Patriots Training Camp Preview: Offensive Line

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - JANUARY 31: Logan Mankins #70 of the New England Patriots answers questions from the media during Media Day ahead of Super Bowl XLVI against the New York Giants at Lucas Oil Stadium on January 31, 2012 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

Happy Training Camp week, everyone! Over the next few days leading into and throughout training camp, I'll be highlighting and previewing a particular position each day. Today, we'll take a look at the offensive line.

When you look at New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, you see a player who is almost always calm and poised in the pocket and almost always on target on every throw that he makes. Because of that, the Patriots have had a lot of success.

While Brady does deserve a lot of credit for the player he has become, even more credit for his development should be given to the group that is in charge of protecting him, his offensive line.

The Patriots O-Line has always been a strong point, and nothing seemed to change in 2011. A group composed of veteran left tackle Matt Light; All-Pro guards in Logan Mankins and Brian Waters; and up-and-comers in Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer and Nate Solder combined to be form one of the best units of protection the NFL has to offer. But during Patriots training camp, the outlook of the line has been about as clear as mud.

Over the offseason, Light decided to call it quits and retire from the NFL after 11 seasons with the Patriots. Mankins has been rehabbing after offseason ACL surgery and Vollmer is dealing with nagging back issues. Meanwhile, the cloud of possible retirement has surrounded the 35-year Waters, who did not report to Training Camp.

In a perfect world, the offensive line would be something like Solder(LT)-Mankins(LG)-Connolly(C)-Waters(RG)-Vollmer(RT), which is still a top-of-the-line group. But what if more problems arise? Well, the Patriots would have to utilize some offseason acquisitions and returning backup players into the lineup.

The Patriots went out and signed versatile lineman in Robert Gallery and Jamey Richard--as well as a few UDFAs in Jeremiah Warren and Markus Zusevics. Zusevics is unlikely to be a contributor in 2012 due to injury. The Patriots also have Dan Koppen, Marcus Cannon, Ryan Wendell, Donald Thomas, Kyle Hix, Nick McDonald and Matt Kopa returning to the team. Let's take a look at how the O-Line stacks up right now:

Projected Starters/Locks: Logan Mankins, Nate Solder, Brian Waters, Dan Connolly, Sebastian Vollmer, Marcus Cannon.

Again, with a group of Solder-Mankins-Connolly-Waters-Vollmer, the Patriots should be among the most efficient offensive lines in the NFL. Ultimately, I believe that Waters is just skipping training camp, and has every intention to play in 2012. I also expect (at some point) for Mankins and Vollmer to be back in the lineup. Hopefully they'll be ready by week one, but we'll just have to see.

I put Connolly as a lock because of the progress he made last season, and the multi-year contract he received this offseason. Even if former starter Dan Koppen reclaims his role (which seems unlikely), I still view Connolly in that fill-in guard/center role he did for so many years before. The second year tackle Cannon is a lock, because he'll likely play the role Nate Solder did last season, as a third tackle and Vollmer insurance.

Most To Prove/On The Bubble: Dan Koppen, Ryan Wendell, Robert Gallery, Donald Thomas, Nick McDonald

Even though he's been the team's primary center since being drafted in 2003, I put Dan Koppen on this list with arguably the lineman with most to prove. Last year, Koppen sustained an ankle injury that knocked him out for the remainder of the season. Replacement Dan Connolly came in and did a fabulous time filling in, and many view him as the starter now. If Koppen can have a strong camp, he could reclaim his starting job. But if he doesn't, don't look for him to earn a backup role behind Connolly.

If Koppen fails to reclaim his role (and is likely cut), look out for Ryan Wendell here. He's got experience at both center and guard, and could serve as a solid back up to Connolly at center and both of the guards. Gallery I put on the bubble, but I really like his upside. He's played at every position except center, and a strong camp could earn him a spot on versatility alone.

While I still see and outside shot for both Thomas and McDonald making it, I see it being a hard climb for both. While Thomas can either make the roster or be cut, McDonald still has practice squad eligibility. Because he was on the roster during part of last year, he still stands a chance of making it. But a small chance at best.

Most To Learn/Possible Cut/Potential Practice Squad Member: Kyle Hix, Matt Kopa, Jeremiah Warren, Markus Zusevics

This is a case where competition is likely to tough for the guys listed above. Hix, who was an undrafted free agent picked up last season, was a practice squad member during his "rookie" season.

Warren seems to have a shot at a practice squad role, but it's not certain. Because of his injury, Zusevics could be placed on IR, and try again next year.

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