Some stats services will say that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was hit 20 times. Others will say 23. The discrepancy doesn't really matter because the point holds: the offensive line was atrocious and, probably more than any other group on the roster, deserves the bulk of the blame for the ineffective offensive play.
The offensive line seems to have been a focus of the Patriots since the Giants knocked New England out in the 2007 Super Bowl with an aggressive rush in the interior. The Patriots line of Matt Light, Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, and Steve Neal (plus, generally, Nick Kaczur) were always at the top of the league at their positions and were able to offer Brady time in the pocket for plays to develop.
Light made way for Nate Solder, and Sebastian Vollmer developed into one of the better right tackles in the league, but the line as a whole has only gotten worse, despite an improvement in defensive line play around the league and in the division. Dan Connolly and Ryan Wendell and Josh Kline can't hold a candle to Mankins, or even Neal. Stork isn't healthy enough to match the consistency of Koppen.
The Patriots have invested heavily in the line over the past two years, with four fourth round draft picks on players that started this season: Stork and Cameron Fleming, Shaq Mason and Tre Jackson. These players are supposed to be the future, but injuries forced them to become the now. And since it's the offseason, we can evaluate the entire offensive line to see which players can stick around and which positions should be improved.
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Vollmer is definitely getting up in age, but with just one more season on his contract, it's unlikely that his position on the team is in any risk. It's probably more likely that he receives the Vince Wilfork treatment with an extension and an option baked into the deal to reduce his cap hit. He had a strong year at right tackle, but he definitely looked more uncomfortable on the left side when he had to bend at the waist and engage with the rusher.
Solder will be back and will actually have the biggest contract average per season in 2016. He just received the extension and under no circumstances will he be cut as he would cost the team an extra $4 million of salary cap to release.
Cannon is the more likely release as his play deteriorated over the course of the season. He will save the Patriots roughly $3.6 million in cap space upon his imminent departure. While Cannon was once responsible for only flashy errors that resulted in major sacks, but was overall a solid lineman, he just became a major liability down the stretch.
Waddle and Fleming were both free agents under New England's control and it's probable that the team will bring both in as camp bodies, at a minimum. The hope is that Waddle could eventually take over Cannon's swing role, and that Fleming could grow as a 6th lineman.
The reality is that the Patriots tackle position hinges upon Solder's health. The tackle needs to come back at full strength- and even then, he'll need a full season to develop a rapport with the interior line because he wasn't playing too well prior to his injury.
Look for New England to add another tackle in the draft or free agency to compete for a depth spot. The free agency pool will be extremely deep at tackle.
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This is an incredibly young group of players, as the to-be 30-year-old Wendell is a pending free agent. The Patriots missed him in the playoffs as he was undoubtedly better than any of the guards the Patriots had to use.
Over the course of the year, Kline was the best interior lineman on the roster, but that's not saying much. Stork missed half the season, Andrews was benched for Stork, and Jackson and Mason were both extremely flawed players. In the playoffs, Kline was arguably the worst lineman on the team.
Where do the Patriots go from here? Stork, Andrews, Mason, and Jackson are all young players that can align in multiple roles on the line. Jackson is the more well-rounded prospect, but is still a sub-par lineman, while Mason is a quality run blocker, but a liability in the passing game. Andrews might be limited to center, while Stork is probably the best player of all.
New England needs these young players to take the leap next season and it would only make sense to introduce a veteran to the squad. Kline is not the answer, unless the question is can Dan Connolly be reincarnated while still alive? and Wendell might not be back (although he would fit the bill since there aren't many quality interior linemen as pending free agents).
An out-of-the-box idea would be to move Stork to left guard and leave Andrews at center because Mason and Kline were brutal as Brady's left guard. Mason looked far more natural at right guard against the Chiefs and Broncos, and was asked to flip with Kline because Kline was getting abused. Perhaps a Stork-Andrews-Mason line could pay dividends.
Overall, the Patriots could come back for the 2016 season with the same exact roster as they have right now and the returns of Solder and Wendell from the injured reserve would answer some big questions. Maybe Waddle could take Cannon's roster spot, and maybe Wendell could be the left guard. There are a lot of options and the answers could already be in house.
The Patriots are banking on the natural growth of experience to help the line in 2016. It had better pay off because the level of play from the line in 2015 was unacceptable.