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2006 positional review: Interior linemen

The Patriots interior linemen stuck together this season, protecting quarterback Tom Brady and blocking for the dual attack of Corey Dillon and Laurence Maroney. The group had a few slip ups, but was strikingly consistent late in the year.

Logan Mankins
2006: Mankins has continued to grow at the left guard position, remaining consistent on a line that has seen its share of injuries. In 2005, he became the first Patriots guard to start every game his rookie year since Hall of Famer John Hannah did it in 1973. He posted a strong second season, continuing his perfect record of starts.
Outlook: A former first-rounder, Mankins has consistently been on the rise. If he continues the trend, he could be in for a Pro Bowl year next season.

Dan Koppen
2006: Re-signed this year, this former Boston College standout said he was pleased to have the opportunity to stay in the area. The fiery Koppen returned from a season ending injury in 2005 to start every game at the center position. Although he allowed some penetration in the AFC title game against the Colts, he consistently gets the ball off quickly while maintaining the point of attack.
Outlook: Koppen has continued to safely deliver the football to Tom Brady over the last four seasons. He inked a contract extension this season that will keep him safely delivering the ball to Brady for a while.

Stephen Neal
2006: Neal rounded out his fifth year with the Patriots with a strong last few games. He's a strong pass blocker, using his size and quickness to take up a lot of space.Neal's has been consistent for the Pats, although his run blocking could stand some improvement.
Outlook: This former Dan Hodge Award winner, commonly thought of as the Heisman Trophy of wrestling, never played football in college, but his size, strength, and athleticism have been enough to carry him through the years in the Patriots system.

Russ Hochstein
2006: The chief backup at all three positions, Hochstein just finished his fifth season in the Patriots system and his sixth season in the NFL. It's obvious that he's got a good handle on the Patriots schemes, and he's filled in as a starter before, though not this season. He's also valuable in protection on special teams.
Outlook: Hochstein has the potential to be a starter, but if the line is as healthy next year as it was this year, he won't have to. He's under contract for another two years according to the NFL Players Association.

Gene Mruczkowski
2006: Also a backup for both the guards and centers, Mruczhowski bounced back and forth between the practice squad and active roster all season. This was his fourth year with the Pats.
Outlook: He's been growing in the system, but he'll have to battle in training camp to secure a spot.

Billy Yates2006: Yates began the season on the practice squad, was activated, started three games at right guard, then was placed on injured reserve when Neal returned to the game with a knee injury.
Outlook: He was seen in the locker room with crutches and an air cast at the end of the season. He'll probably need to heal up and battle for a spot on camp, though he's not really considered a practice squad player.

Analysis: The Patriots starting offensive line is locked down through the next three seasons. Hochstein is an able backup, and that doesn't appear to be changing. This long term security can't be seen as a bad thing after the group pretty much stayed healthy all year. Also, Tom Brady's been sacked just 26 times each season for the last three, and with the line in front of him solidified, the Patriots should be able to use more offensive picks on weapons for the two-time Super Bowl MVP.

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