Dante Scarnecchia is in the lower levels of the Boston pantheon of sports coaches and has been a coach for all but two years since 1982. He's entering his 29th year with the franchise and, as we know, almost all that he touches on the offensive line turns to gold. A cast-off like guard Donald Thomas is all of a sudden top prospects in free agency. Old bones Brian Waters is able to turn in a Pro Bowl season. Undrafted nobodies like Stephen Neal and Dan Connolly are able to contribute on the starting line.
The dude is magic.
The Patriots offensive line is one of the most important units on the team, responsible for both keeping Tom Brady standing upright and bulldozing lanes for the running backs. They're one of the few positions that are on the field and engaged every single play of the game and it's where mistakes aren't acceptable.
As it comes to players, the line seems perfectly fine. All Pro Tackle Sebastian Vollmer and and All Pro Guard Logan Mankins are locked in through 2016. Rising star Tackle Nate Solder and guards Dan Connolly and Marcus Cannon are signed through 2014. The foundations are in place for long term consistency.
Even for all the bright spots, there are some clear concerns moving forward. Center Ryan Wendell played very well in his first season as starting center, but he's entering the last year of his contract; what happens if he continues his rise and plays out of the Patriots budget?
Also, look at right guard where Dan Connolly, while serviceable, is still a clear step below the play of Brian Waters and the long time starter Stephen Neal. Connolly can play, and he's an ideal back-up to have on the roster and start in a pinch, but he lacks upside and is the obvious weak link on the line. Cannon, the former top 40 prospect who plummeted due to cancer, could be groomed to be the eventual starter, but he needs to be available as the top back-up at Right Tackle in case Vollmer goes down with another injury (a concern great enough that the Patriots included clauses in his contract).
So the need isn't great. But when has that stopped Belichick from taking some undervalued talent in the draft? Fact is, the Patriots might need help in the next few seasons. The depth at center/right guard (Wendell, Connolly, Cannon, Nick McDonald) all have fewer than two years left on their contracts. Don't be surprised if Belichick starts making some moves.
Last season, CBS Sports ranked guard prospect David DeCastro as their 10th overall prospect. He fell to 24th overall. Guards are getting devalued in the NFL due to their concentrated roles on the line- they aren't protecting the edges- and because many teams have had mid and late round success in finding top talent. As a result, many of the top prospects have fallen down the charts.
Over the past three seasons, only two interior linemen have gone in each first round- two centers (the Pouncey brothers) and four guards. That's a span of 96 picks. In comparison, the only position grouping with such low volume is safety, with 4 (5 if you count our own Devin McCourty)- but Patriots fans can all point out that safeties are underappreciated in value.
Expanding the range, only 12 interior linemen have been selected in the first two rounds of the last three drafts- and 6 (half) were selected in last year's draft. In reality, teams can expect 4-5 interior linemen to go in the first two rounds, leaving plenty of groomable talent to fall into later rounds. Of course, Belichick could view the talent he has on the roster as better prospects than what would be available, but here's a breakdown of the interior linemen up for grabs:
Top 20 Picks:
Chance Warmack, Alabama; OG, 6'2, 315 lbs: Warmack was a three year starter at left guard in the SEC, earning All American accolades as a senior. He's a perfect mix of size, experience, athleticism, durability, and upside and is considered one of the safest prospects in the draft. He can drive back defenders in the run game and he can keep the pocket clean. He won't be able to kick out to tackle or inside to center, but when you draft Warmack (likely in the top half of the round), you're expecting to get an elite left guard and are not looking for anything else. He's definitely benefited by playing alongside some of the most successful offensive line prospects in recent history, but he stands on his own as a high level prospect.
Jonathan Cooper, UNC; OG, 6'2, 310 lbs: Considerably more athletic than Warmack, Cooper might have more upside and could challenge Warmack for first guard off the board. He was a four year starter at left guard and showed clear improvement year over year, rising from a 73% blocking grade, to 83%, to 86%, and finally to 90% as a senior. He's suffered a few injuries (ankle as a freshman, shoulder surgery after his junior year), but he looks like he's recovered. Cooper will most likely make a run-first team very happy with his exceptional downfield blocking.
I don't expect the same fall that DeCastro had, but I believe the top 10 projections for these players is a little excessive. I think both will be gone by the 20th pick, and they'll probably go off around 15th overall.
Second Round Prospects:
Larry Warford, Kentucky; OG, 6'3, 330 lbs: Warford is a three year starter in the SEC, who carries a build similar to the Patriots' Marcus Cannon. His strength is his ability to hold his ground against any and all defensive linemen, which could lead to a successful career at right guard. He's not an explosive player, but he's strong and knows how to use his body to protect the quarterback. He won't be of much help down the field, but his size and strength could earn him a starting role. As it relates to the Patriots, they already have Cannon on the roster so the likelihood of taking Warford is slim.
