At the beginning of each offseason, I like to generalize the Patriots' top five offseason priorities/concerns/issues. Normally, I like to do it all in one big article. This year, however, I'll go into slightly more detail, and split it up into five separate articles. These are going to be pretty broad and general, but of course, feel free to challenge me and debate on my offseason "priorities."
1. Take Care of the Offensive Line
Figuring out the situation along the offensive line has to be the Patriots' number one issue heading into 2011. Currently, the Patriots have just Dan Koppen, Dan Connolly, Nick Kaczur, Rich Ohrnberger, Sebastian Vollmer, Stephen Neal, and Mark LeVoir under contract for next year. Of those, Stephen Neal could retire and Nick Kaczur's health is up in the air after suffering a back injury that kept him out for the entire 2010 season. Rich Ohrnberger and Mark LeVoir are simply back-ups, leaving just Koppen, Connolly, and Vollmer as starting-caliber players guaranteed to be with the team next season. The big issue along the line is the impending free agent status of left tackle Matt Light and left guard Logan Mankins.
Of course, re-signing Logan Mankins has to be priority #1 for the Patriots this offseason. While Mankins held out with a contract dispute for the first seven games of the 2010 season, he played at an all-pro caliber level in the nine games he did play in. With all of the uncertainty along the offensive line, the Patriots must do whatever it takes to get Mankins back in the fold. After all, he's still only 28 years old, and hasn't missed a game due to injury in his six year NFL career.
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Things get interesting with Matt Light. I've been an open supporter of the ten year veteran, who has been the starting left tackle on all three of the Patriots' Super Bowl winning teams. In 2010, he had a revitalized season. He played and started all sixteen games for the seventh time in his career, and was, for the most part, mistake free. He even did a much better job handling those "speed" rushers that he's notoriously having a hard time blocking. He played like a Pro Bowler, and in turn, was named to the game for the third time in his career. It's kind of a love/hate thing with Light. Some people don't like him just because he isn't an all-world elite left tackle. But that doesn't mean he isn't good. He's been a top ten left tackle in this league for the last decade, and hasn't shown many signs of slowing down. If the Patriots could sign him to a decent contract (maybe a little richer than the one Stephen Neal signed last offseason), say in the 2 year $12 million range (with a possible option for a third year), I think that would be a good deal for both sides.
Then, of course, there's the draft. With six picks in the first three rounds, I would hope/expect that the Patriots use at least one, but even possibly two of those picks on offensive lineman. Personally, I wouldn't mind a Stefen Wisniewski in the late first/early second range, with a developmental tackle such as Marcus Gilbert in the third round. Later this week, we'll get into what I personally look for in offensive line prospects, but for now, we'll just stay pretty general.
In the end, it doesn't quite matter how they do it, but the Patriots will need to do some serious retooling along the offensive line this offseason.