2014 was unpredictable from the beginning…
The 2014 Patriots were an organization driven toward winning a Super Bowl. While they have been wildly successful over the past decade or so, they hadn’t traveled to a Super Bowl and won for several years. They had come up just a step short of the ultimate prize against the Giants twice.
As the Patriots rolled in the 2014 season they were aware that the best way to win is enhancing the protection in front of Tom Brady. The teams that have always given Brady/Patriots the most trouble have aggressively gone after the quarterback and pressured him. (Think NYG, Ravens). The offensive line is a position that can control or destroy a game-plan; something that Bill Belichick completely understands. This is why before one of my own practices last August I was completely shocked to find out that the Patriots had traded long time stud offensive guard Logan Mankins to the Buccaneers. Not only had they traded this important cog in the offensive line, they had traded him for an average tight end.
During the early portions of the 2014 season, the offensive line had huge question marks and it all started with the Mankins trade. Even watching them as an offensive lineman myself I became extremely doubtful that they could turn it around to become a significant playoff team. When Connolly was at center, Cannon was at LG, and Jordan Devey was starting at RG it was one of the ugliest units I had seen in years. In addition, both tackles Vollmer and Solder were struggling to hold their own against outside rushers.
Overcoming all doubt…
After the Chiefs loss almost every analyst in the country began to criticize the New England Patriots. There was doubt amongst the media masses that Brady may be entering the down slide that many usually expect at his age. It was surprising to see that many were so quick to doubt the skill of Brady and Belichick. I was definitely just as guilty as some that doubted them but I did not think Brady’s career was over by any means despite my sarcasm toward starting Garoppolo. As we know these premature obituaries of the 2014 Patriots ended up being horribly incorrect and they would go on to win Super Bowl 49.
When it all started to come together…
The Patriots drafted a stud center out of Florida State in the offseason and his name was Bryan Stork. After the chiefs loss the Patriots would move him into a starting role. For you football novices out there, center is easily one of the most important positions on the football field. A good center is just as much of a play caller as the QB. He can identify a blitz, formation, or favorable run/pass look if they are good enough to do so. A good center becomes a second set of eyes and an important characteristic of a successful offense. Stork would shine at Center and looks to have a long/bright future in New England. Connolly would go back to where he belonged at guard and continued to serve as a veteran leader of the line. Wendell was a serviceable offensive guard and played well for the remainder of the season. The two tackles (Vollmer, Solder) generally improved week to week as the Patriots approached the playoffs. The two backups available for the offensive line if injuries arose were veteran Marcus Cannon and Josh Kline. When the Patriots went run heavy they moved Cameron Fleming into tackle over (which means two tackles next to one another). This also meant the Patriots had a fantastic blocking FB in James Develin in addition to TE Rob Gronkowski, and the powerful yet shifty LeGarrette Blount in the backfield. In just the first four games Brady had been sacked nine times for 51 yards lost. After the Chiefs debacle Brady would only be sacked on average once a game (twelve sacks in twelve remaining regular season games).
Looking toward 2015…
Luckily for the Patriots most of these players are returning to the team in 2015. Dan Connolly is retiring from the game due to concussions and good for him. Health takes top priority when it becomes a life altering injury. He has made his money and won a Super Bowl. The perfect time to step away from the game. This however leaves a large hole in the offensive line for the upcoming season. Connolly wasn’t overwhelming with his form, technique but was an important veteran leader for the unit as a whole. The Patriots were highly aware of their need at the OL position when they approached draft night. They managed to get a hold of run blocking beast Shaq Mason from Georgia Tech and the more well rounded Tre’ Jackson from Florida State University. I’ve watched both players on film and they both have potential that can transform into the professional game. Shaq Mason is probably the more unfinished of the two while Jackson has a more well rounded base. Mason destroys people in the run game but has had mixed reviews in pass protection. Jackson can do both.
How the line appears to shake out right now…
As of this outlook there is still a total of 92 active and inactive players on the Patriots roster. There will be many cuts to come. There is a handful of signed free agents that have been added into the mix like David Andrews, Mark Asper, Chris Barker, Caylin Hauptmann. It would be difficult for me to see any of these players beating out the likes of last years starters or six and seven men in. The main goal for the OL in 2015 is continuing the strides of improvement they made in 2015 and replacing Connolly. The most positive aspect of the current team is the youth and potential they drafted at the position in the offseason. According to Mike Reiss of ESPN: “Fourth-round draft picks Shaq Mason (left) and Tre Jackson (right) have been fixtures next to returning starting center Bryan Stork through the first stretch of practices. Jackson is primarily a right guard, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he assumes that starting role. He looks the part.” This means that the veteran Wendell may be switching sides heading into 2015 in order to pave the way for a younger, long term option Tre’ Jackson.
TRE’ JACKSON, FLORIDA STATE UNIVERSITY
SHAQ MASON, GEORGIA TECH UNIVERSITY
The early preseason look (hopefully no injuries):
LT: Nate Solder
LG: Ryan Wendell
C: Bryan Stork
RG: Tre’ Jackson
RT: Sebastian Vollmer