Patriots Free Agency Need #2: Offensive Interior Line

USA TODAY Sports

The people have spoken and you all believe that the interior of the offensive line is the second most important position to add some help in free agency.

In second place, 22% of Patriots Nation has elected the interior of the offensive line as the most important role to address in free agency.

The interior line is in a uniquely flexible situation and it all relates to a player who is at the top of the possible cut list.

They're not the third place defensive end position, with two strong starters and little depth.

They're not the fourth place defensive tackle position, with a ton of bodies and a ton of questions.

And they're not the fifth place tight end position, with one star and then literally no one else.

The interior line is weak, it's aging, it's young, it's empty, it's underdeveloped, and it's liable for most of the big stage issues on offense for the past half decade.

There's the aging Logan Mankins (turns 32 today! Happy birthday!), who has the third highest cap hit on the entire roster, behind Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork. Mankins is a solid player and a leader on the offensive line, but he's clearly on the downside of his career. He's essentially the offensive equivalent of a pre-injury Vince Wilfork. He can play, but it might be time to start thinking of a future without him.

There's Dan Connolly, who will be 32 once the season starts, who at his best is an average player, and at his worst a danger to the offense. He's extremely valuable in the sense that he can play every spot on the interior line, but he's also expensive with the eighth highest cap hit on the roster. If you believe he's the eighth most important player on the roster, you're in for a rough time.

Behind them?

Rising sophomore Josh Kline who started one game last season when tackle Nate Solder was injured and Mankins had to slide over. He's an undrafted player out of Kent State.

Rising sophomore Chris Barker was a game day inactive regular and has no game day experience.

Rising third year Markus Zusevics has been on the injured reserve the past two seasons and can't be counted upon.

Those are the players under contract. Free agent center Ryan Wendell was the weakest link in 2014 and the Patriots would be taking a major step back if they moved forward without him.

Don't be surprised when you find out that Mankins was the only drafted player out of the ones listed. Connolly, Kline, Barker, Zusevics, and Wendell? All undrafted. Cream rises and the Patriots could do well by taking a top prospect in the draft.

But that's not to say the Patriots should move forward into 2014 and feel comfortable with a drafted rookie protecting Tom Brady. I have no doubt that everyone would feel more comfortable with a veteran presence on the line providing insurance as the rookie develops, and in case of inevitable injury. The Patriots need to fix the interior line in every way possible, and it's Dan Connolly that holds the key.

Connolly may be average, but he affords the Patriots some options on how to fix the line. He can kick into center if the Patriots want to sign a guard. He can stay at guard if the Patriots want to sign a center. He can provide depth if the Patriots sign one, and draft the other. He's a one-man option, and luckily free agency has some options of its own.

Here's Rotoworld's list of free agents. Here's Pro Football Focus's list of guards and of centers.

If the Patriots want to sign a center, they could dish out the cash and sign Browns FA center Alex Mack, although I don't believe that would be a Bill Belichick-like decision. Mack has been transition tagged, which allows the Browns to match any competing offer.

There's the 35 year old Jonathan Goodwin, if the Patriots want to use a stop gap to groom a rookie, who was largely successful with the 49ers (likely for a one year, $1.5mm deal).

There's 29 year old Brian De La Puente of the Saints or 28 year old Evan Dietrich-Smith of the Packers, both of whom could be brought in for relatively fair costs. They're both strong pass blockers, which would be be a definite benefit on the line.

There's old friend Ryan Wendell, although he should be an option only if no one else can be found.

Any of these players would put the Patriots in a much better position than they currently stand, and the first four names would be improvements over the weak-pass blocker in Wendell.

At guard, there's even more depth in selection.

There's Geoff Schwartz (28 years old) and Jon Asamoah (26) of Kansas City, although they're expected to sign with KC and Atlanta, respectively.

Shelley Smith (27) out of St. Louis wasn't there with Josh McDaniels, but he fits the bill of what the Patriots look for in a right guard (road grader).

Travelle Wharton (33) of Carolina could step in and be 2014's Brian Waters, and a one-year gap player at an extremely high level.

Denver's Zane Beadlers (27), San Diego's Chad Rinehart (29) [edit: Rinehart looks like he'll sign back with SD], Jacksonville's Uche Nwaneri (30), or Arizona's Daryn Colledge (32) could provide a similar level of service at varying price ranges (although they might just be better off signing Wendell).

The reality is that the Patriots probably won't be finding the answer to their offensive line woes via free agency. They'll likely be able to find a band-aid until whoever they've drafted is up to speed and ready to start.

But that might be exactly what the Patriots need. They're not looking a team that finds long term solutions on the line in free agency. They build through the draft. So while this may be the second most important need in free agency, it's likely for a bridge player as the real solution grows.

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