Travis Frederick, Wisconsin; C, 6'4, 310: Frederick is the next Badger lineman in the recent line of quality NFL prospects. He lacks the athleticism, as usual of Wisconsin linemen (think Gabe Carimi, Peter Konz, John Moffitt, etc), but he makes up for it with a high level of football intelligence and strength. He's versatile, having started a season at left guard and at center, and is able to play both at a very high level. Teams will have to go in knowing of his very limited athleticism, but they won't have to question his effort. I don't believe the Frederick fits the bill of a Patriots lineman, but he can be a solid contributor in the NFL.
Barrett Jones, Alabama; C/OG/OT, 6'5, 305 lbs: Jones had the definite benefit of playing alongside multiple top-round NFL prospects that it's hard to put a lens on his personal ability. Still, college evaluators have made Jones one of the more decorated linemen in history. Jones has been a four year start at Alabama, playing three different positions and having success at all three. He played Right Guard as a redshirt freshman for the National Champion Crimson Tide and was named to the Freshman All American team. As a junior, he switched to Left Tackle for the National Champion Crimson Tide and was named unanimous All American and was awarded the Outland Trophy as the best Tackle/Guard in college football and was named the best offensive lineman in the SEC. Even more impressive, he won the Wuerffel Trophy, which signified Jones as a the player who "best combined exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement." As a senior, he switched to Center for the National Champion Crimson Tide, was unanimous All American, won the Rimington Award as the best center in college football, and won the Campbell Trophy, which is basically the more national version of the Wuerffel Trophy. Jones has oozed success at every position and his coach, Nick Saban, has compared Jones to Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews. Jones won't blow anyone away with his athleticism, but his toughness (played through the SEC Championship and the BCS National Championship with a Lisfranc injury; Dwight Freeney, Ryan Kalil, and other have been put on season ending IR with the same injury), his intelligence, and his natural ability should make him a successful linemen for a really long time. If you couldn't tell, Jones is my draft binkie.
Third Round Prospects:
Brian Winters, Kent State; OG/OT, 6'4, 320 lbs: Winters has been a tackle throughout his career at Kent State, but projects to be a guard due to his size. He's a strong player, even though he strained a muscle when he was pressing at the combine, and fights to the whistle. He's a raw prospect and looks like someone the Patriots would be willing to groom at guard. Bonus: Former high school wrestler.
Brian Schwenke, California; C/OG, 6'3, 315 lbs: Like many of these prospects, Schwenke comes with versatility, having played both guard positions before settling in at center as a senior. He was first team PAC-12 and came in second in conference voting for best offensive lineman. He's athletic (4.94 40, 9' broad jump, 26.5" vertical, 7.31 three cone, 31 bench), and provides perfect size for an interior lineman. He's durable, plays with great leverage, and his potential is just starting to be tapped. Like Winters, Schwenke appears to be a perfect ball of clay for Scar to mold.
Alvin Bailey, Arkansas; OG, 6'3, 310 lbs: Bailey has forgone his final season of college eligibility to enter the NFL draft, but he has 38 games of experience under his belt. Arkansas was undergoing a coaching change so there's a little behind the scenes work at play. Additionally, he was "put in the coaching doghouse" prior to the 2012 season. Like most of Arkansas' college seasons, Bailey had a lot to offer and never really put it together. But should he receive the correct guidance, he could become a dominant force.
If you couldn't guess, I think that Jones will be the steal of the draft if he falls to his CBS ranking of 61st. He has all the credentials of a first round pick with the red flag of a foot injury. Well, what team could use the help of an elite interior lineman in a year's time, after Jones is fully recovered? Oh, the Patriots? Jones could even use the Cannon treatment and ride the PUP list until the Patriots need him in the middle of the season.
That said, there will most likely be plenty of impact players still on the board when the Patriots would have to draft Jones- and those players could also have long term positive impacts. In that case, linemen like Winters and Schwenke could provide some long term growth potential and could develop into top contributors.
This draft is very weak when it comes to interior linemen depth, although the best prospects are some of the best we've seen. The only scenario where I see the Patriots capitalizing on one of these linemen prospects (Jones/Winters/Schwenke) would be if they traded entirely out of the first round and picked up another couple mid round selections. Nick McDonald is already on the roster and offers an outlet in case Wendell outplays the Patriots' contract offers, while Cannon could still be groomed into the starting right guard role.
All in all, there are a few great prospects, and then a lot of potential down the board. Unless one of these prospects fall (I'm looking at you, Jones, and crossing my fingers), I don't see the Patriots grabbing one in the top rounds. I see them taking a prospect for the practice squad in one of the final rounds.