Those who have been following training camp news should know that the team is struggling to field their top line due to injuries at the line's biggest revolving door since the departure of Stephen Neal. Incumbent starter Dan Connolly just started to practice this week, while expected challenger and pre-season favorite Marcus Cannon has been held out of practice recently. This has forced swing tackle Will Svitek to kick inside to right guard as the coaches try to cobble together the most experienced line until the normal right guards regain their health.
With that in perspective, let's look at the main players:
Locks: Nate Solder, Sebastian Vollmer, Svitek, Cannon- Last season's starters, both are top performers at their position. Svitek and Cannon both provide value as starting quality emergency tackles and guards.
Locks: Logan Mankins, Dan Connolly - Mankins is an offensive line cornerstone, while Connolly provides depth at all interior line position should he not outright win the right guard spot.
Bubble: Tyronne Green, Markus Zusevics, Chris McDonald, Josh Kline, Kevin Haslam - Green had the inside lane during camp due to his four seasons of experience and 28 games started, before he was hurt. Sophomore Zusevics can't stay healthy. McDonald and Kline are rookies who have managed to keep practicing, while Haslam is a third year veteran from Rutgers.
Lock: Ryan Wendell - Wendell was one of the rising stars of 2012 and he looks to round out his offensive game in a contract season.
Bubble: Luke Patterson, Matt Stankiewitch - Patterson is a former DL in college who has spent two seasons with the Chiefs, while Stankiewitch is a Bill O'Brien rookie referral from Penn State. Don't be surprised to see an interior lineman latch on to the practice squad.
As Dante Scarnecchia, I can't be too happy with the health status of the offensive line. Still, he loves to mold the potential talent into viable starting options as graduates from Scar's School are now all around the league. Typically, the Patriots will hold between 7-9 offensive linemen on the roster at any given time and, knowing the top of the roster, that means that the bubble players are likely fighting for one or two spots (if any). As a couch-coach, I'm not able to use readily available stats to evaluate my players, so I had to dive directly into the tape to try and come up with the front runners.
LT: Solder; LG: Mankins; C: Wendell; RG: Svitek; RT: Vollmer
The first team offensive line played the same snaps as the first team offense, lasting almost all of the first quarter. I've decided to highlight one of the better plays by every player with a blocking role. This play resulted in a 23 yard gain by Aaron Dobson.
The Eagles are reading run and are starting to stack the box. They're playing single deep with old friend Patrick Chung at free safety- and those who have been following the Patriots and know of Chung's coverage "ability" will know exactly where the ball will be heading. The Eagles even brought in true free safety Nate Allen into the box (the safety on the near side) to help and potentially cover Patriots TE Ballard should he try to break up the seam.
Of course, this is exactly what the Patriots want to do on this play. They take away the Eagles' true centerfielder and pull him away from the play as Ballard is staying on the line to block; Allen's stuck in no man's land. This allows Dobson to attack the secondary and their more preferable coverage look.
Wendell snaps the ball and immediately attacks the Eagles defensive line. He, grouped with Svitek and Vollmer square up against the Eagles defensive tackles, while Ballard plays isolation man and takes on the Eagles' big FA acquisition OLB/DE Connor Barwin in the purple square. While not an offensive lineman, Ballard's play here is worth noting- he's a solid blocker.
The right side of the offensive line seems to leave a gap between Vollmer and Ballard which is where the Eagles linebacker DeMeco Ryans sniffs out any potential run by Blount- and that gap is actually what draws Ryan away from the middle of the field. The Patriots want to open up a passing lane for Dobson up the far seam, so having Ryans crash the near side forces the other Eagles LB to compensate by stepping to the near side and moving his momentum away from the ideal passing lane.
The orange square at the top is Mankins, doing man things. Mankins actually uses the man he is blocking to impede the pass rush of the blitzing linebacker from the far side. The linebacker wanted to attack the inside of Solder, but Mankins throws the defensive lineman outside and causes the linebacker to waste a step and his momentum and have to adjust his attack to the outside of Solder. While Mankins likely wasn't intending that to happen at the snap, he definitely took advantage of the situation.
You can see that Brady's had over two seconds in the pocket to throw, which is essentially forever for opposing defenses to try and cover players. Solder, Mankins, and Ballard all have their man blocked, while the two defensive tackles are just breaking free and stunting away from Vollmer and Svitek. Still, they did their job and what was necessary.
Of course, there's also Blount (teal box) who is taking on Ryans head on and preventing him from making any progress into the pocket. And there's Hooman on the far side (pink box) as the wide open outlet. All players fulfilled their roles and Brady was left with one of the cleaner pockets he'll see all year.
First Team Notes:
Logan Mankins looked better than he has in a few years. It's an extremely small sample size, but it's important for a player who hasn't been healthy for the better part of two seasons.
Nate Solder and Sebastian Vollmer look like the perfect complements- Solder is quick and able to keep up with the burners trying to turn the corner on Brady's blind side, while Vollmer is strong and able to square up against the stronger defensive ends that typically face up against the run. Well, throw those thoughts out of the window as Pro Football Focus' Steve Palazzolo kindly tells us. Solder was blown back a couple times, but he was solid overall. Vollmer, on the other hand, struggled to keep up with the speed rushers on his side and, in a division with Cameron Wake, that's a skill he's going to need to definitely work on.
