Starting camp on PUP, then being activated toward the end of the preseason, Logan Mankins hasn't had much time to get back into football shape after having offseason knee surgery.
"It was difficult," the left guard admitted Thursday. "We're still only barely past six months [removed from surgery], so, it hasn't been that long. Still taking it day by day, it still improves every day. Getting better. Still getting lots of ice. Hopefully, it feels good all year."
Mankins' limited preseason reps are going to have to be enough, however, he added, when opening day kicks off Sunday in Tennessee. He said he'll just have to trust in his conditioning.
Trust was a theme running through Mankins' remarks to reporters today, particularly when he was asked about the still-in-transition offensive line. Mankins remains the stalwart at his position, but the Patriots enter 2012 with new full-time starters at left takle (Nate Solder), center (Ryan Wendell), and right guard (Dan Connolly). Right tackle Sebastian Vollmer, like Mankins, is still in the early stages of his return from PUP as well.
"Well, it's coming together," Mankins observed. "We've had a couple guys miss a lot of time. We're still working on it, have a lot of work to do between here and Sunday. Hopefully we can put our best on the field Sunday. We have to trust in each other and work together. We're going against a good team, young defense, very athletic, very fast. It's going to be a big challenge.
"The main thing is, you do your job and trust them to do theirs and everything will be fine. It's when you start worrying about the guy next to you that things get messed up."
Missing from last year's lineup is center Dan Koppen, part of the final cut downs, and right guard Brian Waters, a 2011 Pro Bowler who, though still under contract, has yet to report to the team this season.
"It was sad to see Dan go," said Mankins. "He's a good guy, we've hung out outside of football. It's always tough to see a guy you like and enjoy playing next to go, but we all know it's part of the business and it happens to all of us at some point.
"I don't want to get into [Waters] too much. He's not on the team right now. Brian did a great job for us last year."
Mankins, though, will be there Sunday in Nashville, ready or not. He even acknowledged that he wasn't sure he would be cleared to go in time for the opener.
"Of course. I never knew how fast I would heal and everything would progress, but so far, it's been good."
The good, old days
As The Boston Globe pointed out earlier this week, New England's opening day roster is the youngest in the Bill Belichick era (an average of 25.8 years) – a point that many media wanted to bring up to some of the elder statesmen in the Patriots locker room.
"Yeah, this locker room is starting to make me feel old now," joked wide receiver Wes Welker. "But it's been good. A lot of energy. It's a long season, and you have to keep maturing."
"Yeah, I am getting old. Thirty – you see all this grey hair?" added Mankins. "I guess it happens to us all… We are a lot younger team. Some older guys are gone. You just have to count on each other that they're going to do their job, put in the film study, do their work on the field."
"I think we have a mature group," remarked linebacker Jerod Mayo. "[The younger] guys come to work every day, come in early, and leave late. We're fortunate to have them."
"I don't feel it," defensive lineman Vince Wilfork said of his advanced age. "That's something I never look at. Every year is a year under your belt, but when I'm playing, I don't feel like I'm 30, or nine years in. I feel like everybody else. I come in to work, work hard, and I expect the same out of my teammates.
"As long as you keep that mind[set], you can play as long as you want to play. And you have to have the passion for it. I love my teammates, I love playing for this organization."
Tackling the Titans
Mayo and Wilfork were of one mind, too, when it came to their opponent this week, specifically the elusive backfield of prolific running back Chris Johnson and quarterback Jake Locker, making his first start in his second year.
"A lot of people talk about his legs, but [Locker] can also throw the ball," Mayo noted. "He can make every throw on the field. He's a talented guy. It'll take a group effort to stop him: the pass rush, the coverage, it'll take it all."
"He's a lot better passer than people give him credit for. He definitely can run the ball a little bit. We have our hands full," echoed Wilfork. "They have one of the best backs in the league. He can hurt you anywhere in the passing game or running game. And the offensive line is playing well together. I think they have a complete offense. We're going to have our hands full, but I'm very confident in what we're doing."
"Definitely. You have to play against him for 60 minutes," continued Mayo as he described Johnson's skill set. "It was a down year for him [last season], but it was still a good year. Especially in the fourth quarter, he breaks a lot of runs. You have to stay focused on him. It's going to take 11 guys. That's our goal.
"He can break tackles, he's super fast, can catch the ball out of the backfield – he just does it all. There aren't too many guys like that. You can't just put one guy on him. You have to have different guys covering him, trying to tackle him. It's going to take a group effort."
"I'm pretty sure there are going to be some things we haven't seen [from Tennessee] and we're going to have to make adjustments and prepare for it on the sidelines," Wilfork concluded, "but that's all being a professional. It's what we get paid to do."
For details about today's Patriots practice, please visit the PFW blog.