No group has drawn more criticism since New England's Super Bowl XLII upset loss to New York than the team's offensive line. That five-man lineup -- a unit that includes a trio of Pro Bowlers in left tackle Matt Light, left guard Logan Mankins and center Dan Koppen -- was beaten badly in the biggest game of the year in the battle at the line of scrimmage by the Giants dominant, athletic group of defensive linemen. Does that mean the Patriots need to overhaul the line this spring? Probably not, but it might mean a unit that allowed just 21 sacks during a pass-happy perfect regular season could be under consideration an injection of more talent, athleticism and competition.
As fortune would have it, the 2008 NFL draft includes an impressive array of talent along the offensive line. From potential franchise left tackle types to versatile interior maulers, the group of 49 offensive linemen invited to Indy this week for the Scouting Combine would seem to offer a solid variety of choices to suit any team's draft liking. With the premium placed on the tackle position, specifically the left tackle spot, the top line prospects are those who might be able to fill that premier pass protection role at the NFL level. At this early point in the draft preparation process some believe as many as six different tackles could go in the first round come April.
"It's the best group I've seen in 24 years collectively, and it was a good group before the juniors were added to it," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said. "Those guys enhanced what we really think is a strong group. The majority of them can play on the left side or play both sides. It's unusual to have that many guys that big and that athletic and that productive. I think for the ones that are on the right (side) some of them have actually played on the left before and they probably have that flexibility. Just to be able to play the left (side) is such a premium. I think you can get a tackle in (the first) three rounds."
Michigan senior Jake Long (6-7, 313) tops many projections at tackle, although he's not without his critics. Long -- who allowed only two sacks and was penalized just twice over the course of his collegiate career -- believes his efforts returning to the Wolverines last fall should quiet some of the questions about his pass protection skills and overall potential as an NFL left tackle.
"It has helped me a lot. Last year I didn't feel I was good enough to come out, I wanted to improve on things and those things I improved on," Long said. "I feel I'm a smarter and better player than I was last year. I'm smarter in identifying the defenses. I worked on the little things in my game and I've gotten a lot better."
Long says he admires and has patterned his game after New England All-Pro left tackle Matt Light.
"He's a great player. Technique is sound," Long said. "He tries
to do the little things right. He looks like an intense player and that is the
type of guy I want to be."
Boise State's junior entry Ryan Clady strongly believes he's the top tackle in the draft and there are those that agree, seeing him as a more pure, prototypical NFL left tackle than Long. At the very least Clady should become the school's first first-round NFL draft pick.
"My pass-blocking abilities and my feet, I think I have good feet,"
Clady said with confidence. "And I think I can excel at the next level."
Clady, who has been working out with former NFL tackles Will Shields and Jackie Slater, describes himself as better suited for a zone blocking scheme in the mold of the Denver Broncos linemen that work well in space and cut block opposing defenders. While the Patriots aren't a pure zone team like Denver, Clady's skills would nevertheless seem well suited for New England if the team were looking to solidify the line with the No. 7 pick.
Toledo guard John Greco (6-5, 320) is an interesting prospect because like Long, he's also modeled himself after a current member of the New England offensive line. Greco played right tackle early in his career at Toledo, starting opposite Nick Kaczur.
When Kaczur was drafted by the Patriots in the third round in 2005 Greco took over his left tackle spot at Toledo, starting 49 straight games and finishing his career as a two-time captain.
"Even at Toledo I looked up to Nick," Greco said of his former teammate,
roommate and friend. "I kind of modeled my game after his. We were good
friends. Just seeing his success, it kind of helps you and gets you in the right
mindset that you can do the same thing."
As is the case for so many linemen in the draft, versatility might be key for Greco early in his pro career. Teams have already talked to him about playing both guard and tackle.
"In my opinion I can play any position. I've been taking center snaps,"
Greco said. "Just showing that I'm versatile and can play anywhere on the
line will only increase my value, I think."
"I might look undersized to teams," Greco said. "But I think
I'm strong enough and big enough to play. You don't have to be the biggest guy
to play. I can play in the league if given a chance."
What was made clear on the first day of the 2008 Combine is that there is plenty of big-bodied talent to be had along the offensive line come draft weekend. Will the Patriots, a team that has a relatively young and experienced starting front made up primarily of recent draft picks, delve into the talented pool? If recent history is any indication -- the Patriots have drafted at least one lineman in six of eight drafts in the Bill Belichick era -- the answer is yes.
--As the NFL Draft nears, the Patriots are looking for a few good linebackers.
And while signing older veterans like Zach Thomas still remains an option, it's
time for New England to address its lack of depth at linebacker in the draft.
While no inside linebacker in this year's draft is worthy of being taken with
the seventh overall pick, there are some solid players available, led by Penn State's Dan Connor. Connor could be the first inside linebacker taken off the
board but No. 7 is probably a little high for the former Nittany Lion standout.
After Connor, other linebackers who could be enticing to the Patriots include
Vanderbilt's Jonathan Goff and UNLV's Beau Bell.
If Connor becomes a Patriot, it will likely be due to New England trading down in the first round. At 233 pounds, Connor is a little undersized but he has the frame to get bigger. Connor played mostly on the outside at Penn State but some teams view him as an inside backer in the NFL because he lacks great speed.
Connor is more physical when it comes to taking on blockers than his former
college teammates Paul Posluszny -- who was drafted early in the second round
last year by Buffalo. An intelligent player with good awareness, Connor finished
his college career with 419 tackles and 14 sacks, including a team-high 145
stops as a senior.
Connor has the versatility to play in either the 3-4 or 4-3 at the pro level.
Connor can also be used as a goal line back. He rushed for 1,807 yards and 28
touchdowns as a high school senior.
Goff has flown under the national radar playing at Vanderbilt but he appears
to have all the ingredients to be a good fit at inside linebacker for the Patriots.
A physical player who doesn't mind mixing it up with bigger offensive linemen,
Goff started 40 consecutive games at middle linebacker in college and recorded
at least twelve tackles in his final three games to close out his career with
Goff will probably slip to the middle rounds of the draft because his lack
of straight-line speed may relegate Goff to a two-down linebacker in the NFL.
But since Belichick likes to use a lot of different personnel groupings on defense,
a player like Goff has more value to New England as a two-down run-stuffer than
he would to other teams that employ different defensive schemes.
A player who is picking up steam as the draft nears is Beau Bell. Despite struggling
at the Senior Bowl, Bell is a physical specimen who should really benefit from
the tests done at the Combine. The reigning Mountain West Conference Defensive
Player of the Year, Bell could be intriguing to the Patriots because UNLV is
currently one of only three teams that run the 3-4 as their base defense at
the collegiate level.
At 243 pounds, Bell is an athletic linebacker with good range and would seem
to be a logical fit in New England's defensive system. Bell is definitely a
player to keep an eye on heading towards the draft.
Regardless of which linebacker the Patriots select, that can't afford to put off the position any longer. While the team still has solid veterans, there are no younger players with potential backing them up. That should change after this year's draft.