The Patriots offensive line is the worst in recent memory. That's not just a first-game panic mode declaration; that's a calculated evaluation after an entire off-season.
Left tackle Nate Solder was reported as struggling during camp and carried that into the preseason games. Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer is returning from a broken leg. Left guard Marcus Cannon has not played that role before (he's played right guard, though). The Patriots can't decide which pairing of Ryan Wendell, Dan Connolly, and Jordan Devey is the least bad of the options.
While there's no solution walking through the locker room, it's possible that grouping of Solder/Cannon/rookie Bryan Stork/Connolly/Vollmer would provide the best offensive line.
But if we want to find a long term solution, we need to find out how the Patriots got themselves in the situation to begin with. And it starts with Stephen Neal.
Back in 2009, Neal was the Patriots starting right guard and he was in the midst of a five season stretch where he missed an average of 6 games per season (between 2006 and 2010). He retired in 2010 at the age of 34 and is one of the most underrated players in Patriots history- with myself a guilty party when evaluating his play.
Bill Belichick came up with a transition plan to move forward from Neal. He drafted Rich Ohrnberger in the 4th round of the 2009 draft with the hopes that he'd be the solution and transition for the position. That never panned out and he was cut and pushed to the practice squad for 2010 and 2011.
2009 was where the Patriots needed to transition on both offense and defense. Players were aging and New England needed to bring in fresh blood to maintain its status at the top of the league's food chain. Neal was 33, but Matt Light (31), Nick Kaczur (30), and Dan Koppen (30) were all getting past their prime as offensive starters. Logan Mankins, then 27, was the spry chicken.
Along with Ohrnberger, the Patriots drafted Sebastian Vollmer as a potential replacement for Light. 2009 was the first season to feature Dan Connolly on the active roster.
From a team building perspective, it looked as if the offensive line would make a clean transition from Neal, Light, and Koppen to Ohrnberger, Vollmer, and Connolly, respectively. Injuries prevented this from becoming a reality.
In 2010, Kaczur departed and Vollmer stepped in as the starting right tackle. Mankins held out for the first half of the season, pushing Connolly into a starting guard role and then a season ending injury to Neal coincided with Mankins return, allowing Connolly to stay on the starting roster. Ohrnberger remained on the practice squad.
By the end of the season, it was apparent that Neal would move on and Light contemplated retirement due to Crohn's disease. That would have left Dan Koppen as the only starter over the age of 30, but the team managed to convince Light to re-sign for one season. They also brought in the 34 year old Brian Waters to compensate for Ohrnberger's lack of development.
With the 2011 season, the starting line-up was expected to be Light, Mankins, Koppen, Waters, and Vollmer. Early season injuries forced Connolly back into the starting line-up, even though a sub-role best fit him. The team drafted Nate Solder to play left tackle and allow Vollmer to remain on the right side. Fifth round pick Marcus Cannon would play swing tackle, even though most thought guard would be his most natural position.
In 2011, the future of the offensive line could have been ironed out. Solder as the future left tackle, Mankins as the 29 year old left guard, Connolly as the 29 year old center, Cannon as the future right guard, and Vollmer as the right tackle. That would have been an excellent unit, but both Belichick and offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia believed Cannon's value was best at tackle.
This left Waters as a band-aid at right guard, and in-season injuries to Koppen and Mankins (who played the whole season with ACL injuries) muddied the future.
2011 would be Koppen's last with the team and the off-season departure of Waters left the Patriots to force Ryan Wendell at center and Connolly as the starting right guard in 2012. Still, Mankins and Connolly were the oldest lineman at 30 years of age, which seemed to set the team up for the future.
But over these years, the team avoiding drafting and grooming any interior linemen for the future, instead opting to take undrafted free agents and placing them on the interior. Mankins was a 30 year old returning from torn ACLs, while Wendell was a first year starter at center; the team had already tried to stash Connolly as a reserve lineman in 2011- they decided he was the best solution at guard moving forward.
While the players fared well in 2012, there was a mass-regression in 2013. While the tackle positions were fine with Solder, Vollmer, and Cannon, the interior was unable to protect quarterback Tom Brady against his biggest weakness: the interior rush.
Heading into 2014, the Patriots drafted Bryan Stork in the 4th round, the first mid-round interior lineman since Ohrnberger in 2009. Still, it was too little, too late. The Patriots pit four undrafted players, Connolly, Wendell, Jordan Devey, and Josh Kline, in a battle for the starting guard and center positions, a battle worsened with the trade of Logan Mankins.
The team finds itself in 2014 in the same interior line situation as they were back in 2009. The only difference is that the band-aids are all gone and the wound never healed.
Stork is the first interior lineman the team drafted to develop since Ohrnberger in 2009. That's five seasons without taking a top talent to help protect the team's most important asset. The team had to transition between the aged unit of 2009 and what line is put on the field today and it was no easy task.
But the coaching staff and Belichick did not do everything they could have to set up for this scenario. They missed on their development of Ohrnberger and instead of trying again, they used Waters and Connolly, the latter of whom they tried to bench. They could have developed Cannon. They had years they could have improved over the undrafted prospects they held on the practice squad.
The line is not without hope as Solder, Vollmer (who is now 30), and Stork are all pieces for the future. But like 2009, the Patriots find themselves without guards of the future. More worrisome, however, is that they find themselves without guards of the now.