NFL Draft but has never lived up to the hype. Arizona thought he was good enough to use the No. 7 pick overall on (making him the highest drafted guard since Jim Dombrowski in 1986), and the Patriots thought he was good enough to trade away Chandler Jones for him.
Obviously some people see a lot of potential in him, and hopefully returning offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia can help him reach it.
Another wild card is Thuney, who is said to have performed well at OTAs and is being compared to Logan Mankins. He won a bunch of awards in college, which mean nothing, just look at Cooper. Maybe the most impressive thing about him right now is he can solve a Rubik’s Cube in less than a minute.
Go figure, the Patriots draft a thinking man for the OL.
I’m fine with either Stork or Andrews at center. I’d give the edge to Stork, who came into his own during the 2014 championship run. Andrews was a surprise last year as an undrafted free agent and a solid player. Then there are Jackson and Mason, both young and relatively untested. I haven’t seen or heard enough on them to cast judgement so I’ll wait to see what they do in training camp.
As far as I’m concerned, the road to the Super Bowl still goes through Denver. If the Patriots want to beat the Broncos they need an offensive line that can at least slow down the Denver pass rush.
There’s still time to sign free agents, but with what they have to work with I’d like to see the Patriots go with Vollmer and Solder at tackle, Thuney and Cooper at guard and Stork at center.