When the Patriots drafted Florida State center Bryan Stork in the fourth round of last year's draft, they knew exactly what they would get and how to use it: a hard-nosed offensive lineman, who was meant to anchor New England's offensive line for years to come.
The plan was put into action later as expected, as Stork suffered an injury in training camp that would keep the rookie on the sidelines until the team's week four Monday night game in Kansas City. Even though the Patriots were blown out 41-14 in his first game, the initial step towards rebuilding the interior offensive line had been taken.
Drafting Stork and trading long-time guard Logan Mankins five months later was the beginning of this re-tooling process. Ever since Stephen Neal retired after the 2009 season, the offensive line's interior had been in flux, with Mankins the only constant. With the All-Pro gone and Stork on board, the groundwork for a new looking interior offensive line has been laid. The next pieces were added this May, when the team drafted guards Tre' Jackson and Shaq Mason.
While most of the spotlight is on the duo, which has seen lots of action during training camp, Stork's role cannot be underestimated.
Bill Belichick often talks about the second-year jump and Stork's is arguably the most important to the team's success, at least on offense (defenders Dominique Easley and Malcolm Butler, due to the uncertainties surrounding their respective positions, have to be pointed out here as well). Stork, as the offensive center, not only has to keep building off his own very solid rookie campaign, he also has to help shape the new-look offensive line.
While he had the luxury of playing alongside veterans Dan Connolly (LG) and Ryan Wendell (RG) last season, this luxury is now gone. Connolly has retired and Wendell is on the Physically Unable to Perform list. While last year's starting right guard should still be considered the favorite to win a starting role this season, his injury status might force the Patriots to switch to the youth earlier than probably expected.
Should such a switch happen – which, due to Wendell being out, has already happened on the practice fields – and at least one of the rookies starts next to him, Stork needs to embrace his role as a veteran, even though he only enters his second season in the NFL. He needs to become a leader and a mentor to offer the exact same luxury he himself enjoyed with Wendell and team captain Connolly on the line. Early training camp reports have been encouraging and one can only hope that this trend continues both on and off the field.
Stork being able to make the second-year jump both on and off the field to become the interior offensive line's leader (just like Connolly was) will be a key to the entire offense's success this year – no matter who eventually starts alongside him.