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Revisiting guard Josh Kline’s time with the Patriots as he makes his return to Foxborough

Josh Kline epitomized what being a Belichick-era Patriot was about. On Saturday, he’ll look to make an emphatic return.

Houston Texans v Tennessee Titans Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

In the aftermath of the Patriots’ crushing AFC Championship Game defeat at the hands of the Denver Broncos — which memorably included a complete demolition of the team’s offensive line — it became apparent that swift changes were needed in the offensive trenches.

The following offseason commenced with the organization declining to extend the contract of offensive line coach Dave DeGulielmo, paving the way for a return of Patriots coaching stalwart Dante Scarnecchia. Versatile guard Joe Thuney was taken in the third round of the draft out of North Carolina State, and Illinois’ Ted Karras was added in the sixth.

During training camp, starting center Bryan Stork, whose reported snap count tipping contributed to the team’s demise in Denver, was waived after losing his positional battle to David Andrews. Soon after, Patriots veteran tackle Sebastian Vollmer would be placed on the PUP list — a designation from which he would fail to return.

The club made the last of its major transactions along the offensive line on the first Tuesday of the regular season. Initially thought to have been involved in a trade with Philadelphia to bring defensive back Eric Rowe to New England, guard Josh Kline was waived after an unknown third franchise backed out of the deal.

While modestly surprising at first, Kline’s release wasn’t the type of transaction that lingered in sports news cycles for multiple weeks. The team had simply made the decision to get younger at the position. Ultimately, it would have no bearing on the outcome of the Patriots’ season.

While his tenure in New England may have appeared unspectacular, it was actually rather extraordinary in just how quintessentially “Patriots” it was.

Kline spent five years at Kent State University where he played every position along the line, helping to carve out lanes for two 1,000 rushers. Following his senior season, the Mason,OH native went on the pre-draft workout circuit, spending time with the Chiefs, Bengals, Raiders, Titans, Colts, Jets, and Patriots.

He checked many of the boxes typical of a Dante Scarnecchia prospect. He showed excellent positional versatility and intelligence. He also showed strong technique, including next-level hand strength and placement, the foundation of which could be attributed to his strong high school wrestling background. By all accounts, Kline was a fantastic teammate — and he said all of the right things.

“I’m just excited, anxious, waiting for the draft. They like my grit.” Kline told Elton Alexander of the Cleveland Plain Dealer when asked about the pre-draft process and his communication with NFL personnel. “I’m kind of a throwback player. I just do my job, do all the little things right.”

However, Kline’s measurables couldn’t keep up with his intangibles. His average frame and lack of ideal quickness would leave him undrafted and fielding dozens of phone calls from teams as a priority free agent.

Among the handful of teams in the flurry of phone calls were the Patriots. It was a perfect fit.

“I picked the Patriots, because if you want to be the best you want to learn from the best.” Kline told ESPN’s Mike Reiss in 2013. “The Patriots are a great organization and I wanted to be part of that.”

The Patriots’ offensive line was considered a major strength heading into the 2013 season, as the veteran trio of All-Pro left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell, and right guard Dan Connolly each reported to camp healthy. Kline was cut and signed to the team’s practice squad during final cut-downs, and then promoted to the 53-man roster later in the week. He would be inactive for the team’s week-one tilt against Buffalo, and subsequently cut and re-signed to the practice squad again the follow week.

“They told me I would do that, so it was to be expected.” Kline would tell Reiss. “It’s definitely a learning experience, from being an undrafted rookie and moving up and down. You just have to get better every day, that’s what I’ve learned.”

Kline would return to team’s 53-man roster on November 2nd — a day prior to the Patriots’ week-nine home victory against Pittsburgh. The rookie guard took the field for the game’s final snap — a kneel down — for his first official NFL game action.

After the bye week, and a week-ten healthy scratch in Carolina, Kline dressed for each of the team’s remaining six games. When Nate Solder went down with an injury in a week-15 contest in Miami, Logan Mankins shifted to left tackle, and Kline was plugged in at left guard. His first career start would come a week later as the Patriots demolished the Ravens in Baltimore.

The ensuing summer’s training camp brought with it the shocking news of the Logan Mankins trade to Tampa Bay. Kline was given the start in the team’s final preseason game, but failed to seize his opportunity, putting together a poor performance against the Giants.

