One thing is for certain, when a season doesn’t end with a Super Bowl victory the specifics of the playoff loss are dissected and whatever went wrong in that one particular game becomes the offseason’s object of focus. This year it’s obviously the offensive line, but don’t expect the Patriots to suddenly blow everything up because Von Miller and his Broncos pals blew up our pass protection.
Brian Waters might be the only significant free agent offensive linemen Bill Belichick has ever added. Even then Waters wasn’t signed until September, just days before the start of the season. Otherwise, the Patriots offensive line has always been a combination of draft picks and street free agents who were developed over time. Some of their best success stories were guys like Stephen Neal, Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell who were molded from scratch.
Now, with the return of Dante Scarnecchia, it’s even less likely for the Pats to depart from their methodology for building an offensive line. Scarnecchia’s fondness for Marcus Cannon also makes it less likely the Pats cut ties with him. Cannon is everyone’s favorite scapegoat, but even he worked through injuries this year and really, how many right tackles out there could’ve handled Von Miller during this playoff run?
Over the 16 seasons of the Bill Belichick Patriots there have been plenty of angst about the offensive line at times, but that’s just football. Nothing breaks down an offense faster than when the line is out of sync. More often than not the Pats always have pulled it together. The rotation of the last couple season has made it harder and perhaps with the departure of Dave DeGuglielmo, we’ll no longer see that kind of player management.
But if you forget how the season ended, you can see that the Pats now have a very promising group of young interior linemen, an area they were completely deficient in just a couple seasons ago. Shaq Mason and Tre’ Jackson showed excellent development over their rookie seasons and both could be full time starters in 2016. Meanwhile the Pats have two promising young centers in Bryan Stork and David Andrews. They’ll likely go head-to-head for the starting spot in training camp in an interesting roster battle.
Outside at tackle is where the Pats could bring in some help, but I can’t see them springing for an expensive free agent like Mitchell Schwartz, it’s just never been their style, especially when they’re already paying Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer and Marcus Cannon over $21 million combined.
Sebastian Vollmer is getting close to the end, but back at right tackle, where his fading mobility is easier to mask, he should have another very good season in him. With Scarnecchia back and a return to full health, Cannon should be just fine in his third tackle role. Let’s not forget Cannon was extremely solid filling in full time at right tackle for Vollmer. He has it in him and he has experience. You can’t just cut those kind of guys, plug in a more expensive free agent and count on better results.
Tackle should be a draft priority and one I’d consider with the highest picks the Pats have. The key missing ingredient to the Solder-Vollmer-Cannon-Fleming group is athleticism. Solder certainly has it, but the others don’t, and let’s face it, the differences between the left and right side have been diminishing for years. An athletic swing tackle who can play either side with good feet and mobility to get into space would only help what the Patriots do best. Drafting a tackle now, as Vollmer and Cannon enter the final years of their deals is also very much in line with how the Patriots build their team with an eye to the future.
Despite the season-ender, the Pats are in relatively good shape along the offensive line. The key is Solder’s return and reinforcing the tackle spot with an eye to the future. But as far as the 2016 season goes, don’t expect any monumental shifts, especially via free agency.