Heading toward the draft and free agency there are plenty of areas the Patriots could target as needing improvement. For the first time in three seasons New England isn't looking to restock a championship roster. This spring's work is about filling the holes that cost the team a shot at an unprecedented third straight Super Bowl while also adding depth to a roster that, when healthy, is considered by most to still be championship caliber.
The areas most in need of talent can be argued. Linebacker, running back, wide receiver and defensive back rank highest as target areas among most fans and observers. But one area that doesn't get a lot of attention is the offensive line, a spot where the Patriots were decimated by injuries a year ago and could lose key players to free agency.
The funny thing is the Patriots probably thought they had addressed offensive line depth last spring with the selection of Logan Mankins (first round) and Nick Kaczur (third round) in the draft. But by the time the 2005 season came to its disappointing end, any depth the team had created had been erased.
Season ending injuries to left Matt Light and center Dan Koppen pushed Kaczur and veteran backup Russ Hochstein into the starting lineup. Now, with no clear injury updates to the status and 2006 readiness of either Light or Koppen, and veterans Stephen Neal and Tom Ashworth set to head into unrestricted free agency in less that a week, New England may have to once again consider looking to the draft to add depth to coach Dante Scarnecchia's unit of offensive linemen.
The overall depth of the offensive line group of prospects at the 2006 Combine varies a bit by position. If the Patriots are looking to solidify the middle of the front, there may be a less fruitful talent pool to pick from. The talent at tackle on the other hand, appears to be surprisingly deep.
"Like most years, there are just not a lot of centers of the higher quality. There are a couple decent guards. But the tackle depth is actually pretty good," said Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert. "When you start looking and adding up the tackles, you think that you can get a good tackle throughout the first day and maybe even on the second day. But the center and guard positions, they are probably, traditionally they are not a real strong position anyway. Last year the tackle position was good as well and it's unusual to get it back to back years."
The rankings of at least one respected draft web site, NFLDraftScout.com, agree with Colbert's assessment. The site ranks 30 tackles worthy of being drafted in the seven-round draft, including four potential first-round picks. Comparatively, the site has just 11 centers graded as potential draft picks and only one with first round talent. The numbers are similar at guard, with 18 players getting draft worthy grades and only two with even the potential to go in the first round.
Of course one thing that can alter the perceived depth is the position flexibility of the players in question. Many college tackles make the switch to guard in the pros, as Mankins did last season in New England after playing left tackle throughout his entire career at Fresno State.
But with questions surrounding both Koppen and Neal, New England may be looking to the interior liniment first. Ohio State's Nick Mangold (6-3, 297) is the top rated center on most boards. Mangold has some potential versatility to play guard and according to some scouting reports compares favorably to former Buckeye LeCharles Bentley. Like Neal, Mangold has a wrestling background from high school that he says has helped him immensely as a football player.
"It helped me out a ton," Mangold said. "It taught me a lot about balance and a lot about countering other guys' moves. And I think that's been a huge bonus for me."
The next tier of centers includes Minnesota's Greg Eslinger (6-3, 288), California's Marvin Philip(6-1, 307), New Mexico's Ryan Cook (6-6, 332) and Florida's Mike Degory (6-5, 301).
If New England looks to go for a center in the mid to later rounds, Degory could be an option. He was a consistent, intelligent player for the Gators and thinks he can bring those same abilities to the NFL.
"I've played center for a lot of years. I know the mental game of football," Degory said of his strengths. "I can talk with any NFL coach and be on the same level. Of course, their knowledge is going to be higher than mine, but mine is going to grow. I have the football smarts. And I never missed a game in my college career, and durability and toughness are part of it. I'm a guy who's a fundamental football player. I don't do anything explosive, but I get the job done."