While he did make the club out of camp, he would only crack the 46-man active game day roster once in the first five weeks, logging just eight snaps in a week-two blowout victory in Minnesota.

Meanwhile, the void left behind by the departure of a seven-time Pro Bowler remained. New offensive line coach Dave DeGulielmo, who was hired in January of 2014 following Dante Scarnecchia’s retirement, employed a musical chairs-like approach on the interior in a desperate search for a winning combination.

Week 1: Devey/Cannon/Connolly

Week 2: Cannon/Connolly/Devey

Week 3: Cannon/Connolly/Devey

Week 4: Connolly/Stork/Fleming

Week 5: Connolly/Stork/Wendell

Kline earned starts in weeks six and seven, but was then relegated to the bench for the next seven games, grabbing a chunk of rotational snaps here and there. After impressing the coaching staff in practice during the final two weeks of the regular season, and earning two more starts, Kline solidified himself as the team’s top reserve interior offensive lineman heading into the playoffs.

He wouldn’t have to wait long to see the field.

Bryan Stork injured his knee in the first half of the team’s Divisional-round rematch with Baltimore, requiring Ryan Wendell to shift over to center, and Kline to fill in at right guard for the final 45 offensive snaps of the team’s amazing comeback victory. Kline would start the following week in a dominant AFC Championship game performance over Indianapolis to help send the Patriots to Super Bowl 49.

More additions came to the offensive line group in 2015. The Patriots drafted guards Tre Jackson and Shaq Mason in the fourth round, and undrafted free agent David Andrews also made the roster after impressing in training camp. He would replace Bryan Stork, who was placed on injured reserve (with a designation to return) with a severe concussion prior to week-one.

While Andrews provided stability at center, DeGulielmo continued his rotational approach at the guard position, opting for fresh legs over chemistry by constantly substituting Kline, Mason, and Jackson. Nonetheless, injuries continued to plague the unit, and the rotations eventually began occurring out of necessity.

Kline was among the injured, as a shoulder injury cost him the three of the final four weeks of the regular season, giving him 13 starts in 14 active games, and a 77.33% total offensive snap percentage.

His solid on-field production and hard work on the practice field earned him a two-year contract extension in November of 2015 worth a maximum total of $4.9 million. It included a $750,000 signing bonus.

His last game in Foxborough came two months later, as the Patriots’ secured a 27-20 victory over the Chiefs in the Divisional-round. Five days later, Kline and his teammates were on a flight to Denver.

Few transactions around the NFL garnered less surprise than when former Patriots Director of College Scouting and current Titans’ General Manager Jon Robinson claimed Kline off of waivers last September. Robinson’s final year in his role with the Patriots came in 2013, the same year Kline entered the league.

He was deactivated for the first two games of last season as Tennessee’s staff brought him up to speed, but has started each of the 31 games since — including last Saturday’s epic come from behind victory in Kansas City.

Kline is core component of one the most effective offensive line groups in the NFL, coached by Hall of Fame lineman Russ Grimm. But he still attributes much of his personal success as a player to his time in New England — particularly his work with Dante Scarnecchia.

“He’s definitely a tough coach,” Kline told Titans beat reporters this past summer. “He demands a lot out of his players. I learned a lot from him.”

“He taught me how to be a good pro.”

As the Titans roll into Foxborough for their Divisional-round battle this weekend, Kline will take the field at Gillette Stadium for the first time since his departure. And you can bet he’ll have a lot of hands to shake during pregame.

On Tuesday’s conference call with reporters, Patriots Offensive Coordinator Josh McDaniels had nothing but praise for the former Patriot as he makes his return:

Yeah, tough kid, played multiple positions inside for us, very unselfish, good teammate, smart. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s played a lot of football in Tennessee. This guy’s a physical guy, battled through nicks and injuries and those types of things to stay on the field. Just a great kid to coach, great teammate in the locker room and one of those guys you are happy and proud that you got the opportunity to work with.

Kline was the kind of player New England fans love. An honest “lunch pail” guy. The kind of player that a two-decade stretch of unprecedented dominance can’t happen without.

Follow Brian Phillips on Twitter — @BPhillips_PP