FOXBOROUGH — The New England Patriots' depth went from shaky to shakier on the interior of the offensive line, but they do have some options.
On Tuesday, the Patriots traded six-time Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round pick, according to multiple reports.
The trade sets off a Rube Goldberg of sorts on the offensive line, with one move leading to another and eventually reaching a conclusion.
There are some spots where the Patriots have some certainty — barring another shocker, Nate Solder will start at left tackle and Sebastian Vollmer will be his bookend. At the other spots, however, there is some uncertainty.
Dan Connolly filled in as the starting left guard in 2010, when Mankins missed the first seven games of the season in a holdout. Since then, Connolly has started at center (2011) and right guard (2012-2013). He had been lining up at center during training camp and preseason games this summer, and appeared to be embroiled in a competition with Ryan Wendell over who would start at center.
Connolly's 2014 base salary of $4.083 is a bit high, and the Patriots could have saved $3 million by cutting him. Wendell was signed to a two-year deal this offseason, but only $850,000 of his 2014 salary was guaranteed. It looked like only one of the two would stick, but with Mankins out the door, both men may be in the Patriots' plans this season.
Let's assume, for a moment, that the Patriots maintain the status quo from last year. That means Wendell is the starting center and Connolly is the starting guard. That still leaves one spot open at guard.
One candidate would be utility lineman Marcus Cannon. The fourth-year pro and former tackle seems like a better fit at guard for his 6-foot-5, 335-pound frame, but he has played almost every position on the offensive line — except center and left guard. The Patriots could potentially flip Cannon to right guard and Connolly to left guard, if they felt uncomfortable with Cannon in Mankins' old spot.
Or, they could go in another direction altogether. Throughout training camp and preseason, Connolly and Wendell have shared snaps at center. Connolly has earned a majority of the early reps, with Wendell coming in afterward. Against the Philadelphia Eagles, Connolly started and Wendell came in for the second half. Against the Carolina Panthers, Wendell started the game and then Connolly came in.
At this moment, if the Patriots are keeping one of the two, it appears to be Connolly, who is more versatile and played much better at center in 2011 than he did at right guard in 2012 or 2013.
What about the guard spot, then? There are some other, younger lineman who have impressed this summer.
Josh Kline, in particular, has earned heavy praise from the Patriots head coach Bill Belichick and personnel director Nick Caserio this offseason. Kline has already felt the Rube Goldberg effect on the offensive line; he started at left guard when Solder's concussion forced Mankins to play left tackle. He started at right guard in the Patriots' preseason opener against the Washington Redskins.
There's also undrafted lineman Jordan Devey, who started at left guard in the Patriots preseason opener. Devey has also been playing all over the offensive line at various points in the preseason and training camp, showing off the trademark versatility that the Patriots love in their offensive linemen.
Mankins has been the enforcer for the Patriots offensive line, and while replacing his performance will be tough, replacing his attitude will be a challenge as well.
The Patriots have the depth to patch things up on the offensive line, but one underrated element in this whole process is the absence of former offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. In the past, Belichick could put any offensive lineman under Scarnecchia's wing and trust that he would get the most out of that player. Now, those big shoes are being filled by Dave DeGuglielmo, who will have quite a full plate in his first year as offensive line coach.