At guard, Georgia's Max Jean-Gilles (6-4, 358) is ranked as NFLDraftScout.com's top prospect, although Oklahoma's Davin Joseph (6-2, 304) also could go in the early rounds. Others who could be considered in the early to mid rounds are USC's Taitusi "Deuce" Lutui (6-3, 338), Ohio State's Rob Sims (6-3, 318), USC's Fred Matua (6-2, 305), Pittsburgh's Charles Spencer (6-5, 338) and Minnesota's Mark Setterstrom (6-3, 313). Spencer is a guy whose stock appears to be on the rise. Taitusi played both tackle and guard at USC and feels like he's ready to contribute immediately in the NFL even though he really doesn't even have a feel for when he might be drafted.
"I have no idea. Really, I don't. I just know that I'm ready," Taitusi said. "I'm ready for the next level and I'm ready to come in right away and make an impact on the team and maybe get a starting role."
But in the end there is little question that the greatest line talent in the draft is at tackle and that starts with blue-chip prospect D'Brickashaw Ferguson (6-6, 312) out of Virginia. Ferguson is a self described "long and skinny" lineman who compares himself to former New York Giant Lomas Brown, a player he watched growing up. He has tremendous agility and athleticism, long arms and a proven track record that should make him a top-five pick. Ferguson also impressed some by showing up for his individual team interviews Thursday night in a suit.
"I'm a beast," said the well-spoken Ferguson when asked to describe himself. "I see myself as a bodyguard. I'm personally responsible for the health and welfare of my quarterback, and I'll do anything in my means to protect them."
The talent doesn't end with Fegurson, though. USC's Winston Justice (6-6, 300), Miami's Eric Winston (6-6, 302) and Cal's Ryan O'Callaghan (6-6, 347) could all potentially hear their names called in the first round.
Beyond that the Patriots have already spoken with at least two players in the next tier of tackles, Texas' Jonathan Scott (6-6, 310) and Boise State's Daryn Colledge (6-4, 295). Both players come with durability and versatility. Scott was a four-year starter who can play both tackle spots, while Colledge registered 52 straight starts and could also play some guard.
"I'm a swing guy," Colledge said. "I'm a guy who can play any position on the offensive line. I'm athletic enough. Some guys look at me as a left tackle because it's what I've been doing forever. But others look at me as a guard or a center. They're the ones paying the dollars, so I just have to go to work. I feel my versatility gives me an ability over some guys."
Other names in the early and mid rounds at tackle include Auburn's Marcus McNeill (6-8, 335), North Carolina State's Derek Morris (6-6, 328), Boston College's Jeremy Trueblood (6-8, 316) and Washington's Joe Toledo (6-6, 305).
And as Colbert said, the solid tackle depth means potential contributors might be had in the later rounds on the second day of the draft. That group includes guys like LSU's Andrew Whitworth (6-7, 326), Miami's Rashad Butler (6-5, 293), Virginia's Brad Butler (6-7, 305), East Carolina's Guy Whimper (6-6, 305) and a whole slew of others.
Two players to keep an eye on from a Patriots perspective could be Boston College line mates Trueblood and center Pat Ross (6-4, 295), who is projected as a late round pick. New England has had success with B.C. linemen in the past with Koppen and Damien Woody, and Bill Belichick has a great deal of respect for Tom O'Brien and his staff at the Heights. Trueblood emphasized the coaching that staff gives the players, especially the offensive linemen, and feels that gives he and his teammates a leg up on the prospect competition.
"I think Boston College linemen, I think all of us are going to be draft eligible at one point in time just because of the coaching we receive there," Trueblood said. "It's no-nonsense coaching. You are only going to earn your respect. You are not going to play unless you earn it. It's just the coaching there, the whole atmosphere around football there, either you are going to be good or you are not going to play."
Whether things fall the right way and that ends up being good enough to get the call from the Patriots on draft day remains to be seen. But considering the team's current uncertainty along the line, there is a good chance at least one of the offensive line prospects on hand at the Combine over the last couple of days will hear their name attached to the Patriots on draft weekend, just as Mankins and Kaczur did a year ago.