New England Patriots’ long-time offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia retired this off-season. Scarnecchia spent 30 years in New England and retired as a legendary assistant coach known for his outstanding work on the offensive line. Now with a big need in the middle of the offensive line, incoming line coach Dave DeGuglielmo will have to do more than just replace a legend: he will have to rework, reconfigure, and redo the interior of the offensive line in order to keep quarterback Tom Brady upright in 2014.
On the outside of the offensive line the Patriots have two strong tackles in the bookend duo of left tackle Nate Solder and right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. The Patriots had uncertainty in the middle of the offensive line at guard and center. Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins was showing his age as he is now on the wrong side of thirty. Center Ryan Wendell looked like a gem in 2012 but struggled all season long. Right guard Dan Connolly looked as if he aged a decade in the off-season as he was once again the weak link of the offensive line.
The AFC Championship game against Denver highlighted the weakness of the New England interior offensive line. The Broncos simply dominated the interior and controlled the line of scrimmage. Without the running game to keep the ball away from Denver’s explosive offense the Patriots fell in a hole they could not dig out of by the end of the game.
Center Ryan Wendell is an unrestricted free agent this off-season and New England should move to shore up the center spot as needed. While Wendell played well in the running game in 2012 and held his own in pass blocking, the 2013 season saw his lack of size and strength limit him against larger defensive tackles.
Center Ryan Wendell was rated as the worst pass-blocking center in the NFL per ProFootballFocus.com (PFF). In 2013, Wendell’s play really fell off. Among centers his PFF rating dropped from fourth in the NFL to 33rd. His effectiveness in run blocking declined significantly and he allowed 24 hurries (second only to Baltimore’s Gino Gradkowski) and again allowed six sacks to lead the NFL.
While New England is unlikely to draft a center in the top of the draft, a possible move is signing a second-tier center in free agency. Prime candidates at center in free agency include San Francisco’s Jonathan Goodwin or Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich Smith.
At right guard Dan Connolly was rated 73rd of 81 guards as a pass-blocker per PFF and his play was not exactly stellar in 2012. With a very big cap number and his release freeing up valuable space, the odds of Connolly returning are low. Swing lineman Marcus Cannon has upside at either tackle or guard and should be the future at right guard in 2014 and beyond.
With Marcus Cannon stepping in at right guard (if the team chooses that option) there are still questions as far as depth. While Logan Mankins is likely to stay at left guard and continue to contribute his gritty, tough play, Marcus Cannon was the top backup at tackle and filled in admirably for Sebastian Vollmer after Vollmer was lost for the season. Even if oft-injured backup tackle Will Svitek returns in 2014, there is a need for veteran support inside. Behind the starters there are currently only developmental prospects like guards Chris Barker and Josh Kline and practice squad center Braxston Cave.
The Patriots need to let Ryan Wendell and Dan Connolly go via free agency and a release respectively. Their lack of production inside the offensive line cost the team a trip to the Super Bowl and the Patriots need to find a way to improve production in the middle of the trenches. Be it through free agency or the draft, the team must upgrade its blocking on the interior of the offensive line. To resign themselves to re-signing center Ryan Wendell and not releasing guard Dan Connolly is a ticket to another disappointment in 2014