INDIANAPOLIS – Bill Belichick once said that "you can always find a guard."
That's probably a good thing for a Patriots team that may look to find replacements for or upgrade its two guard spots this spring coming off a Super Bowl-winning season.
Veteran captain Dan Connolly is set to hit free agency this spring, coming off a solid year in which he saw action early on at center and then settled in as Logan Mankins' replacement at left guard. His potential worth on the open market and his value for a New England team with some salary cap considerations are uncertain.
Ryan Wendell surprised many – both inside and outside the football offices at Gillette Stadium – by settling into the right guard spot and playing at a high level given his size and strength limitations. But his future as a full-time guard in New England is tenuous at best.
The two veterans – who both have experience starting at center in New England – sandwiched around fourth-round rookie center Bryan Stork to solidify the middle of the offensive line throughout the second half of the regular season and on the title run.
Nate Solder seems entrenched at left tackle in Dave DeGuglielmo's line unit, the former first-round pick set to play for $7.5 million on the fifth-year option of his rookie contract and possibly in line for a long term deal as Tom Brady's blindside protector.
The other end of the line has Sebastian Vollmer, arguably New England's best, most consistent lineman when healthy, solidified as the right tackle of the foreseeable future.
Tackle also seems to have depth, with the extension signed during the year by Marcus Cannon and the expected development of 2014 fourth-round pick Cameron Fleming.
So heading toward the 2015 NFL Draft, it's clear the most obvious need on the line and maybe one of the top needs on the team as a whole is at the guard spot.
Fortunately there is a solid crop of linemen worth a look in this year's Combine class. That includes not only college guards, but also a large group of tackles projected to bump inside at the NFL level. That's an approach the Patriots have taken often in the past, whether it was with a first-round pick like Mankins or latter-round developmental types in Cannon or Fleming who dabbled at guard this past fall.
"There is a lot of depth there," Tampa Bay GM and former Patriots personnel assistant Jason Licht said of the offensive line class.
In terms of true guards, NFLDraftScout.com has 20 players projected to get the call on draft weekend, though none worthy of a first-round grade at this point. Given the need, and assuming that need is not met in free agency, it would not be out of the question to see New England target the guard spot relatively early in the draft.
The top of the class, a quartet of four guys potentially slated for the second round, is led by South Carolina's A.J. Cann (6-3, 311) and Duke's Laken Tomlinson (6-3, 323), followed by Florida State's Tre Jackson (6-4, 323) and Alabama's Arie Kouandjio (6-5, 318).
Cann started all but one game at left guard for the Gamecocks over the last four years, seen by scouts as consistent player with a solid combination of power and athleticism. While some players will transition from tackle to guard in the league, Cann has already proven he can play the position.
"I hope that will benefit me, seeing that I played four years of guard," Cann said before describing his playing strengths. "I think I play at a low pad level. I'm athletic and strong. I think I can block anybody that I put my mind to."
Cann is one of the many prospects promoting his own off-field character as a strength heading into the NFL in a year in which the league has struggled with many issues in that area. Cann actually took part in a unique program in which he went to Israel to teach football during the summer. It was simply a chance too unique to turn down.
"Learn about the Holy Land and play football? Why wouldn't I do it," Cann said with a smile.
Tomlinson looks and sounds the part of what might be expected from a Duke football player. He's well-spoken, has dreams of maybe getting into neurosurgery one day and with his glasses appears as ready to give a medical presentation as to battle brawn with a defensive tackle. Tomlinson has spent time studying former Lions 2013 third-round pick Larry Warford, whom he says he's been compared with.
Tomlinson prides himself on his technique and footwork. He also doesn't buy the idea that a player can be "too smart" for football or the NFL.
"I don't see how that could be a problem," Tomlinson said with confidence bordering on cockiness.
The guard also offered up a poster-worthy quote when discussing the importance of footwork for a lineman.
"If you don't have good feet – defeat," Tomlinson delivered like a motivational speaker.
Jackson is one of four different Florida State offensive linemen at the Combine. He, like fellow Seminole's guard Bobby Hart (6-5, 336), said he had already met with the Patriots Tuesday night in Indy. More specifically both said they'd met with New England retired offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia, who worked in a sort of consulting role last spring when the team drafted Stork out of FSU and appears to be closely monitoring the school's prospects once again for the Patriots.
Jackson was named the most outstanding player at the Senior Bowl and describes himself as having explosiveness with the ability to roll his hips to fire off the ball and move defenders with his power as a run blocker.
"I'm just here to be the best player that Tre Jackson can be," he said of what he's looking to accomplish this week to separate himself in a crowded guard group.
