With training camp under way and the first preseason game in the books, it’s time to take an in-depth look at each position group.
To kick off the evaluation, we’ll examine the most underappreciated group —The Big Uglies.
Often overlooked, the Patriots offensive line has consistently been one of the better units in the league over the past few years, but there’s a lot of uncertainty surrounding the 2012 depth chart.
Although there’s no competition for the starting left tackle spot, Tom Brady will have a new blindside protector this year as 2011 first-rounder Nate Solder takes over for the retired Matt Light.
When Bill Belichick took Solder with the 17th pick, fans and draft analysts alike were rather stunned.
Just a year later, that selection looks like an intuitive one.
Light—one of Belichick’s first draft hits—locked down the left tackle spot for a decade.
Despite just average athleticism and size, Light was consistent, tough and a leader both on and off the field.
In Solder, the Pats are getting a significantly more talented athlete without the refined blocking technique and experience that Light brought to the front five.
Solder struggled badly in the Patriots’ first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints, but with Dante Scarnecchia’s tutelage, I have faith Solder will realize his immense potential.
Some of Solder’s struggles could have been attributed to the absence of Logan Mankins next to him.
The four-time Pro Bowler has been sidelined all offseason as he recovers from a torn ACL he suffered in the Super Bowl.
Fortunately for the Pats, Mankins was activated off the PUP list on Sunday, and his return to the lineup should be a welcomed addition for Solder, Brady and the rest of the offense.
At center, there’s certainly a battle worth watching, as Dan Connolly, Ryan Wendell and Dan Koppen seem to be in the running to earn the starting spot.
Koppen is the veteran of the group, but the former Pro Bowler hasn’t looked good since returning from a fractured ankle that cost him all but one game last year.
Connolly and Wendell are two former undrafted free agents who have worked their way up the depth chart since entering the Dante Scarnecchia School of Offensive Linemen.
Both are gritty players who rely on versatility and toughness rather than size and strength to get the job done.
Wendell is emerging as a sleeper to claim the starting gig after Koppen and Connolly underwhelmed against the Saints.
The other guard spot is missing a familiar face as Brian Waters has yet to report to camp.
There’s been speculation that Waters may retire, but I have a strong feeling he’ll come back for one more shot at a Super Bowl.
If he’s back in the fold, the offensive line will get a huge boost.
In 2011, Waters was not only the best lineman on the Pats but also one of the best guards in the NFL.
If Waters isn’t back, the 6’5”, 340-pound Marcus Cannon could provide a boost in the run game along the interior.
One of the biggest question marks is at right tackle.
The other giant—6’8”, 320-pound Sebastian Vollmer—has had his once promising career stunted by back and ankle injuries over the past few years.
After earning a second-team All-Pro selection in 2010, Vollmer struggled to stay in the lineup last season and wasn’t as effective.
Vollmer has had a quiet offseason, but if healthy, he’d be a big upgrade to round out the line.
Anyone who watched the matchup against the Saints has had recurring nightmares about Brady getting sandwiched again.
However, with three Pro Bowl-caliber linemen in Mankins, Waters and Vollmer out of the lineup, it’s probably best to take the o-line’s performance with a grain of salt.
There’s no guarantee all three will return to form, but if they do, this unit should once again be among the league’s best.