Under Contract (2015 Week 1 Age): RT Sebastian Vollmer (31), LT Nate Solder (27), G/C Ryan Wendell (29), C Bryan Stork (24), T/G Marcus Cannon (27), T/G Cameron Fleming (23), G Josh Kline (25), G Jordan Devey (27), G Chris Barker (25), T Caylin Hauptmann (24)
Free Agent: G/C Dan Connolly (33)
2014 Review: If you watched this unit over the first four weeks of the season, would you have believed they would have the best postseason by a Patriots offensive line since, probably, 2006? The downfall of every Patriots postseason stems from the inability to provide enough blocking for Tom Brady and the offense to function. This year's team saved the best for last.
If we go back to the first quarter of the season, the team just shipped away franchise left guard Logan Mankins and his enormous cap hit to Tampa Bay for a 4th round pick and tight end Tim Wright. Rookie center Bryan Stork was injured and unable to play. For whatever reason (remember the reports of "tension" earlier in the season?), Ryan Wendell wasn't considered important enough to see the field.
While Stork was out, Connolly held down the center spot. Cannon saw time at left guard, opposite of Jordan Devey. The team even spent time rotating players in and out- Cannon played some tackle to give both Vollmer and Solder some time on the sidelines, while Devey and Wendell rotated on the interior, with Connolly flipping from center to right guard, accordingly.
It was a disaster. There was no cohesion and the team really struggled. Solder was an entirely different player with Cannon at left guard- a player who probably deserved to be benched- since there was no trust and understanding. Devey was a turnstile at right guard, which meant that Connolly was flanked by two guards who couldn't be relied on. Vollmer was still returning from last season's leg injury and wasn't back in form.
After the Kansas City debacle (Stork's first game as a starter, and Cameron Fleming's start at right guard), the team finally settled upon a starting line-up of Solder, Connolly, Stork, Wendell, and Vollmer. Cannon was the 6th man. Fleming was the 7th. Devey lost his top back-up guard rank to Josh Kline. There was a rhyme and reason to the offensive line play.
Solder played at a level deserving of a starting role. Vollmer found his old form and was one of the best right tackles in the league. Stork developed into a legitimate starting center, offering size and strength that the Patriots were missing with the departure of Mankins. Wendell found some of his 2012 form, when he was a road grading center, but a sub-par pass blocker, and plugged into the right guard role.
And then there's the captain, Dan Connolly. He's a free agent, but without him this season is entirely different. He played all three interior spots. I'm always tough on Connolly because he's not the quickest, or the strongest, and he's open to a handful of headshakingly bad plays every game. But he was the glue for this whole year and he deserved his captainship.
Overall, the Patriots offensive line developed and shifted over the course of the season, just like the wide receiver position. Everyone needs to not panic when everything looks scary in the opening week because the football season is a long span of time where a lot can change.
2015 Projection: Four of the starting linemen are set to return, as are the top three back-ups. Connolly is the only free agent and that will certainly be a tough decision for the Patriots front office.
Solder is in the fifth year of his rookie contract and he's due an extension; the player you know is worth more than the player you don't, especially when he's a starting caliber left tackle. An extension will knock down his cap hit and help the team in other areas.
Vollmer is great at right tackle and Stork is the center of the future. These three positions are locked down, as are the back-up tackle roles with Cannon (recent extension) and Fleming (rookie contract).
The guard positions are up in the air. Wendell played well enough on a really cheap contract and his versatility on the line is well respected. There is room for improvement, but it's hard to see a player stepping in and providing the level of consistency that he offered.
That said, the extension for Cannon raises a question mark for the team's future plans with Fleming. Why extend a back-up tackle if you just drafted one in the fourth round? If Week 4 was any guide, the team thinks Fleming might have a future inside. If Fleming has another off-season in the program, it's extremely possible the team might plug him in as the right guard of the future.
As for Connolly, he turns 33 right as the season starts. He's the type of player the team loves to have in the locker room, even if he's not the best player on the field. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him brought back for this season, even if just for the summer, or in a back-up capacity.
The team really should look to improve on at least one of their starting guards from the 2014 season. Whether that's from an internal promotion (Fleming), or through the draft remains to be seen. But it's an improvement that has to happen.