Despite returning the bulk of the key figures from the NFL's top offense last season, the Patriots head toward the draft with some needs on that side of the ball. Tops among them is an uncertain future on the offensive line that could prompt the team to use two relatively early draft picks to add top-end depth to the tackle and guard positions.
While Tom Brady, Wes Welker and other playmakers have garnered the headlines for New England's offensive success over recent years, the group has also been buoyed by a solid offensive line that included Pro Bowlers Logan Mankins, Matt Light and Dan Koppen.
But that veteran group isn't anywhere near a certainty moving forward. Mankins is currently the team's franchise player, in the midst of what has at times been an ugly contract negotiation that's lasted for more than a year. There's little doubt that the All-Pro left guard has been the most talented, consistent Patriots lineman since the team drafted him in the first round of the 2005 draft. The question is whether New England is willing to give him the type of big-money contract he desires, something in the range of Jahri Evans' $56 million deal with the Saints.
Light is also a free agent. Coming off his third trip to the Pro Bowl, and having protected Brady's blind side since 2001, the veteran may have played his last game in New England. After making $4.5 million last season, New England likely won't be willing to pay anywhere near that to the soon-to-be 33-year-old tackle who though solid, has never been a true franchise pass protector.
And starting right guard Stephen Neal, who's been praised as much as any Patriots' lineman when healthy over the last decade, announced his retirement early in March. Having battled many shoulder injuries in his career, and missing four or more games in each of the last four seasons, the Patriots have had to fill in for Neal with the likes of journeyman backup Dan Connolly.
With three starting spots up in the air at this point, center Dan Koppen and 2010 second-team All-Pro right tackle Sebastian Vollmer are the only certainties on the line. The Patriots also don't have a lot of young players seemingly destined for the starting lineup.
Connolly filled in at guard over the last two years, but the sixth-year veteran has limited upside. Nick Kaczur is a former starter at tackle, but he's coming off back surgery that cost him all of 2010 and a high salary could make him a potential cut. Mark LeVoir is a fifth-year veteran backup while only third-year players Rich Ohrnberger and Ryan Wendell would seem to have any chance of developing.
As such, it wouldn't be a surprise to see the Patriots use two of their six picks in the first three rounds, and maybe one of their three picks in the top 33, on the offensive line. Baylor guard Danny Watkins bears a lot of similarities to Mankins coming out of school and would seem to fit New England's style of play on the inside. On the edge, the Patriots could be in the mix for one of the handful of tackles slated to go late in the first or early in the second, a group that includes Boston College's Anthony Castonzo.
So even though the Patriots' biggest needs as a team come on defense, and in the area of pass rush in particular, don't be surprised to see the offensive line get plenty of attention through the three-day draft process as coach Bill Belichick looks to restock his aging and uncertain front.
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