Ryan Wendell was solid. He didn't really stand out, but that's usually a good thing. He's going to have to take a step forward with his pass blocking this season, and I mean that literally. He seems to yield a full step out of his snap to opposing linemen on passing plays. This puts him on the defensive and on his heels and allows aggressive defenders to push him around more easily.
Svitek wasn't great, but he wasn't terrible- which is pretty good praise for the expected top back-up. He was a phenomenal blocker on the first two plays of the game, but then he found his way on to ground on three of the next four plays. Greatly inconsistent, playing time is important for him and he definitely has some new experiences to add to his mental bank.
Second Team (A): LT Svitek, LG Patterson, C Stankiewitch, RG Kline, RT Mattes
Second Team (B): LT Mattes, LG McDonald, C Patterson, RG Kline, RT Schwab
I will already throw this out there: Svitek played through the third quarter with the second team and he was easily the best lineman out there. He was streets ahead of any other player and he deserves to be a borderline starter. The fact that he is playing with the second team is more for his experience and less about his skill level.
The only other A team player not to be on the B team is Stankiewitch and, in my opinion, that is because they wanted other players (read: Patterson) to play center. Stankiewitch was a solid performer overall, but he was quite erratic with his good and bad plays. He'd absolutely stone wall a defender in pass defending, only to miss a block on the second level on the next play. He had the biggest range of ups and downs of any Patriots lineman.
The remaining players were a mixed bag, with more good than bad- so let's look at a good play by the Second Team (B):
The +5: WR Kenbrell Thompkins (far side, motion), TE Zac Sudfeld (far side, wing back), TE Michael Hoomanawanui (in line), RB LeGarrette Blount, WR Aaron Dobson (near side)
The Patriots are showing clear overload to the far side, behind all the right side blockers. The Eagles know this and are prepared to counter. I've marked out the blocking assignments.
Thompkins is supposed to block down the field, but that won't accomplish anything if Blount is stopped in the backfield. Right tackle Schwab has the key role of pinching in the defensive lineman in order to open up a lane for Blount. Additionally, left guard Patterson is pulling and has to help in sealing the lane. Tight ends Sudfeld and Hooman are expected to take out the linebackers at the next level in order to make the lane as big as possible so Blount can gain some momentum and use his weight to his advantage.
Of course, if Schwab kicks out to seal a lane, that allows the Eagles linebacker to shoot inside the B gap and potentially blow up the play.
The linebacker actually gets between Schwab and the right guard (Kline), but the pulling left guard Patterson is able to crunch the linebacker in the traffic and delay his progress enough for Blount to hit the edge. Schwab and Patterson do their job and Blount is able to hurdle his way to a first down. In my opinion, the best blockers are Sudfeld (good sign) and Hooman (Svitek of the tight ends: too good for the second team), while Thompkins' block down the field was key for Blount to gain an extra six or seven yards. Still, the new linemen did their job and helped move the chains.
Locks: Solder, Mankins, Wendell, Connolly, Vollmer, Svitek, Cannon - We return last season's five starters as well as their top tackle reserve in Cannon. Svitek can take over the reserve tackle role while Cannon challenges for the starting right guard spot. Connolly may fall back into a super-sub role.
1. T R.J. Mattes - Mattes is this year's top candidate to land on the practice squad. He swung to both left and right tackle and he was generally solid as a prospect. He struggled against some of the top second teamers of the Eagles, but he never looked like he didn't belong. Mattes didn't show many flashes of some untapped talent, but teams are always on the look for a reliable player to be a back-up.
2. G Luke Patterson - I thought Patterson flashed a lot. A converted defensive lineman, Patterson is still learning the game, but he was the best guard on either of the Patriots second team squads. Add his growth potential at center and he's a prospect you'd love to have on your practice squad. His technique is naturally extremely raw, but his effort is evident and he got the job done. Clean him up and he could eventually be a starter for a bottom team in the league or a solid back-up.
3. T Brice Schwab - Schwab stepped in to block Tebow's blind side with the Second Team (B) unit and he was fantastic. He stays on his feet and he is aggressive to block. Most of Tebow's plays went to the left, but Schwab was so consistent in his protection on the blind side that there was little concern about his performance. Schwab played to the whistle even when the play wasn't towards him. That hustle will go far. He has potential to rise to the top prospect.
4. C Matt Stankiewitch - A solid player, he looks like an extremely limited athlete- which means that Scar and the Patriots likely project him as a perfect center prospect. I put him more in the "Matt Tennant" field of limited athlete, instead of Dan Koppen, but he had some good plays. If he gets some polish he could start somewhere in the league. He has a lot of work to do, though, and that polish might never shine.
5. G Chris McDonald - McDonald left a lot to be desired in all of his snaps. He seemed to be overthinking a lot and looked to be a step behind. When he got his hands on the defender, he looked pretty good, but he would just as often miss a block and would struggle to recover. His saving grace is that the Patriots are so thin at guard they have no other options.
6. G Josh Kline - Almost every time I noted Kline it was for something negative. He didn't seem strong enough to man the line and he didn't seem quick enough to compensate. He couldn't get a push on the line and he was letting defenders by him far too often. He definitely calmed down as the game went on (and that could be attributed to the level of competition), and he's not far behind McDonald, but he's fighting to stay in this camp battle.
N/A: G Tyronne Green, T/G Markus Zusevics, G Kevin Haslam