May 27, 2007
Solid Unit Will Be Staying A While
BY: Bob George/BosSports.net
Next in a series of positional analysis for the 2006 New England Patriots. Today: offensive line.
Face it, there's only one question here: Who starts at right tackle?
The Patriots are solid at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, but it's the defensive line which gets most of the props. With three first round draft picks on the defensive line, it's small wonder. But the Patriot offensive line remains perhaps one of the most underrated in the league, as well as one of the most efficient in the league.
The trio in the middle is right up there as one of the finest in the league. Locking up Dan Koppen at center through 2011 was one of the several bright spots in 2006 for the AFC runners-up. The former BC Eagle is stout and strong, as well as an excellent handler of blocking assignments. In many ways he is to the Patriots what Jason Varitek is to the Red Sox, as Koppen handles blocking assignments much like Varitek handles the pitching staff. Further underscoring his value was how much the team missed him in 2005 when he went down with that hip injury against Miami.
The Patriots are also well stocked at the guard position for the foreseeable future. Stephen Neal and Logan Mankins are both locked up through 2009, and these men, both collegiate products of the great central valley of California, do not draw the praise they deserve.
Mankins, from Catheys Valley, California and who attended Fresno State, is effective as long as he stays within himself and does not let his angry attitude get the better of him. It is well and good for players at this position to have a mean streak, but Mankins learned early on that getting thrown out of games is not in his team's best interests. Mankins is incredibly strong and needs to continue and develop his run blocking skills, which takes on greater import now that Corey Dillon is gone.
Neal, a product of San Diego who was a wrestling standout at CSU-Bakersfield (Neal must be thrilled that CSUB is now turning Division I, though football is not on the short list of new Roadrunner sports on the horizon), continues to amaze everyone with his development as a top-tier NFL guard. All-Pro status may yet await Neal some day, but he is still technically learning the game and improving with every outing. It is one thing to do what Tim Mazzetti and Vince Papale did, but Neal's development into a top NFL guard from a non-football college remains one of the most remarkable achievements in the NFL in the last several years.
Matt Light was also locked up long term not too long ago, signed through 2010. He carries the fifth highest cap number on the team at $4.75 million. But he anchors the all-important left side of the line, and keeps the bad guys away from Tom Brady. Still susceptible to speed rushers, Light has improved with each passing year and, with occasional tight end help, does good in protecting Brady. His quick wit around the locker room is also another positive facet of the former protector of Drew Brees at Purdue.
The one area where the Patriots really have to figure out what to do with is at right tackle. Both Nick Kaczur and Ryan O'Callaghan played Brandon Gorin out of a job, but who starts at right tackle is usually predicated upon the injury status of the other guy.
Kaczur (Toledo) was hurt early on last year, and rookie O'Callaghan (UC-Berkeley) began the year as the starter. He started six of the first seven games, then Kaczur started every game thereafter when O'Callaghan went down with an injury. When the year was over, neither man had established himself as the dominant starter, only that both men did well when they were in there, just not spectacular.
Both right tackle candidates need to stay healthy in 2007. And like the guards, both men need to improve their run blocking skills. Despite the Patriots loading up on receivers in the offseason, it will be even better for the offense if they are able to run the ball effectively. Whoever wins the right tackle job between these two guys will need to provide that "road grader" effect that right tackles are usually known for.
Depth is not abounding in this bunch. Other than Russ Hochstein, who started at guard in Super Bowl XXXVIII and who is versatile, there isn't much talent. Gene Mruczkowski comes and goes, and when he stays, he played in only one game last year for the Patriots. Wesley Britt and Billy Yates round out the benchwarmers, but they have yet to prove that they are solid backups. Long snapper Lonie Paxton will be talked about in the special teams installation.
The Patriots drafted three offensive linemen last month. They took tackle Clint Oldenburg out of Colorado State in the fifth round, tackle Corey Hilliard out of Oklahoma State in the sixth round, and guard Mike Elgin out Iowa with their final pick, in the seventh round. Oldenburg projects out as a guard and needs to gain more weight, Hilliard was brought in to the right tackle mix (though he also does not possess the proper size for his position), and Elgin was chosen because he, like Hochstein, happens to be one of Bill Belichick's favorite things: versatile.
This is a unit that, while being very good, will be heavily reliant on its front line players. The loser of the Kaczur-O'Callahan battle will team with Hochstein and perhaps one or two of the draftees to form a somewhat decent backup unit, but the Patriots will be hoping for lots of healthy bodies here.
One other wild card out there may come from a familiar face. Former Patriot Joe Andruzzi was let go by the Browns after the season, and he remains a free agent to this day. He was with the Patriots for five years and three Super Bowl wins before being let go as a free agent, and Romeo Crennel scooped him up. Andruzzi, who will be 32 in August, would be veteran insurance in case Neal or Mankins (who now has Andruzzi's old job) gets hurt. Whether or not Andruzzi would want to come back to Foxborough is another story, as his departure from Foxborough was not exactly a case of "parting is sweet sorrow".
Everyone is predicting a huge offensive season for the Patriots in 2007. But these guys in the trenches will have as much to say about it as Tom Brady, Laurence Maroney or Randy Moss will.
Next installment: defensive line.
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