It all started with the retirement of Stephen Neal following the 2010 season. The former college wrestler was the team's primary right guard for seven years and when he left football, the stability left the Patriots' interior offensive line. Neal was replaced by Brian Waters, who was replaced by Dan Connolly, who was subsequently replaced by Ryan Wendell, who has since settled in as the starter.
While the right side was in turmoil after Neal's retirement, the left side was a place of continuity thanks to left guard Logan Mankins, who had started every one of the 130 games he played in. However, the team traded the six-time Pro Bowler to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers a mere 12 days before the Patriots' 2014 week one game in Miami – and first-year offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo officially had his work cut out for him.
Due to the Mankins trade, the interior of the offensive line became the major question mark on the team heading into the 2014 season. New England used six different players in various combinations until it found its preferred line-up – consisting of rookie Bryan Stork (C) and veterans Dan Connolly (LG) and Ryan Wendell (RG) – on the ninth drive of the Patriots' 41-14 week 4 loss in Kansas City. The coaching staff would ultimately trust those three players all the way to the team's Super Bowl victory.
The championship pedigree is back. The stability is not.
While the center spot looks to be in the safe hands of the 24-year old Stork, the two guard positions are once again up for grabs, primarily due to the status of starting left guard Dan Connolly. The veteran will be 33 years old once the 2015 season starts and is currently a free agent, who might return to the Patriots but obviously is no long-term solution.
Even if Connolly does return, he is no sure-fire candidate to win a roster let alone starting spot due to his age and the competition he faces. Not only did the Patriots draft two offensive guards (Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason), they also have all of the above-mentioned members of last year's early offensive line merry-go-round still on the roster.
Let's take a look at whom the Patriots currently employ as potential offensive guards.
Ryan Wendell (age: 29): The former Fresno State Bulldog played as a center early in his career but converted to guard after the Mankins trade. Last year, he started 15 of 17 games he appeared in – 12 times at right guard, three times at center – and was a solid and durable contributor. Projecting Wendell's role in 2015 is no easy task, though. He could remain the starting right guard. He could make the move to replace Connolly as the left guard. He could be released due to his cap hit. Only time will tell.
Josh Kline (25): As the 2014 season went along, it became clear that Kline was the primary back-up to both Wendell and Connolly, starting five games in place of an injured starter (among them the AFC Championship Game). He looked good at times but struggled against top-competition like the Jets' Sheldon Richardson. With uncertainty surrounding the interior line personnel, though, Kline – due to his knowledge of the system and the apparent trust the coaching staff has had in him – could have a chance to earn a starting position in 2015.
Jordan Devey (27): Devey making last year's 53-man roster came as a surprise. Devey starting last year's week one game came as an even bigger one. What did not come as a surprise, based on his preseason showing, was the fact that he struggled big time against a talented Miami defensive front. He rebounded a little as the season progressed but by week four had lost his starting role at right guard. Devey was a project in 2014 and projects as not much more in 2015.
Chris Barker (24): Ever since Barker joined the Patriots in 2013, he has been a back-up and practice squad player. Over the course of his two seasons in Foxboro, Barker has been on a game-day roster only five times. Unless he drastically improves during the offseason or the guard depth chart starts to deteriorate, chances are that he will not see the field in 2015.
Tre' Jackson (22): The Patriots spent the 111th overall draft pick on the former Florida State right guard in last week's draft. Jackson, who played alongside Bryan Stork in Tallahassee, was a three-season starter in college and at 6'3, 330 lbs is a physical run blocker, who has above average pass blocking skills. The 22-year old might switch positions in New England, from right to left guard, due to his talent and the importance of the left guard in the Patriots' zone blocking scheme, especially on run plays.
Shaq Mason (21): Mason was drafted 20 picks after Jackson and is another great run blocker. The 6'1 former Yellow Jacket is a little short for a guard and might be better suited to back up Stork at center but projects to stay at his college position (right guard) to compete for a starting spot. He definitely needs to improve his pass protection, though, in order to earn said starting role and find consistent success in the NFL.
Cameron Fleming (22): The second-year man out of Stanford is a dark horse in the guard race. In college, he was an offensive tackle and lined up as a tackle eligible at times during his rookie year. However, he also started one game (the above-mentioned loss to the Chiefs) at right guard and even though he struggled, it would come as no surprise if the coaching staff gives Fleming another chance at an interior position.
Marcus Cannon (27 – Happy Birthday!): Cannon started the 2014 campaign as the starting left guard but was replaced prior to the Kansas City game after an uneven performance. He showed some promise as a swing tackle but ultimately might not be quick and nimble enough to play as a guard in New England's scheme. He still projects to be the team's primary back-up tackle, though.
The Patriots have a lot of questions along the interior offensive line but did their best to find answers via the draft. Until the team takes the field for practices and finally competitive games we are unable to know what the answer will look like or if it had even been found.
We might see the return of the 2014 championship interior line.
We might see a turn to youth with Jackson and Mason playing alongside Stork.
We might see some unexpected contributors like Kline or Fleming rise up.
We might finally see the Patriots re-discovering one of the hallmarks of their former offensive lines: stability.