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Patriots have made a major shift in offensive line draft strategy

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After years of ignoring the offensive line, the New England Patriots are finally giving offense the beef it needs.

Sunday’s report from ESPN’s Mike Reiss that indicated the New England Patriots wanted to draft Indiana OG Dan Feeney with the 72nd overall pick was a surprise to me because the Patriots have invested heavily in their interior offensive line over the past few drafts.

In 2014, the Patriots added C Bryan Stork and OG Jon Halapio. In 2015, the Patriots drafted OG Tre Jackson and OG Shaq Mason and added C David Andrews as an undrafted free agent. In 2016, the Patriots drafted OG Joe Thuney and OG Ted Karras.

Adding another interior lineman would have been a curious decision because the starting line of Thuney, Andrews, and Mason were under contract and Andrews and Mason not set to hit unrestricted free agency until after the 2018 season. It might have been a case of the Patriots adding best player available on their draft chart, but the Patriots had other more immediate needs like edge defender and offensive tackle.

The focus on the interior line inspired me to look at all 29 of the offensive linemen that the Patriots have drafted under head coach Bill Belichick, with particular attention to those drafted in the first five rounds where the prospects are more than a lottery ticket.

From 2000 through 2013, the Patriots drafted an interior lineman in the first five rounds just three times: C Dan Koppen in the fifth round of the 2003 draft at 164th overall; OG Logan Mankins in the first round of the 2005 draft at 32nd overall; and OG Rich Ohrnberger in the fourth round of the 2009 draft at 123rd overall.

The Patriots added OG Dan Stevenson with the 205th overall pick in 2006, OG Mike Elgin with the 247th overall pick in 2007, and C Ted Larsen with the 205th overall pick in 2010. Those were the only other interior linemen drafted by the Patriots in that span of time.

During those same years, the Patriots drafted a whopping 11 offensive tackles in the first five rounds and an additional two more in the sixth and seventh rounds.

A few things changed in 2014. Offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired and was replaced by Dave DeGuglielmo. Director of College Scouting Jon Robinson left to become director of player personnel for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Monti Ossenfort took his place. QB Tom Brady was coming off one of his weakest seasons and perhaps he was no longer able to mask the deficiencies in the line.

The Patriots biggest weakness on offense had always been interior pressure. If a defense could generate interior pressure, it would fluster Brady and get him off his mark, disrupting the entire offense. The Patriots decision to ignore the interior line for the better part of a decade remains one of the biggest head-scratchers of the Belichick era.

But starting in 2014, the Patriots have drafted nine offensive linemen, with six of them playing on the interior and four coming in the first five rounds. New England is now trotting out its strongest interior line since the trio of Logan Mankins, Dan Koppen, and Steve Neal, and the 2017 interior is much, much younger (Andrews turns 25 in July; Thuney turns 25 in November; Mason turns 24 in August).

After drafting a mere three interior linemen in the first five rounds in the 14 seasons from 2000-13, the Patriots added four in subsequent three drafts. The Patriots willingness to add yet another interior lineman in the 2017 draft aligns with the team’s interest in covering what appeared to be the only weakness in the offensive armor over the past 15 years.

Combine the shift in draft strategy with the return of Scarnecchia and annual performance growth from Brady and it’s easy to see how the Patriots have won the league in two of the past three seasons.