This is the fifth in a series of position-by-position looks at the Patriots' personnel entering the 2011 offseason. Today, we analyze New England's offensive line situation.
Overview: The veteran offensive line had another stellar season, paving the way for the league's ninth-best rushing attack and No. 1 scoring offense. The unit allowed just 25 sacks, good for fourth best in the league.
And they had success despite some shuffling. Dan Connolly began the season at left guard while the team waited for Logan Mankins to sign his tender. When Mankins reported, Stephen Neal was placed on injured reserve, putting Connolly back in the lineup at the ORG spot.
Early on, the O-line struggled to protect Tom Brady in the red zone. In the span of three games (Weeks 4-7, Week Five was a bye), Brady was sacked 10 times. But in the next five games, he only hit the turf a combined three times.
With linemen aging and OLT Matt Light set to be a free agent, the unit could get younger next season, and the team could use a high draft pick on a tackle or guard.
Here's a breakdown of each of the offensive linemen on the roster:
OLT Matt Light: The veteran reached the Pro Bowl in 2010 and returned to form after some struggles. Light gave up a couple sacks early on, but toughened up, having a solid game against the Steelers in a big win for the Pats. A free agent, Light might receive a one-year deal from the Patriots to return, and there is a chance he goes elsewhere. But after his solid finish to the season, he should remain in New England.
OLG Logan Mankins: The Patriots gained almost 19 more rushing yards per game with Mankins in the lineup, and the team knows his value. The Pats placed the franchise tag on him, something he did not want, but they did so with the intent of signing a long-term deal, like they did with NT Vince Wilfork last offseason. Mankins is one of the best guards in the league and the Pats would be best served to give him a long-term, lucrative contract.
C Dan Koppen: Koppen has now snapped the ball for the Patriots since 2003, starting all 16 games in 2010 for the third consecutive season. The 31-year-old veteran isn't going anywhere, but probably has just a couple seasons left before retirement.
OG Dan Connolly: Out of nowhere, Connolly stepped up and started 13 games for New England, at left guard for Mankins and then switching to right guard to finish the season. His season will be most remembered for his 71-yard kickoff return that set up a score against the Packers. Connolly was also the team's fullback in short-yardage situations, and provides versatility that head coach Bill Belichick likes in his O-linemen. He could battle for a starting spot if everyone returns next season.
ORG Stephen Neal: Neal, who contemplated retirement prior to the 2010 season, played in just eight games before landing on injured reserve with a shoulder injury. He has played only one full season in his career (’05) and could retire this offseason.
ORT Sebastian Vollmer: The heir apparent to Light at left tackle, Vollmer had a solid season, but some observers believed it wasn't as good as his rookie campaign. Nonetheless, if Light does not get re-signed, Vollmer likely will move over to the blind side in 2011, a position he could be at for the Pats for years to come.
OG Ryan Wendell: In his second season, Wendell appeared in 15 games with two starts, mostly contributing on special teams. When Neal was out and Connolly was the team's right guard, Wendell would fill in for Connolly in short-yardage situations. He had his contract extended through 2011. Wendell could factor into the offensive line in the future as the older players move on.
OT Nick Kaczur: Kaczur was supposed to challenge for the OLG position before the season with Mankins out, but he injured his back and didn't play in 2010, going on injured reserve. In the previous five seasons, Kaczur started at least nine games, and like most of his O-line teammates, has the versatility to play guard or tackle. If healthy, he will factor into the mix next season, especially if Light and Neal don't return.
OT Quinn Ojinnaka: Acquired from the Falcons for a seventh-round pick, Ojinnaka played in eight games, mainly on special teams. Belichick likes Ojinnaka's versatility, but he is expected to be a free agent and is expendable.
OT Mark LeVoir: LeVoir played in al 16 games with two starts in 2008, but saw his games played drop to six last season. He has some versatility on the line but is a reserve.
OG Rich Ohrnberger: A reserve, Ohrnberger has been active for only five games in his career.
Bottom line: As solid as this unit was in 2010, there could be some flux for ’11, but Belichick has plenty of depth and a first-round draft pick could be added to the mix. There's a chance that the five O-linemen that trot onto the field on opening day in 2011 are the same that we saw (with Mankins) last season: Light, Mankins, Koppen, Neal and Vollmer. But if Light doesn't get re-signed and Neal retires, things could change substantially. A team would have to give up a couple first-rounders to get Mankins, so unless he holds out again, he will be the left guard.
Belichick has Connolly and Kaczur, two players with significant starting experience, and both could be battling for a starting job. Drafting an offensive lineman with Belichick's desired versatility is still an expectation for the Patriots in April's draft, especially considering the depth of O-line prospects.