The New England Patriots open training camp on July 24. To get you ready, we will go through the roster position by position, highlighting the story lines, battles, and key players. We continue with the interior offensive line.
Logan Mankins, Ryan Wendell, and Dan Connolly have been the Patriots starting trio from left to right on the interior offensive line for the past two years. How much longer will that continuity last? The Patriots drafted two interior offensive linemen in May: center Bryan Stork in the fourth round and right guard Jon Halapio in the sixth round. Guard Josh Kline has earned unsolicited plaudits from the coaching staff, and could be another factor in the competition.
Logan Mankins: Entering his 10th year, the Patriots' starting left guard didn't play up to his high standards last year, but he remains firmly entrenched in his slot. Mankins' $10.5 million cap number is the second-highest on the Patriots' roster behind Tom Brady, and the Patriots would only get back $2.5 million by cutting him.
Ryan Wendell: Wendell is considered more of a technician than a mauler, and is a modest 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds. The Patriots' starting center of the past two seasons, Wendell came on strong in his first season as the starter, but took a step back in 2013. The Patriots signed him back on a two-year deal with minimal guaranteed money, and their selection of Stork in the fourth round provides Wendell some true competition.
Dan Connolly: For four years, Connolly has carved his niche by settling into any position that opens up. He has started at all three spots on the inside, and that versatility has been his meal ticket. The 6-foot-4, 305-pounder is also not a force as a run-blocker, relying more on his technical savvy and sound fundamentals to help him win matchups. He also has the lateral quickness to get out in front of plays as a lead-blocker.
Jon Halapio: The Patriots' sixth-round draft selection in May, Halapio spent all his time at right guard for the Florida Gators, starting all 26 games there from 2011-2012. He played through an 80-percent torn pectoral muscle in 2013 to start 10 games at right guard after missing the first two. He is considered a mauling interior lineman, clearing the way for inside runs by using his exceptional initial punch to knock defenders back. He has short arms (33.625 inches) that could be a setback if he lunges too quickly.
Josh Kline: At 6-foot-3 and 295 pounds, Kline plays a lot bigger than his size would indicate, but he is not as agile or capable in space as you would expect from a smaller offensive lineman. He needs to learn to play with leverage and gets a little high in his stance at times, but he has the requisite nastiness to line up in the middle and take on big, tough defensive tackles. He could be a factor in the Patriots' future plans if they can help him improve those areas of his fundamentals that need work.
Bryan Stork: The Patriots were not content to simply re-sign Wendell and call it a day at center, instead bringing his competition into the fold. Stork has the athleticism to get out to the second level, and has the awareness and football intelligence to handle protection assignments in the NFL. He has good size at 6-foot-3 and 315 pounds, but short arms at 32.5 inches and tends to also get stood up at the line of scrimmage instead of staying low; those shortcomings have not prevented him from playing at a high level, as he won the Rimington Trophy as the top center in the nation in 2013.
Braxston Cave: Cave joined the Patriots shortly after the conclusion of training camp last year, and spent the 2013 season on the practice squad. The undrafted free-agent out of Notre Dame is regarded for his quickness off the snap and ability to get leverage on defenders, but he has short arms at just 32 inches long and is short on athleticism as well.
1. Ryan Wendell
2. Bryan Stork
1. Logan Mankins
2. Dan Connolly
3. Jon Halapio
4. Josh Kline
5. Braxston Cave *
* = projected cut
Their continued praise for Kline, along with the draft selection of Halapio, could be seen as the writing on the wall for Connolly. The Patriots can save $3 million in cap space by cutting him this offseason, and there is the possibility that Halapio could beat him out for the starting job. That hasn't happened yet, so we'll leave Connolly on the roster for now, but this is a fluid situation worth monitoring all the way through training camp and the preseason.