INDIANAPOLIS – For the first time in recent memory the Patriots offensive line remained relatively healthy and intact for the majority of the season in 2013. Starters Logan Mankins (left guard), Ryan Wendell (center) and Dan Connolly (right guard) started all 16 games and left tackle Nate Solder started 15, missing just one with a concussion.
Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer broke his leg and missed the last half of the season, but otherwise the group was relatively stable throughout the year. That could change in 2014 depending on some contractual situations the Patriots face.
Wendell, the starting center for the past two seasons, is a free agent and may not return. Connolly's cap number is set to top the $4 million mark and he could be asked to rework that deal. Assuming he returns he also could be asked to move to replace Wendell at center, a position he's played capably in the past, while presumably Marcus Cannon could hold down the fort at right guard. All of this assumes that Vollmer will be back in good health. Otherwise the movement up front could be even more drastic next season.
Compounding matters is the absence of longtime offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who retired earlier this month after 30 years with the Patriots. Dave DeGuglielmo takes his place, and he will have big shoes to fill considering Scarnecchia is generally considered the best in the business.
DeGuglielmo will have no shortage of prospects to review at the Combine as NFLDraftScout.com lists 57 offensive linemen with potential draft grades. With Solder and Vollmer, who signed a four-year extension prior to the 2013 season, set at tackle, the Patriots focus up front will likely be on the interior.
In talking to a number of the prospects on Thursday, many of them seemed to have one thing in common: they all love Mankins and would like to pattern themselves after the Patriots Pro Bowl guard. Some of those players have an obvious reason to watch Mankins since they played tackle in college and are projected to move to guard, just as the Patriots 2005 first-round pick did following his career at Fresno State.
One such example is UCLA's Xavier Su'a-Filo (6-4, 308), who said most teams view him as a guard.
"I watch a lot of the guys I try to pattern my game after. I watch a lot of Logan Mankins, left guard from the New England Patriots. I think Logan, he was a high draft pick, but he's physical. He's a bad-ass, he started from Day 1 in New England, and I love how nasty he is, something about his game that I really try to implement," Su'a-Filo said with a smile.
Su'a-Filo is a highly regarded prospect despite missing two years of football while working on his Mormon mission, an experience he believes was beneficial to his all-around development.
"I think my mission helped me mature as a man; not only emotionally, spiritually, but physically," he said. "It helped me in football. I think going over in mission, taking two years off really helped me just develop as a football player. When I came home, it wasn't easy. I had a full offseason to work out and prepare for that season, but I think as far as health goes and my game, I have a lot of things to work on. However I do feel like my mission overall was a benefit for me and it's helped me mature and be ready to move on to the NFL at this time."
Su'a-Filo is very athletic and lean in appearance and the UCLA star is projected as a first- or second-round pick, which may be too high for the Patriots blood given some of the team's other needs.
If the Patriots wish to select a Mankins wannabe they won't be limited to the top of the draft, however. Nevada's Joel Bitonio (6-4, 307) is listed as a tackle by NFLDraftScout.com and slated to go in the third or fourth round. But Bitonio said he could play guard as well and that teams had discussed a possible move in that direction already.
He also brought up Mankins as a guy he emulates. "We're both West Coast guys, he moved from tackle to guard and I've watched him for a long time," Bitonio said. "I love watching him play and the way he gets after it. He's very physical and tough and that's how I would like to be viewed."
Perhaps the most glaring example of Mankins love came from Penn State's John Urschel, a 6-3, 317-pound guard who is projected as a Day 3 pick.
"Logan Mankins. That's a guy who really gets after it, plays with a mean streak and that's how I try to play, so that's who I model my game after," Urschel said when asked if he patterned himself after anyone in the NFL.
With ties to Penn State, Urschel spent the last two seasons playing for former Patriots offensive coordinator and current Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien. He called the experience the "best two years of my life" and had nothing but praise for O'Brien.
"He obviously brought the New England offense to Penn State and it really served me well, helping with my football IQ and recognizing defenses, my knowledge of different things on offense, check with mes, false snaps, alerters, things like that."
With the connections between O'Brien and the Patriots, and the admiration Urschel has for Mankins, the obvious question is, have the two met?
"No but let me tell you that's someone coach O'Brien really had me study," Urschel said enthusiastically. "Back at Penn State we had access to old New England film. That's a guy I really watched a lot."
The guard position seems to be rising in terms of value. For years few if any were selected in the first round but last year saw four interior linemen get their names called. In addition to Su'a-Filo, Stanford's David Yankey (6-5, 314) could be a first-round candidate as well. Yankey is at the top of most experts' lists and could follow fellow Cardinal David DeCastro (2012, Pittsburgh) as a first-round guard.
"I'm going to bring a physical demeanor," Yankey said. "I'm going to play with that mentality that we have at Stanford and also bring a lot of athleticism and natural football intelligence, just understanding the game and being able to play fast.
"[At Stanford] we come in and they emphasize being really tough. We're going to go out and be physical every week. We're not going to let up. Having that base. And then also you have the intellectual side where we're going to have a really complex playbook and we're going to expect you to understand it and be able to switch from week to week with our game plan and understand our adjustments and our skills, all that stuff." Mississippi State's Gabe Jackson (6-4, 339), Baylor's Cyril Richardson (6-5, 348) and Furman's Dakota Dozier (6-4, 312) also are guards who could possibly go in the second or third rounds. At center, Arkansas' Travis Swanson (6-5, 310), Colorado State's Weston Richburg (6-4, 300) and USC's Marcus Martin (6-3, 310) have second- and third-round grades.
Martin could be interesting for the Patriots after he played two years at left guard before moving to center a year ago, the exact type of position flexibility Bill Belichick loves.
"I was really focused and concentrated on developing my game, learning how to snap, trying to understand our offensive scheme as best as possible," Martin said. "And it was something that played a pivotal role with me being successful this year at center."
The Patriots will likely wait to the middle portion of the draft or later if they're interested in an offensive lineman. Alabama's Anthony Steen (6-2, 310) has the Nick Saban pedigree, which is always a plus for Belichick, and has a mid-round grade.
"Every day is a gut-check when you play for Coach Saban," Steen said. "You don't want to be out on the field with someone who will quit. Coach Saban does a great job of preparing you for everything."
Clemson's Brandon Thomas (6-4, 316), Notre Dame's Chris Watt (6-3, 321) and Tennessee State's Kadeem Edwards (6-4, 309) are all late-round possibilities. Edwards is trying to overcome the stigma that comes with being from a small school, but feels his athleticism will allow him to compete.
"I have a lot to prove being from a small school," Edwards said. "People talk a lot about my athletic ability but I think I have a lot of toughness too. It's a mindset that comes from trying to prove people wrong because I was never recruited big."
There will be plenty of options in a deep class of offensive linemen for the Patriots to pick from. While the strength of the group appears to be at tackle, which isn't necessarily a huge need, depending on how things develop on the free agent front, Belichick and his new coach DeGuglielmo could be dipping into that group.