Leading up to the first day of training camp, we’re going to look at the most important Patriots, counting down from 10 to 1. Today, it’s not a sexy position, but one that’s far more critical than most ever give it credit for, even the Big Boss in Foxboro.
NO. 3: THE GUARDS
Why? Because without a solid interior offensive line last September, Tom Brady looked like a below average quarterback, prompting my question (and classic Bill Belichick response) following the debacle in Kansas City. The very next week, rookie Bryan Stork was flanked by Dan Connolly and veteran Ryan Wendell and all of a sudden, Brady and the offense looked a lot more like what we’ve come to expect than what they were to start the year. Now Connolly is retired and the interior once again will need to be sorted out, hopefully much quicker than last season.
Previous Performance: Wendell was a godsend last year, going from unwanted to a critical performer from Week Five on. A pro’s pro. No pouting. No complaining. Worked and worked and finally got his chance and then did the job on a weekly basis. Remember, Wendell was a healthy scratch, if you will, while Belichick experimented with Marcus Cannon and Jordan Devey as his starting guards. Cannon was so bad the stink rubbed off on left tackle Nate Solder. As for Devey, well, it was a nice story and all, but he was not even close to being ready for prime time.
Questions surrounding the players: So now the Pats go into the 2015-16 season with Wendell recovering from offseason surgery and then a handful of players competing for the spot vacated by Connolly. (And with Belichick, who knows? Maybe competing for Wendell’s spot, as well.) They spent a pair of mid-round picks on interior 'o' linemen, Tre’ Jackson and Shaq Mason. Mason was a violent run blocker in college, capable of eclipsing the moon with those meat hooks. Jackson got the job done at the 33rd NFL team, FSU. Both got loads of work in OTAs. There’s also holdovers Josh Kline, Chris Barker and Caylin Hauptmann. We know Kline is serviceable. The others? No clue.
Overall Outlook: More questions then answers. I hope Brady and/or Jimmy Garoppolo have their running shoes on. They may need ‘em until the Pats find the right combination.