Both Jackson and Hart would clearly not mind joining the Patriots and once again playing alongside Stork, who was the man in the middle for FSU when it won the National Championship in 2013.
"He's a good dude. Kind of to himself. He's a great worker, a hard worker," Hart, who'll transition to guard from tackle in the NFL, said of Stork. "And you want to match his intensity. So he helps you elevate your game."
Stork had contact with both players recently and keeps in touch with the tight-knit unit he was a part of in Tallahassee.
"He expected the best in all of us," Jackson said of his former teammate and line leader.
If the Patriots don't go for one of the early guards or the FSU alums, an intriguing mid-round, small-school prospect is Division III Hobart's Ali Marpet (6-4, 307). Marpet impressed at the Senior Bowl, the first Hobart player ever invited to that game and is likely to be the school's first-ever draft pick.
Marpet is well aware that he faces a major transition to the NFL and might be seen as more of a project than a plug-and-play rookie, but he's not doubting himself at this point.
"I can run a sub-5 40, I weigh 300 pounds and I can play football," Marpet says. "So why not me?"
Another mid-round guard prospect is Arizona State's Jamil Douglas (6-4, 304). He's a weight room warrior who takes much pride in his 405-pound power clean and who had to give up his dreams of professional basketball when, "I stopped growing."
Now, he fixates on what he can bring to a football field.
"Versatility. I can play any position on the offensive line," Douglas says, as so many do in this process.
In terms of the tackles possibly converting to guard, the top of that list potentially includes the projected top overall tackle, Iowa's Brandon Scherff (6-5, 320). He's the top lineman rated on NFLDraftScout.com, and among a list of more than two dozen tackles worthy of hearing their name called in the seven rounds of draft action.
Scherff is one of seven potential first-round picks among the tackles, as is another potential guard conversion in LSU's La'el Collins (6-5, 308). Collins would prefer to remain at tackle, where he "loves being out there on the island." But he's open to moving inside and thinks his mental side of the game would allow him to succeed in either role.
"When you're inside, you're going up against pretty big guys, bigger guys, more stronger, but when you're out there on the island, you're going against fast guys with speed and you have to be able to understand where you're at on the field and the personnel you're going against," Collins said. "Since I played both positions, I understand them very well."
Not only does he hope to be the first LSU offensive lineman to be drafted in the first round in the last 17 years, but Collins strives to continue the school's impressive run of prospects that saw guys likeJeremy Hill and Odell Beckham Jr. have massive impacts as rookies this past fall.
"Everything we do at LSU prepares you for this, and that's why I'm extremely confident. I stepped up to the plate and contributed. Seeing guys make big impacts from the team, I'm just ready to be the next guy," Collins declared.
Another interesting tackle-to-guard conversion that might make sense is Alabama's Austin Shepherd (6-5, 315). While Scherff, a product of former Belichick assistant Kirk Ferentz' program at Iowa, may be gone before the Patriots pick, Shepherd's success inNick Saban's program and projected availability in the fourth or fifth round might make a more sensible fit.
Shepherd is a heady, technical lineman who also has an impressive off-field resume. He started the Austin Shepherd Foundation, which supports children fighting illness by raising money and spending personal time with children, in memory of his fiancée's brother, who lost a 14-year battle with bone cancer.
Shepherd would seemingly fit in New England, both in terms of his charitable endeavors as well as his businesslike approach honed under Saban.
"Alabama prepares you for this. Coach Saban takes you in a boy and makes you a man," Shepherd said. "I want to show my football IQ and will play wherever they want me to play."
One other thing that Shepherd had to do was drop some weight for the Combine, shedding 10-plus pounds down to 315, which he says already has him feeling better in his training. The flipside of that is surprise Florida underclassman D.J. Humphries (6-5, 307), an early entry seen as a late-round prospect with some rising buzz whose main goal in Indy was to show he could put on the weight needed to compete at the NFL level.
Humphries played as light as 282 for the Gators, but was happy to hit the 307 mark for the Combine, making his "gut" decision to declare early feel a bit more comfortable.
"The main part of my Combine is done, that I could be 300 pounds," Humphries said. Although he also wants to prove that "I'm as athletic as everyone thinks I am."
More than 50 linemen could get the call by the time the NFL Draft comes around. History and need say that one or two of those could land in Foxborough.
A year after the Patriots drafted a trio of offensive linemen, New England is likely to dip into the prospects along the line once again this spring. And given the seeming stability at tackle and center, that pick or picks could very well come from a pretty deep, diverse group of potential NFL guards.
And whoever that player is, he'll be expected to slide into a contributing role much the way that draft picks like Stork, Solder and Vollmer have did him.