We have an interesting battle along the interior offensive line this offseason and much of the focus has been directed towards the battle at offensive guard. The Patriots acquired Jonathan Cooper from the Cardinals and selected Joe Thuney in the 3rd round of this draft. Both players are listed on the roster at purely guards, along with 2015 4th round pick Tre Jackson.
Cooper, Thuney, and Jackson will compete with the likes of veteran Josh Kline (recovering from shoulder surgery), another 2015 4th round pick in Shaq Mason, and 2016 6th round pick Ted Karras. The roster also lists players like Marcus Cannon, LaAdrian Waddle, Cameron Fleming, Chris Barker, and Keavon Milton as "offensive linemen" which implies they are groomed to play multiple positions- generally both tackle and guard. Kline, Mason, and Karras are listed as offensive linemen because they can play guard and center.
2014 4th round pick Bryan Stork is another player listed in the "offensive linemen" category, which makes some sense. He played some guard last season and even played tackle. The coaches love that he's a pure football player that can help out wherever necessary. It's been assumed that he was going to help out at center in 2016.
Not so fast.
David Andrews, an undrafted free agent addition last season, is regarded as legitimate competition for Stork at center. He's also the only pure center listed on the roster.
ESPN's Mike Reiss says we shouldn't count Andrews out. The Herald's Jeff Howe says the competition is wide open. An offensive line evaluator told Howe back in January that the difference in Stork and Andrews is negligible. Pro Football Focus gave Andrews a higher grade than Stork last season, but the two were neck-and-neck and finished one rank apart.
Andrews was a far superior pass blocker than Stork last season; Stork notoriously tipped the Broncos defense prior to every single snap in the Conference Championship game. Stork was a much better run blocker than Andrews last year. Together they could make a perfect center; separate, they are less than ideal.
The two will compete for the right to snap the ball to Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo and there are a few ways this can play out. Stork could show that last season was a fluke due to all of his injuries and his pass blocking could improve. Andrews could have improved his strength with another year in the Patriots conditioning program and enhanced his run blocking ability.
Let's check out the scenarios.
Option A: Andrews is better than Stork
If Andrews is outright better than Stork, there's no alternative than Andrews becoming the team's starting center. Stork will be allowed to compete with the guards for time, but Andrews' lack of versatility pigeon holes him into the center position.
Option B: Stork is better than Andrews, and Stork AND Andrews are better than the Guards
Even if Stork is better than Andrews, it's not a lock that he'll be at center. If Stork proves to be a better guard than any alternative at the position, then moving him to guard could make sense. If Andrews is better at center than the guard options are at guard, then a lineup with Stork at guard and Andrews at center would offer the best protection.
We'll explain further in the next section.
Option C: Stork is better than Andrews, and Guards are better than Stork OR Andrews
The alternative to Option B is Option C. If Stork is better than Andrews, but either Stork or Andrews is worse than the guards, then Stork makes the most sense at center.
For example, let's assign a Madden value to these linemen.
If Stork is an 80 and Andrews is a 70, then Stork would be a better option than Andrews.
If Kline and Mason score 85, then there would be no reason to put Stork at guard because there would better options at guard.
If Mason has a grade of 75, then a Kline-Stork-Mason trio would still be the highest valued grouping, even though Stork would be a better guard than Mason.
If Mason has a grade of 65, then a Kline-Andrews-Stork trio would become the best interior line because Andrews would provide better value than Mason at their respective positions.
To simplify Options B and C, if Stork is better than Andrews, the lineup will depend on the performance of the guards.
The competition at center has a pretty big impact on the rest of the offensive line. There's a very real chance that Stork won't be the center next season, even if he's the best player on the depth chart, due to value over replacement player.
Hopefully the team's starting center will earn the role due to their prowess and ability, and not because there are simply no better alternatives.