Well then, I think I might need to find a new favorite Patriot. At the moment, it would appear Mankins' days in New England are over (whether he's traded or just sits the season out in Mr. Kraft's dunce corner at Patriot Place). So, hypothetically, where does this leave the Patriot offensive line? Reeling? With new opportunities?
Let's cut right to the chase—this hurts New England's offense. Mankins is easily, in my opinion, the best lineman on the team. ProFootballFocus.com, one of my favorite statistic-related websites out there, had Mankins pegged as the 6th best guard in the NFL in 2009, 1st in 2008, and 1st in 2007. I think Vollmer may claim this title in the coming years, but for the time being, Mankins would be big loss. Additionally, number 70 provides the line with a presence of veteran leadership (not to mention, a truly fantastic beard or beautiful handlebar mustache) that the team will be looking for while they attempt to rebuild along the front in the coming years. For a team with an already foggy rushing situation, it would hurt to lose a road grader of Mankins' caliber. I'm positive defensive linemen around the division are rejoicing at the idea of a sans-Mankins Patriot team.
Personnel wise, the absence of Mankins could result in an interesting shuffle of players along the offensive line. Now, I cannot presume to have insider knowledge as to the thinking of Dante Scarnecchia or Bill Belichick, but if it were up to me, here's how I'd line up the Patriot's prized bulls:
LT - Matt Light
LG - Nick Kaczur
C - Dan Koppen
RG - Stephen Neal
RT - Sebastian Vollmer
The biggest change here is for Nick Kaczur, who shifts from his home at right tackle over to left guard. It's a different position on a different side of the line, but I think at this stage of his career, Kaczur may be well served with a switch to guard. This move would allow the Patriots to more effectively "hide" Kaczur's average-to-below-average pass blocking abilities, while also getting Sebastian Vollmer regular starts—doubleplusgood. As noted by Mike Reiss earlier today (thanks Marima), the Patriots appear to be in agreement, with Kaczur working at left guard has he has done at times throughout Mankins' absence from the team this offseason.
From a long term perspective, I think it's now a foregone conclusion that New England will use one or more of their upcoming early round draft picks to restock along the offensive line. Belichick has proven particularly adept at recognizing future studs in those positions, so I see no reason why trend wouldn't continue in 2011 and 2012 given the team's prime selections. Looking at young talent already on the current roster, Dan Connolly immediately jumps out to me as a guy who could eventually step into a starting role (perhaps even this year) given his experience from 2009. Regardless of what the actual names turn out to be, excellent coaching and talent evaluation will help to make the replacement process of Mankins, as well as the Patriots' other aging linemen, progress relatively smoothly.
In sum, losing Mankins would be a certain downgrade from a talent, experience, and leadership stand point, but considering he plays guard, it's not impossible or even improbable for New England to salvage the situation, both in 2010 and moving forward into the decade.